India and Pakistan in bitter standoff

Many years ago, Natwar Singh, then Indian ambassador to Pakistan and much later foreign minister, described the relations between the two South Asian neighbours as ‘devilishly complex’. Nothing could have underscored this more vividly than the dramatic and agonizing turbulence in this relationship that has taken place in a mere few weeks. At the time of writing there is an uneasy standoff between the two basically adversarial countries. Although they have managed to avert the threat of war, there is as yet no return to normalcy or to a dialogue. Let the facts speak for themselves.

During the last fortnight of December, there was a spate of newspaper articles and statements by the strategic community that gleefully welcomed ‘a paradigm change’ in the Pakistan army’s attitude towards India. It seemed that, having held this country as the ‘existential threat’ or the ‘threat number one’ for all these years, the all-powerful Pakistani military had tumbled to the conclusion that terrorism against the state of Pakistan by extremist outfits – some of them sponsored and nurtured, ironically, by the army itself – represented the ‘greatest danger’ to Pakistan’s stability.

This was a naïve illusion and after a while reality sunk in. It became clear that in the doctrine of Pakistan’s army, the ‘defender’ of its ‘territorial as well as ideological frontiers’, India continued to be the ‘paramount threat’. But, in view of the mounting challenges from such organizations as Thereek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) within, the army was in favour of improving relations with India.

This was indeed stated in a new chapter that was added to the Pakistan army’s ‘Green Book’, and should have been no surprise to anybody, if only because the weak civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari had already agreed to resumption of trade with India, something that could not have happened without the army’s concurrence. The same holds good for the new, liberal visa agreement that the two governments have concluded to ease various restrictions and facilitate people-to-people contact. Even this much shift in the views of the Pakistan army seemed encouraging enough, though Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik, who came to Delhi to sign the visa accord, misused the opportunity to malign, even abuse, the host country.

It was roughly at this juncture that the storm burst, with a fury that escalated by the hour. On January 8 India strongly protested that Pakistani soldiers had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and had not only killed two Indian soldiers but had beheaded them. Huge anger against this gruesome and inhuman act swept India. The sentiment was particularly strong within the armed forces. The Indians virtually ignored the fact that two days earlier, Pakistan had protested that Indian troops had crossed into its territory across the LoC and killed a Pakistani soldier.

The Indian media, especially the TV channels, overdid the reflection of national mood while condemning Pakistani ‘barbarism’, which offended the Pakistanis invited to take part in the talk shows. The Pakistani media replied in kind. The government in Islamabad totally denied crossing the LoC, let alone beheading anyone. It also intensified the firing across the LoC.

By this time, on the eve of Army Day, India’s Army Chief, General Bikram Singh, warned Pakistan that India had the option of ‘retaliating’ and it would do so ‘at a time and place of its choosing’. He added that he had ordered his commanders along the LoC to be ‘aggressive and offensive in the face of provocation and fire’. From then onwards, Pakistani protestations and propaganda became louder and more acrimonious, and their actions more provocative. A brigadier-level meeting, held to ensure the maintenance of cease-fire, flopped.

More remarkably, Pakistan proposed that the alleged beheadings (which it continued to deny vehemently) should be investigated by the United Nations Military Observers’ Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP). This was evidently a well-thought-out move, as future events confirmed. Frustrated in its attempts to seek third-party intervention in Kashmir, it seized the opportunity to attain this goal. Even a token role for UNMOGIP, it thought, could be the proverbial thin edge of the wedge.

It needs to be explained that there is a UN group of military observers in Kashmir but it has had virtually no role since 1972 when, under the Shimla agreement at the end of the 1971 War, the UN-sponsored Ceasefire Line ceased to exist. The Line of Control replaced it. India accorded the observers no recognition on the grounds that the Shimla Accord committed both countries to settle the Kashmir issue through bilateral negotiations. However, the UN military observers stayed where they were.

As it happens, Pakistan is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and in the current month the council’s chairman by rotation. Since the chair lays down the council’s agenda, Pakistan asked for a discussion on the UN’s performance in peacekeeping, and tried to use it as a device to rake up the Kashmir issue.

In preparation for this, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hinna Rabbani Khar, went to New York some days in advance and used every opportunity to blame and malign India. On CNN she accused India of ‘war-mongering’. Her overblown rhetoric clearly indicated that she was trying to raise the ante. Islamabad had already stopped trade and travel across the LoC and the Pakistani commerce minister had cancelled his visit to Delhi. For its part, India had put on hold some parts of the new visa arrangements, and sent back some Pakistani sportspeople.

But then something seems to have happened immediately after Ms Khar’s highly offensive war-mongering speech, for within a few hours she reversed her position and offered direct talks with her Indian opposite number, Salman Khurshid. It is known that the most dovish prime minister Manmohan Singh’s declaration that, after what had happened ‘there cannot be business as usual with Pakistan’, worried Pakistani leaders. No less importantly, the director-generals of the two armies, in a talk over the telephone, agreed to ‘de-escalate’ the situation, and both sides have kept their word since. There are also reports that the US advised Ms Khar to avoid any conflict with India.

While welcoming the cessation of LoC firing, New Delhi has refused to respond to the idea of talks between the two foreign ministers. A proper proposal must be sent through diplomatic channels, it had told Islamabad. But, entirely typically, the latter has sent a copy of Ms Khar’s press statement. The talks remain on hold. India’s Defence minister A K Anthony says: ‘This is no time for talks with Pakistan’.

Inder Malhotra