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      Volume 12 |Issue 03| January 18, 2013 |


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Fallout from the Beheading


Photo: AFP

The incident on the line of control (LOC) in which Indian soldiers lost their lives and their bodies were mutilated has shocked the country and cast a pall over relations between India and Pakistan.

There have been calls for retribution and demands that such actions should not go unpunished. The government has been put under pressure to respond, its strong statements and diplomatic demarches not being sufficient to allay public indignation or to meet the demand for action, not words.

The situation continues to develop and it is as yet not clear what shape it might take. What is evident, however, is that there is no effort at this stage on the part of the political leadership to fan the flames and heighten tension. In fact, from the start the official attempt, even while expressing anger and revulsion, has been to exercise restraint and not permit dangerous escalation.

In keeping with this approach, New Delhi has asked for a flag meeting of the opposed commanders, to try to cool passions and minimise the risk of further armed exchanges. As of now, Pakistan is yet to respond, and there are reports of continued firing along the LOC. In the circumstances, the respective DGMOs (Director General of Military Operations) have been asked to be in contact with each other--they have a hot line link that has been in place for several years as an important CBM whose aim is to reduce the chance of misunderstanding and to try to solve problems as they arise.

Pakistan has denied responsibility and has called for investigation of what actually took place, suggesting that the UN force stationed in Kashmir might be approached for this purpose. This last is hardly a serious proposition, given the well-known differences between the two sides on the role of the UN in Kashmir. In Pakistan, media coverage of these events has been fairly quiet; certainly nothing similar to the high indignation witnessed in India, probably owing to the fact that it was not Pakistani soldiers who were the victims.

For now, it would seem that the incident may not have further consequences along the LOC, though it would be premature to discount the possibility. Neither side has engaged in measures that presage intensified armed confrontation nor are there reports of spreading conflict elsewhere along the LOC. It is possible, nevertheless, that other aspects of bilateral ties could come under pressure.

Already there are reports that trade across the LOC in the Jammu area, where the incident took place, has been halted by the uncertainty that now deters traders; this may have more to do with the traders' own reluctance to continue to trade in the present circumstances than to any official proscription.

No such slowdown or halt is reported from the Kashmir area which is relatively distant from the affected section of the LOC but some individuals have expressed the view that the regular movement of goods and people across the international border at Wagah should be restricted. If such a decision is taken, it could affect the hard-won agreement after several rounds of tortuous negotiations on modalities for permitting easier cross-border access for older people of 65 years or more, the revised rules for which are to become operational within the next few days.

As yet there is no strong move in this direction, nor is there any strong demand for putting a halt to sporting ties, though similar restraints on people-to-people contact have been applied in the past at times when it has been considered necessary to bring about a slowdown in relations.

A further step that has been urged by a few observers is to suspend the process of dialogue that has been taking place for nearly two decades--what has been referred to as the "composite dialogue".

Both sides of the border are heavily militarised. Photo: AFP

This process has had its ups and downs, for there have been several fluctuations in the Indo-Pak relationship that have interrupted the regular exchanges on identified issues to which the two sides are committed, yet it has been persisted with because it has yielded some results--nothing as substantial as had been hoped for when the dialogue commenced but still enough to encourage further effort.

In recent months it is in the area of cross-border trade that the most considerable results have been recorded, so that trading exchanges have become more than just a negligible blip on the South Asian economic screen.

However, divisive issues on which talks have been in progress for many years, such as Sir Creek, have remained more or less where they were, though it can be argued that regular talks about these matters have served to keep tensions under control. The most tangible benefit obtained from sustained engagement is the agreement to maintain tranquility along the LOC which has endured for many years and has greatly improved the lives of people whose homes are in the forward areas. They now fear the revival of the armed strife from which they suffered for so long. The repercussions of the recent incident can thus be extensive and it is well that they are being handled with due care and circumspection.

We should also take note of the calls for restraint and tranquility along the LOC made by a number of civil society groups in both countries. These groups have spoken up, as they often have in the past, in a bid not to let matters get out of control, and their initiative is a reminder that public opinion has other facets than what is commonly seen in the media.

While the damage from the recent incident may be contained, the longer term concerns will remain. Armed confrontation between the armies in 'eye ball to eyeball' proximity can result in the sort of appalling incident just witnessed. Despite occasional proposals, no pullback has been possible.

In contrast, in the East where India and China face each other, a withdrawal to a safer distance was achieved by mutual agreement in 1996, making for a more tranquil border. Along the LOC such a measure cannot be contemplated for fear that it would accentuate the ever-present threat of infiltration by terrorist groups based in POK, so the danger will continue.

Meanwhile, views attributed to Pakistan's army chief suggest that he regards the chief danger before his country as coming not from external sources but from the terrorists within. What is meant by such observations and the impact on Pakistan's India-oriented military posture needs to be carefully explored. It is to be seen whether a strategic re-thinking is implied in his remarks that could benefit peace and tranquillity along the LOC.

The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary.


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