If our politicians cannot defend the ceasefire, the biggest gain of the India-Pakistan dialogue, they should stop claiming they represent Kashmir’s best interests

The killing of two soldiers on the Line of Control, and the gruesome manner in which Lance Naik Hemraj met his end, have shocked and anguished all Indians. But in all that has been said by political leaders and by the men in uniform, there is a strange omission. Not one of them has yet thought it important to stress that despite the violations, how vital the ceasefire has been to changing lives on the ground for people living on both sides of the LoC — the Kashmiris that both India and Pakistan claim to speak for, and whose best interests both nations claim to represent — and what a crucial anchor it has been for peace efforts in the region over the last decade and therefore how important it is to secure it.

‘10 for one’

Instead, on the Indian side, there has been talk about the need to get “10 heads for one;” about India having “other options;” about how the Indian Army will not remain “passive” to provocations. But what is truly sad is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been a determined votary of better ties with Pakistan, and once spoke about “breakfast in Lahore and lunch in Kabul” has now started competing with BJP leader Sushma Swaraj in playing to the gallery. His statement that it “cannot be business as usual with Pakistan” is — word for word — a throwback to the Mumbai attack.

But it is also useful to recall that after those famous last words in 2008, the two countries came back to the table as realisation dawned on India that talks it had to be. Back at the table, both sides set up a framework with much difficulty, and even managed some forward movement. It seems no lessons have been learnt from that experience. Reminiscent of the Mumbai aftermath, on the Indian side, sporting contacts, and the visa-on-arrival-scheme have been the immediate casualties.

On the Pakistani side, the politicians and the military have been too preoccupied with the bombings in Quetta, Karachi and Swabi, protests and Tahir-ul Qadri. But they threw the U.N. card at India and also suspended two main confidence building measures on the ceasefire — the cross-LoC bus service and cross-LoC trade, directly hurting the Kashmiris.

Ask the people of Kirini, a village on the LoC in Poonch, what they make of this sudden downturn in their fortunes. It was only two years ago that the Indian Army tentatively allowed residents of this village to return to homes and lands they were forced to leave eight years earlier. They were not just in the cross-fire; security forces also suspected that the village, divided in 1947, was being used as a haven by infiltrators from across the border.

‘Cluster colony’ of villagers

When a group from Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, a think-tank that works on India-Pakistan issues, visited them in 2007 at the ‘cluster colony’ to which they had been relocated, Kirni villagers told them that they trekked everyday to their village to work on their lands. It took them about one-and-a-half to two hours. The barbed wire fence, which came up on the LoC in 2004-05 further divided the village, leaving most of the houses and the land ahead of the fencing. Villagers were let in through a gate in the fence that opened once at 9 am and, again at 4 pm, by which time, people had to wind up their day’s chores and leave. The women would cook in their homes at Kirni during the day, and carry the night meal back, over slippery pathways, to their one-room tenement in the cluster colony. Everyone had to be back in the colony before dark.

In April-May 2011, in view of the ceasefire holding well, the Indian Army allowed Kirni’s residents to return to their village. Kirni was the pilot of a model rehabilitation plan. If it went well, and there were no incidents, 20,000 people of other villages along the LoC would be rehabilitated too; most of them were.

If India and Pakistan do not stop the tough talk and the shelling, it’s back to the future for these people, and by extension for everyone else in J&K. In Uri sector in Baramulla, people in villages close to the LoC are demanding that the government either construct bunkers for them or give them money to do it themselves. The bunkers that the villages used to have apparently collapsed during the 2005 earthquake, but as the ceasefire was going well, no one gave thought to reconstruct them.

From South Asia Terrorism Portal, a website with an exhaustive list of security-related incidents in the sub-continent, here is a snapshot of what it could look like if bunkers really became urgent and necessary: in two months, from September 26 to November 27, 2000, India counted 611 killed on the LoC. Of these, 119 were of military personnel, and 151 were civilians. The website classifies the remaining dead as “terrorists”. As many as 136 military personnel were injured; among civilians, the number of injured was higher — 153. This was just from localised hostilities at the LoC, not an all out war.

Compare this with post-ceasefire casualties: no incidents until 2006; in July 2009, Defence Ministry A.K. Antony told the Lok Sabha that 110 incidents had taken place along the ceasefire since it came into being in 2003; on the Indian side, four soldiers and two civilians had been killed.

Semblance of normality

The CDR group that visited the LoC in 2007 heard in village after village that people were finally sleeping well, not in a metaphorical sense, but quite literally. That the ceasefire also helped Kashmiris on either side connect after more than five decades of Partition, through travel and trade, was the icing on the cake. All this gave Kashmiris a semblance of normality after more than five decades of living in a war zone. If the ceasefire, the biggest achievement of the India-Pakistan dialogue of the last 15 years, is something that our politicians cannot summon up the backbone to defend, they might as well stop talking about Kashmir.

As the numbers show, both sides have violated the ceasefire on plenty of occasions, and there have been arguably bigger incidents. In July 2008, Shiv Shankar Menon, who was then the Foreign Secretary, told journalists right after meeting his Pakistani counterpart, that the ceasefire at the LoC was under strain. That year, there were 77 violations. Last year, there were 117.

Despite a solid system to ensure that such violations are resolved immediately, it seems as if this time, there was a deliberate absence of will to use this mechanism to its entire capacity. The meeting between the field commanders did not last even 15 minutes.

Track Two dialogue

At a recent edition of the Chaophraya Track Two dialogue — it brings together specialists from various fields, some of them former government officials, for a candid exchange on India-Pakistan issues — some Indian participants warned that if there was to be another terrorist attack on Indian soil with a Pakistani fingerprint, “all bets would be off,” and it was therefore in Pakistan’s interests to dismantle the terror infrastructure for the talks to go ahead — who could have seen a month ago that the danger would come from a ceasefire violation on the LoC. But most participants, Indians and Pakistanis, were emphatic that the two countries must insulate the gains of the dialogue process — such as trade and visas — from such incidents, or else there was no point in expending resources to make some progress, only to be dragged down, and then have to start all over again.

Securing the ceasefire and the rest of the peace process is more important than at any other time. 2014 is not just the year of the next general election in India. It is also the year by the end of which the United States would have withdrawn most of its troops from Afghanistan. What happens there, and the rest of the region after that will depend much on India and Pakistan, and the state of their bilateral relations. Despite its internal troubles, Pakistan has its eyes fixed on the Afghan ball, and is already involved in efforts for a political deal with the Taliban. Given the stability in India-Pakistan relations over the last year or so, until last week, this would have been a good time for a frank discussion between the two countries on Afghanistan, and for New Delhi to highlight its own concerns, how it sees its own role in bringing regional stability. Instead, we are back to staring down each other, which can only bring more bad tidings in a post-2014 situation. For the next government in New Delhi, there can be far more pleasant ways to begin an innings.

To borrow a term from the medical profession, we are in the middle of what doctors call the Golden Hour, the first hour after a road accident, in which there is a possibility of setting things right for the victim. Get it wrong now, and it can only get worse from here.

nirupama.s@thehindu.co.in

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