The usual suspects have gone from too little response to much response in the span of a week.
Intense cross-border firing in J&K has undermined the fragile ceasefire pact of 2003
An air of disbelief surrounds some of the most hallowed offices of South Block and North Block, their occupants struggling to come to terms with the five day blitzkrieg against Pakistan on the 198-km-long international border in Jammu and Kashmir. These are officials manning key ministries of home, defence and external affairs and in such situations, they are usually in the thick of things, advising and aiding their political leadership in making the right calls. But the past week took them by surprise-first, all instructions came directly from the Prime Minister's Office; second, there was no meeting of secretaries or the Cabinet Committee on Security to take stock of the situation; and finally, no assessment of the consequences in case the tit-for-tat violence spiralled out of control.
This was new and different. Just like the fact that while India and Pakistan were trading mortar fire on the border in the first week of October, Shahryar Khan, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's preference for the back-channel engagement with New Delhi, was here in his capacity as Pakistan Cricket Board chairman on a mission to convince India to at least start sending its other teams such as the under-19 team to play in Pakistan. But more importantly, during his stay, he had no meeting on the margins with any top-ranking Indian official, confirming the widely-held impression in Pakistan that India with Narendra Modi as prime minister is in no mood to resume dialogue for the moment.
The PM, Government insiders explained, is keen to underline the message that India has changed and so has its threshold levels with Pakistan. For all practical purposes, sources said, the ceasefire of 2003 has been under stress since 2010 and while the previous government sought to deal with violations by way of localised responses, the Modi regime seems to have adopted a policy of disproportionate response.
In the latest episode, going by the claims of the Border Security Force (BSF), the first rounds were fired on the international border in the RS Pura sector on October 2, which local commandants felt was a reaction to India's victory in the hockey finals against Pakistan at the Asian Games in Incheon (see timeline). The next day, a girl died on the Indian side due to shelling on the Line of Control (LoC) in Poonch sector, manned by the Army which is in-charge of defences along the LoC. This was followed by more firing in RS Pura and Arnia sectors of the international border. Thereafter, an Indian soldier from Mahar regiment was killed in an IED blast on the LoC, suspected to be planted by Pakistani militants.
While both killings happened on the LoC, it was not the Army but the BSF, which reports to the home ministry, that retaliated by opening fire in all four sectors of the international border from Akhnoor to Hiranagar. Instructions, sources said, went out from National Security Adviser Ajit Doval who was in direct touch with BSF Director General D.K. Pathak and other commanders. Over the next five days, the BSF fired more than 10,000 mortar shells, countless rounds of small ammunition, leading to an unprecedented slugfest on a border stretch that had witnessed little until then. The overall damage: eight civilians killed, many injured, over 25,000 displaced and hundreds of houses damaged. The official toll on the Pakistani side is 12 civilians dead and about a hundred injured, with scores of villages evacuated.
"The unwritten rule we follow in these areas is that if they fire one round, we fill fire three or five," says E.N. Ram Mohan, a former chief of BSF. "But earlier this was usually restricted to LMGs (light machine guns) and MMGs (medium machine guns). Now it's even mortars, which means 5,000 metres range and that endangers civilian lives. And civilians dying like this is absurd, absolutely absurd."
Incidentally, the flare-up came at the height of campaigning for Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, allowing Modi to drive home his point in public at a rally in Maharashtra on October 9. The implications, however, go beyond the 5.5-km mortar range that villagers are now assiduously keeping out of. They go, perhaps, a few hundred kilometres further west into a reluctant, high attrition battle being fought by the Pakistan Army with its own people in north Waziristan in an operation being termed as the 'Final Blow'.
A flare-up on the Indian front provides justification to redeploy troops along the Kashmir border, a move that will only increase tensions and attract international attention to the Kashmir issue.
Fire and Brimstone
Clad in a white tracksuit, blue turban neatly in place and a cup of tea in hand, SPS Sandhu is a happy man at the hotly contested BSF annual athletics meet in Jammu's Paloura Camp. For a man central to the most intense cross-border firing by India in a decade, the BSF Commandant looks oddly calm, smiling even as he explains that his "boys" are not sweating it out in the field but are deployed at forward posts barely 25 km away in RS Pura sector.
"I am very proud. Nobody, not even the Indian Army, has fired as much as we have into Pakistan since the 1971 war. There were no restrictions this time and we kept on firing. Even the Army cannot boast of so much. At least no Army infantry battalion has fired more mortars."
But there are serious questions on ground tactics. For instance, after a week-long duel, there is only one visible sign of the cross-border mortar exchange at the BSF's Abdullia border outpost in RS Pura. On October 8, two days after the civilian deaths, one Pakistani mortar shell found its way into the camp, bounced off a shed that houses generators and exploded on the ground. What remains now is a pockmarked wall with no damage to any assets at the post.
As it now emerges, the BSF fired hundreds of mortars from Abdullia but by shifting positions along the populated areas of the international border, even taking up positions near the three villages that surround it. As a result, the return fire from their 19 Chenab Rangers was in the direction of these villages, causing significant damage besides the fact that the inhabitants had to flee overnight.
