[Cover Story] Walking into a war trap

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As recently as Saturday, 12 January, senior officials in New Delhi had been swearing black and blue they would not allow the recent clashes between Indian and Pakistani armies on the Line of Control (LOC) to derail the normalisation of relations with Pakistan. A mere three days later, the government did a complete volte-face. The much awaited visa regime relaxation was aborted on the very day it was supposed to take effect. Pakistani hockey players have been sent packing. The Pakistani women’s cricket team is no longer welcome in India. Trade across the LOC is at a standstill. And it is exceedingly unlikely that a meeting of the commerce ministers of the two countries, which was to be held at the end of the month, will take place. As Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar lamented earlier this week, Indo-Pak relations have been pushed back by 20 years.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has warned Pakistan that there can be no return to “business as usual” until Islamabad inquires into and prosecutes those who were responsible for the beheading of an Indian soldier, Lance Naik Hemraj, in an ambush the Pakistani forces laid at Krishnaghati in Poonch district of Jammu & Kashmir after crossing the LOC. His demand is an echo of the one India made after the attacks on 26 November 2008 by Pakistani gunmen, who killed 166 people in Mumbai over four days. Singh’s latest demand is likely to meet the same fate not only because the perpetrators this time belong to the regular Pakistan Army, but also because India is on far weaker ground for making such a demand today than it was in 2008. This is because, by some accounts, it was the Indian Army and not the Pakistanis who initiated the clashes and killings on the LOC in the past six weeks.

For almost two years, since Singh’s invitation to Pakistan’s then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to attend the India-Pakistan World Cup cricket semi- final match at Mohali in Punjab in March 2011, India and Pakistan have been finding their way quietly through a minefield of accumulated distrust towards a closer, mutually supportive relationship in the coming years. In December 2006, Singh had uttered a wish that became the beacon for this tortuous search for friendship: “I would like to have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Islamabad, and dinner in Kabul.” Five years later, the two countries had, circumventing all obstacles, begun to turn this into a reality.

The past 12 months saw a dramatic acceleration of the progress towards normal relations. When Pakistan found itself lurching towards a foreign exchange crisis following a sharp deterioration of its relations with the US in 2011, it turned to India for help. And India readily gave help — whether in the form of sugar, diesel oil and gasoline, electricity at peak hours or locomotives. This began a thaw in relations between the two countries that has become apparent in other areas as well, most notably in Pakistan’s agreement to open up trade with India and a dramatic easing of visa rules between the two countries.

Given the way in which both governments have been held hostage by popular passions, it is hardly surprising that all this was done with little fanfare. But the risk that covert diplomacy entails is that sections of the government that have not been in the policymaking loop can inadvertently derail the process. This is what happened in the first week of January. The culprits are the Indian and Pakistan armies.

On 8 January, the Northern Command of the Indian Army disclosed that Pakistani troops had crossed the LOC in Poonch, killed two Indian soldiers, beheaded one of them, and taken his head with them. The news of this barbaric act was swaddled in references to a series of similar violations in the previous six weeks to which the Indian Army had been forced to respond. Broadcast nationwide by 24-hour news television, this disclosure enraged the Indian public in a manner not dissimilar to the impact that hourly telecasts of burnt bodies being extracted from the Sabarmati Express train in Gujarat’s Godhra district had upon the country in 2002. Today, the air is once more full of television hounds baying for Pakistani blood.

The surprising part of the Northern Command’s press release was its decision to disclose the beheading of one of the soldiers, Lance Naik Hemraj. The act was no doubt callous and barbaric but their decision to publicise it was questionable, to say the least. Because, this is not the first time that Pakistani troops or irregulars have crossed the LOC and committed such a heinous act. The first of such acts, to this writer’s knowledge, was in 2000, carried out by Ilyas Kashmiri, a former member of Pakistan’s Special Services Group who later turned renegade and emerged in North Waziristan in 2007-08 as the military commander of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and a key link for the ISI with the Haqqani group of the Taliban. Kashmiri had carried the head back with him to Muzaffarabad, and deposited it at the feet of the prime minister of Pakistan- occupied Kashmir (POK).

The then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had declared Kashmiri a hero and rewarded him with Pakistani Rs 1 lakh. This may have set a precedent. A second such beheading took place in 2008, and a third, involving two Indian soldiers, occurred in the Karnah sector of Jammu & Kashmir last year.

