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22 January, 2013

Threats to peace process

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The boom of guns across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir last week, which left two soldiers dead on either side, and aroused passions — more in India than in Pakistan — revealed the precarious nature of the slow-moving peace process between the two countries.

The war the two countries fought soon after they emerged as free nations in 1947 had ended in a United Nations supervised ceasefire. The UN Military Observer Group, set up at that time, still exists but India stopped dealing with it after the two countries committed themselves in the Shimla Pact to resolve all issues through bilateral talks.

The LoC has undergone changes after every India-Pakistan conflict. What now prevails is the line that emerged after a bitter battle fought on the icy heights of Siachen in 2003. Exchange of fire across the LoC takes place from time to time, and when that happens army officers usually meet and sort out issues.

This time things took a different turn. Two Indian newspapers, citing intelligence sources, indicated that the Indian side may have provided the provocation by constructing new observation posts, in violation of the ceasefire terms, to prevent infiltration.

According to these reports, Pakistani soldiers fired warning shots. A Pakistani soldier was killed when Indian troops returned the fire. In a retaliatory raid, the Pakistanis killed two Indian soldiers. Pakistan lost a second soldier subsequently in firing from the Indian side.

The public was outraged by reports that the bodies of the two Indian soldiers were mutilated and that one of them was decapitated. Although the two sides regularly demonise each other, such barbaric conduct by the forces, both of which are descended from the British Indian Army, has been rare. Some Indian commentators suggested that non-state actors with ties to a section of the Pakistan army may have committed the brutality.

Shrill cries from a professionally weak section of the electronic media and strident calls by opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders for a strong response put the Indian government under considerable pressure. However, it did not allow the tragic event to derail the peace process.

Veteran BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee was the prime minister at the time of the Siachen conflict. Both before and after the fighting he had talked to president Pervez Musharraf, who, many believe, had plotted it, to put relations between the two countries on an even keel. Since his retirement the BJP has been without a leader with comparable qualities of statesmanship.

As the LoC flare-up continued, India and Pakistan went through the diplomatic routine of summoning each other’s envoy and conveying protests but the governments tried not to allow the situation to get out of hand. Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, in a reference to the decapitation, said “we cannot and must not allow escalation of the unwholesome event” and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar reciprocated the sentiment. “I think that is the right way to go,” she said.

However, the Pakistan army forced closure of trade across the LoC in the Poonch sector and ignored an Indian proposal for a flag meet at brigadier level. The Indian air force chief hinted that his men were ready to play a role, as during the Siachen conflict, if the situation along the LoC did not improve. On Sunday, the guns still boomed but hopes of defusing the situation arose with the Pakistan army agreeing to a flag meet on Monday. Hours before the meet the Indian army chief did some tough talk.

Advice tendered by strategic experts of the two sides reveals sharp differences in perception. A former chief of India’s external intelligence agency, while stressing the need to continue the dialogue process, has called for covert action to put pressure on Pakistan. A retired Pakistani brigadier, writing in a newspaper, has advocated disengagement from the western border, making peace with internal elements like the Pakistan Taliban and the Baloch militants, and refocusing on the eastern (Indian) border.

The Pakistani terror attack in Mumbai had briefly interrupted the peace process. Members of a Hindu terror module involved in several explosions, including one in the India-Pakistan Samjhauta Express, are now in custody pending trial. The presence, on both sides, of powerful players who, for their own reasons, do not want the peace process to succeed makes it imperative for the two governments to maintain constant vigil. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 15, 2013

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