But BSF men are pleased with the damage they could inflict on the Pakistani side, particularly on the Chaprar forward position, which is just 800 metres from the Indian post. Unlike the BSF, the Army has responded with precise, direct fire aimed at damaging military infrastructure. "We caused a lot of damage, especially to their winter stocking. But targets were all military," a top officer said. Also, the Army indulged in some old-fashioned posturing with the Rajouri-based 25 infantry Division carrying out a routine exercise for the defence of Poonch and Rajouri. "It was a regular exercise, nothing that would be the cause of any alarm," said Lt-General K.H. Singh, Commander of 16 Corps. All this is, incidentally, in keeping with what the Army often loosely terms as "LoC dynamics".
In fact, even as the two sides exchanged intermittent fire in pockets, the usual exchange of sweets on the occasion of Eid on October 6 took place at the Chakan Da Bag crossing in Poonch. "On Eid, the Pakistani side opened unprovoked fire in the morning and then blamed us for hurting religious sentiments. Still, after this, we exchanged sweets to keep up the tradition," said Lt-Gen Singh.
But on the same day, the gates at the BSF-Rangers crossing down south remained closed.
Pakistan policy in tatters
This was just after the 26/11 Mumbai attack. US President George W. Bush, fearing a conflict between the nuclear neighbours, called for an urgent meeting which included US ambassadors from India and Pakistan. He just had one question. "What can we do to help India? Because the last time something like this happened to us (9/11), we went to war." From thereon began a slew of steps that created the first authentic dossier of information, nailing the fact that Pakistan was behind the carnage. Armed with irrefutable evidence, India reached out to the world and built diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, forcing it to conduct investigations that led to arrests and a trial.
The current flare-up is no comparison but Pakistan has resorted to similar tactics, sending special envoys to five permanent members of the UN Security Council and calling in key members of the diplomatic corps in Islamabad to build a case against India. Also, at home, all factions of Pakistan's fractured polity have now united on this issue.
This time too, New Delhi has the shoe on the other foot. While officials point out that no country has so far come forward in support of Pakistan, sources said the fact is that India has had to alert its Permanent Mission at the UN to reach out to other member states to counter Pakistan's diplomatic offensive. It is learnt that key Indian missions have also been pressed into action to explain the situation and the continuous provocation by Pakistani forces over the last several months.
India's diplomatic counter-offensive targets the Pakistan Army, identifying it as the chief provocateur and holding its leadership responsible for undermining Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the peace process. However, former Indian Army chief General V.P. Malik feels Indian diplomats have their task cut out.
"We have a significant population on the international border. On this count, international pressure is likely to increase and this is now becoming a diplomatic challenge. Diplomacy has to work overtime to ensure that we don't come under pressure from the international community," Malik told India Today.
The last time Pakistan successfully rachetted up international pressure at the UN was when P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister. It pushed militants into Kashmir on the one hand and attacked India on alleged human rights violations by the army in the Valley. This also prompted Rao to set up the National Human Rights Commission. Incidentally, Sharif was PM then too.
But the problem for New Delhi is that the more it goes down this line, it may have just the opposite effect in Pakistan, even easing the pressure on terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Another fallout has been a heightened threat scenario ahead of Diwali. Intelligence agencies are making assessments about a possible Pakistani retaliation in the form of a terror attack. Already, information has been circulated that the recent attempt by terrorists to take control of a Pakistan Navy frigate could have been an effort to carry out an attack on the Indian coast.
Clearly, a dangerous game has unfolded with uncertain consequences, one which is bound to test the Modi Government's nerve.
A lot was on the agenda of possibilities when Sharif came for Modi's swearing-in. The first among them was a range of economic decisions by Pakistan to ease trade with India. This was to be followed by a serious effort on the Kashmir dispute, where the Pakistani PM had hoped for strong support from his Indian counterpart in a bid to push the peace process forward despite resistance from the Pakistan Army. But all of this came to a grinding halt after India cancelled foreign secretary-level talks. The two leaders also did not meet in New York.
"We seem to have got into this extraordinary situation where we are following a tit-for-tat policy. This is what the Pakistani army wants and we are falling into this trap. There is a pattern to this," says Satyabrata Pal, who was India's envoy to Pakistan during the 26/11 attack. "Each time there is an attempt for a rapprochement, the Pakistani army ups the ante. It is against talks and would want the process to fall apart and such escalation does not help."
With no back-channel at play and bilateral interaction at a minimum, the focus is now on the upcoming SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November, where Modi and Sharif will have an opportunity to meet. In the six months between New Delhi and Kathmandu, the agenda would have undergone a dramatic transformation. From breaking new ground, the two leaders, if they meet, will have to build a new consensus on holding fire on the borders.
For the moment, however, there is no word on a meeting, except official suggestions which, insiders said, will have to be weighed against domestic political considerations and Modi's own image as a hardliner. And that, in a way, sums up the change in New Delhi, where decisions on Pakistan are more political than strategic.