If a briefing given to journalist Praveen Swami of The Hindu is correct, it would seem that the Indian Army retaliated in kind after the Karnah beheadings. The latest mutilation is, therefore, part of a continuing pattern of State-encouraged barbarism followed by retaliation that was set more than a decade ago. This makes it almost certain that the beheading of Lance Naik Hemraj was a local act carried out by a Pakistani soldier or soldiers in anticipation of a reward.

Unfortunately, it has come at a time when the Indian public had begun to hope that the Pakistani leopard was finally changing its spots. It has, therefore, reawakened the dormant fear and distrust that the Indian people have traditionally felt towards the western neighbour. Whenever such events have happened in the past, there has been no dearth of self-appointed analysts ever ready to look for some Pakistani grand design behind them. On this occasion, they have had a field day because the event has coincided with a growing turmoil in Pakistan. This has played into the conspiracy theorists’ hands.

THE ORIGINS of the turmoil can, quite easily, be traced back to the circumstances of Pakistan’s painful birth. But the immediate cause is its increasingly reluctant involvement in America’s War on Terror. Pakistan is finally reaping the whirlwind that it sowed 12 years ago. It is apparent to all those not beguiled by the spindoctors of US President Barack Obama’s administration that the US has lost that war and is intent only upon finding a face-saving exit. A jihad-riven, nearly bankrupt State of Pakistan is the largest part of the detritus that the US will leave behind.

All the conflicts that have erupted within the Pakistani State in the last two years have arisen out of differences on how to manage the fallout. When the US wasted its initial victory in Afghanistan, Pakistan realised that it was trapped in a protracted war that Islamabad could only lose, its army took out two insurance policies. The first was to shelter a politically sterilised Osama bin Laden in the hope that keeping him safe would dissuade the Taliban and local al Qaeda- linked militias from seeking retribution. The second was to shelter the Haqqani network (an anti-US Islamist militia named after veteran Afghan fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani), which is allied with the Afghan Taliban and operates out of North Waziristan, in Pakistan. To immunise Pakistan, its army hoped to rely upon Haqqani’s powerful intercession in Kabul after a presumed Taliban takeover following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

But in the last two years the US has destroyed the first insurance policy and, through a sharp escalation of drone attacks in North Waziristan, degraded the second. The Pakistan Army, therefore, sees no way of safeguarding Pakistan’s future other than severely limiting, if not ending, its involvement in America’s war; and keeping its connection with the Haqqanis alive. This has brought it into increasingly direct conflict with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s government, which last year realised that Pakistan is entirely dependent upon American largesse to meet its external debt servicing burden and stave off default. The civilian government has, therefore, preferred to continue providing essential logistical support to enable the US and NATO forces to continue their orderly exit from Afghanistan next year.

This conflict within the Pakistani State has become sharper as the US-led international troops’ exit from Afghanistan has drawn nearer. Its first indication was the allegedly inadvertent leak from former Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani’s office in Washington, of a plea by his government to the US not to back an imminent army coup in Pakistan. The tide of public anger this disclosure unleashed in Pakistan convinced the Pakistan Army, if it needed convincing, that the Pakistani people would no longer tolerate military coups as they did in the past. Since then the Pakistan Army has reportedly been behind every effort to overthrow the government by levying charges of corruption against its leaders in Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s 15 January order to arrest Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf spells not only a victory for the Pakistan Army, but quite possibly the end of Pakistan’s decades-long quest for democracy. The coincidence of the judgment against the PM and the return to Pakistan, after many years in Canada, of a renowned sufi scholar and moderate Islamic activist, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, is almost certainly not fortuitous. For, everything that Qadri is saying is music to the Pakistan Army’s ears.

In his speeches, Qadri is combining a demand for the immediate ouster of the “corrupt” civilian government with an unstinting endorsement of the army as the only institution dedicated to the service of the nation. Absent so far is any endorsement of democracy, any demand for its reform, and any call for a fresh election even under a new constitutional dispensation. Qadri is an erudite Muslim scholar who has had the courage to condemn terrorism and, by implication, all brands of Salafi/Taqfiri Islam, from the rooftops. His patriotism also cannot be doubted, because in coming back to Pakistan he has taken his life into his hands. But his return at precisely this juncture has given the Pakistan Army just the excuse it has been looking for to seize the reins of power.

The Indian reaction to the beheading of Lance Naik Hemraj may well have given them an additional reason to do so. In the wave of indignation that has swept through India, prominent Opposition leaders — such as the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj — have demanded blood in exchange for blood. Swaraj has gone so far as to demand the heads of 10 Pakistani soldiers for that of Hemraj, and former UP chief minister Mayawati has accused Prime Minister Singh’s UPA government of being weak.

The Pakistani Army can, therefore, justifiably claim that their country is not only threatened by chaos from within, but also by war from without. Worst of all, instead of standing up for the nation against these politically motivated warmongers, the UPA government has caved in and quietly forsaken all that it has striven so hard to achieve.

THE MOST tragic part of the story is that none of this need have happened. Praveen Swami, Delhi editor of The Hindu, was briefed by one or a very few senior and extremely courageous officials, and has dared to tell the true story of what triggered the clashes on the LOC. It all began when one lonely old woman, separated from her family by politics and barbed wire, decided to cross the LOC to live with her sons and grandchildren in the village of Charonda, a few metres on the Pakistani side. Unfortunately for her, there was a giant, electrified barbed wire fence in between. But there was also a tunnel that was being used to circumvent it. The old lady either came to know of it, or someone took pity on her and showed her where it was, but in any case, one afternoon she simply crossed over, and in doing so, gave away the secret of its existence to the Indian Army.

The Indian Army had no option but to destroy the tunnel, but to do so it had to go well inside the cordon sanitaire on both sides of the LOC that had been agreed upon by the two countries in Islamabad in 2003. When it did so (and here I’m deducing from what followed) it came under fire. This confirmed the suspicion that there indeed was a tunnel or other means of circumventing the barbed wire fence, and that it was being used to ferry militants across the LOC.

Unable to approach the tunnel, the Indian Army resorted to heavy shelling that killed three Pakistani civilians. This heightened the bad blood and stepped up the firing from the other side. Eventually, the Indian Army began to construct bunkers and observation posts around Charonda and mounted an operation to destroy the Pakistani gun emplacement that overlooked the LOC. This operation killed two Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistan Army retaliated at Krishnaghati in Poonch.

The Ministry of Defence tried, albeit without success, to pick holes in Swami’s story, but to me it had the ring of truth because this was not the first time the Indian government has used the print media to arrest the drift towards war. It last did so by means of detailed briefings to Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu during the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. But a still closer parallel is provided by an event that occurred nearly 26 years ago on the eve of Operation Brasstacks, a vast and ambitious military exercise designed to test the coordination of different branches of India’s armed forces.

ONE DAY in February 1987, editors of six national dailies were called for an urgent briefing by the then Minister of State for Defence, Arun Singh. He told them that a dangerous situation had unexpectedly developed on the Indo-Pak border. In preparation for Operation Brasstacks, India had pulled much of its armed forces out of Punjab into Rajasthan. Then, only days before the start of the exercise, the army found to its consternation that Pakistan had mobilised both its strike formations (consisting of two armoured divisions, self-propelled artillery and mechanised infantry) out of cantonments located deep inside the western part of their Punjab and moved them to their forward positions on the Indian frontier, activated its forward air bases and begun to lay mines along sections of the front.

Indian Punjab was, therefore, wide open to an attack and close to being defenceless. All leave to armed forces personnel were cancelled, the Air Force put on 24-hour alert, and Operation Brasstacks put on hold. Infantry and armoured divisions were being rushed back from Rajasthan, but the next few days were fraught with peril.

I was one of those present at the briefing. Although there was no cable television in those days, the publication of the news caused war hysteria to start building up in both countries in the days that followed. A few days after the minister’s briefing, I received a call from the then Vice-Chief of Indian Army, Gen AM Sethna, asking me to meet him at his home. During the ensuing talk he admitted that the army was seriously concerned that it could be dragged into a war it was not prepared for, and arranged a briefing for me by the Director General of Military Operations.

What had gone wrong gradually became apparent as the briefing unfolded. New Delhi had begun planning for Operation Brasstacks the previous summer, and by early July 1986, Pakistani intelligence got wind of it. In the next weekly hotline conversation, the Pakistani DGMO asked his Indian counterpart what was happening, but since the operation was not intended to take place within the 20-km border zone, it was not mandatory to inform each other of troop movements. Therefore, India’s DGMO reassured the Pakistani of this, without giving him any other information.

Pakistan’s fears were not assuaged. Islamabad soon realised this was not an ordinary military exercise but a three-service simulation of a real war. Its components were a simulated naval attack on Karachi — to be tested somewhere along the Gujarat coast — and a simultaneous simulated thrust by the Indian Army, backed by the Indian Air Force, across Sindh to the Indus to cut Pakistan in half. The fact that Operation Brasstacks was to be carried out well outside the 20- km border zone gave little reassurance to Pakistan because Indian tanks could cross the demilitarised zone and be in Pakistan in as many minutes. Pakistan’s actions were not, therefore, a prelude to invasion but a classic defensive countermove.

I like to think that the publication of my story had a similar calming effect then as Praveen Swami’s story on 10 January intended to achieve. In the absence of private television channels amplifying fear, anger, humiliation and calls for revenge, the war hysteria in 1987 died down once the government postponed Operation Brasstacks and made Pakistan’s actions more comprehensible. By contrast, the respite Manmohan Singh’s government gained from Praveen Swami’s article last week has proved temporary.

The way in which the situation has spun out of control in the past week highlights the utter dysfunction that has crept into governance today. The bottomline is that a decision was taken by the Indian Army alone, and that too at probably a level well below that of the army chief, to flout an international agreement with India’s most important, and potentially most dangerous, neighbour. When this provoked a reaction, escalation was ordered, again without a green light from the Union Cabinet or the Prime Minister’s Office.

Although Indian Army Chief Bikram Singh has denied it, it appears Indian soldiers were also the first to cross the LOC, again a decision with enormous international implications that was taken entirely by the Indian Army, and a Pakistani soldier was killed and another critically injured. When this led to a titfor- tat retaliation at Krishnaghati, the army brass again broke with past practice and released the information that a soldier had been beheaded when it had maintained silence over four earlier beheadings, two of which occurred less than a year ago.

As if this was not enough, both the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force chiefs have made statements condemning the Pakistani action, making veiled threats that could easily push a desperate and besieged Pakistan over the brink into an act of war. All this makes the Indian Army look less like a modern disciplined force, and as for what this indiscipline says about the UPA regime, perhaps the less said the better.

What cannot be denied is that the fruits of years of patient diplomatic fence-mending have been laid waste in a matter of hours by acts that border on rank indiscipline. The least the country needs and should expect is a thorough and open investigation into precisely how such decisions could be taken without the prime minister, the Cabinet and even, quite possibly, the Ministry of Defence, giving their explicit and prior sanction.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. BY your own admission the Pakis started it. Your prescription is that we do nothing when head of slain soldiers are taken as trophy. If it is that unimportant, why don’t you offer your own head – as Adi Shankaracharya did in Assam to a Kapalika and then let us see.

  2. Mr. Jha’s piece has three central theses, and they’re all flawed. Let’s examine them in turn.

    He says that the beheading was carried out by Pakistani soldiers acting without orders, but fits the pattern of “State-encouraged barbarism” that has persisted for over a decade. Problem is, the two arguments pretty much contradict each other. If it is state-encouraged, then it is hardly a one-off, freak occurrence, is it? He also says that this incident has reawakened the “dormant fear and distrust” that Indians have felt for Pakistan. He writes as if this fear and distrust is completely unjustified, when the facts point to quite the opposite. Right from Kargil to the Parliament attacks to the Ghatkopar bombings and 26/11, Pakistan has shown little interest in lasting peace and détente. They participate in dialogue because it costs them next to nothing, they get good PR, and it stops India from responding to their shenanigans in kind. It makes little sense to imply that we could have all lined up and sung Kumbaya had we Indians been smart enough to ignore such minor provocations and continue appeasing the Pakistanis.

    His next argument is that the Pakistani Army is trying hard to safeguard Pakistan from the fallout of American forces leaving Afghanistan after the failure of their campaign. It is courting the Happani network to avoid the jihadis from turning on Pakistan, unlike the civilian government, which is pushing from sustained American presence in Afghanistan. He goes on to say that India is only strengthening the Pakistani Army’s hand by and by responding so vocally to the beheading. Two problems with that. One, if the Americans are already defeated and looking for a face saving exit, no amount of trying on part of the Pakistani civilian government is going to get them to stay. The Pakistani Army has already accomplished what it wanted. There’s nothing India can do about it. Two, the American defeat did not happen in spite of the Pakistani Army’s best efforts to prevent it; the Pakistani Army has actively undermined American presence in Afghanistan, and provided every form of support to Taliban fighters bent on defeating them. It’s courting the Haqqanis to regain strategic control of the old stomping ground it had a free run in until 2011. India silently absorbing more attacks does not going to make the civilian government stronger, or disincentivise the Pakistani Army from going about this business in Afghanistan.

    And finally, he’s obliquely blaming India for precipitating the current crisis, which is a bit rich. It was the Indian Army that found a tunnel that was built to circumvent the border fencing. The ceasefire was violated the moment the tunnel was built. And the India Army was completely justified in taking appropriate steps to destroy the tunnel. If the Pakistanis fired on Indian troops doing this, and Indian troops retaliated, one cannot blame India as Shri Jha has done. He’s right that “none of this should have happened”. Pakistan only had to genuinely halt terrorist activities near the border, or at least allow India to destroy the tunnel without shooting at the soldiers trying to do so. But that would have required the Pakistanis to approach the issue of normalisation of ties with the intention of achieving lasting peace, instead of just short-term breathing space.

    I’m more in agreement with what Nitin Pai and Ajai Shukla have suggested. Keep the response tactical. Don’t jeopardise the détente, now we are using it to our advantage. Our long-term strategic goals are not served by war-mongering or overreacting to his incident.

  3. About Praveen Swami and his story, the less said the better. It turns out that the story was manufactured. The UPA government has been known to plant stories to divert attention from its misgovernance on several fronts. India needs a strong and tough leader at 7RCR, someone like the Gujarat CM; Narendra Modi.

  4. I think journalist’s these days write articles full of prejudices & being too judgmental.
    I have just one request to Mr. Prem Shankar Jha & all other peace lover journalists , before they write any article where army too is subjected to their theories.
    Before publishing please do read it as a soldier first, who will take the bullet on his chest for you, whose family will cremate a beheaded-mutilated body, who if caught by enemy will spend rest of his life going through gruesome torcher. So you may not end-up demoralizing them & wrongly questioning their sacrifice. Sacrifices which keeps the country safe !

    One question to Mr. praveen Shankar Jha if Indians army had also in past retaliated by beheading their jawans, how come Pakistan is not complaining ?which generally masters in cooking up stories, after all it can help them justify their army brutalities.

    Given the contradicting & illogical nature of this article one can only regret reading it .

  5. Dear Mihir,

    I welcome your reasoned disagreement with my article.We need more such dialogues.
    I agree that , having discovered a tunnel or similar means of circumventing the LoC, the Indian aremd forces had a duty to plug the leak. My entire article asks one question: in such circumstances, given the extremely delicate state of India -Pakistan relations and the turmoil within Pakistan, who should decide what to do, and how to do it.
    Obviously the Indian state has reached such a state of disrepair, that the answer is no one, and therefore ‘everyone. The victimes of the chaos in the Indian state are the Indian people, and, the Jawans whom we , from our comfortable homes, send out to fight wars that can be avoided.

    Prem Shankar Jha

  6. PSJha said: “My entire article asks one question: in such circumstances, given the extremely delicate state of India -Pakistan relations and the turmoil within Pakistan, who should decide what to do, and how to do it.”
    True, PSJ is indeed asking one overarching question. But, often such clarity is misinterpreted, misunderstood, or worse the expectation is that a more comprehensive picture must / should / ought to be given, replete with all pros and cons. Jha central point should be reflected upon in a more focussed manner than the need for further expectations.

  7. Indian Press barons think they are the only people who know the right answers to all the problems not withstanding the fact that most of them are on the payroll of some interest or other whom they are obliged to support. I will digress a little bit now All major political parties and media are vying with each other to ask the other to declare who is their PM candidate. This is not USA. Our constitution lays how will the PM be elected. The press runs to court and quotes constitution only when they are fingered. It is the media guys who have given so much importance to potato countries on the neighborhood and allows them to run the agenda. I pity our countrymen their leaders do not know the strength of the elephant thy are riding blind folded only thinking of the personal benefits.

  8. Peace between neighbors is important, for more than 1 reason yet their comes a time when enduring any more becomes foolish, whether that time has arrived is a matter of debate here !

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