New Delhi must not lose sight of the larger picture of mending fences with Islamabad

A.K. Antony may not be the best Defence Minister this country has had, but he was needlessly pilloried for his statement on Tuesday that the ambush that killed five Indian soldiers on the Line of Control (LoC) “was carried out by approximately 20 armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms.”

On Thursday he modified the statement to say: “It is now clear that specialist troops of [the] Pakistan Army were involved in the attack.” The Minister added: “nothing happens from [the] Pakistan side of the Line of Control without support, assistance, facilitation and often, direct involvement of the Pakistan Army.”

The incident was tragic and unfortunate, but hardly unexpected in a region where clashes and cross-LoC incidents are not uncommon and have become the most lethal they have been in the past decade since January this year.

Politicisation

A greater misfortune is that they have happened as the country has moved into election mode. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s shrill campaign against Mr. Antony, which led to his modified statement on Thursday, is a result of this; large sections of the media and a community of professional chicken hawks have played a role in amplifying the noise. A measure of the BJP’s politicisation of the incident is evident from reports that suggest that it has specially deputed senior leaders to attend the funerals of the soldiers killed.

Mr. Antony’s original statement was factual and pragmatic. There was just one survivor of the ambush, who would hardly have been in a position to determine whether the attackers were jihadis in Pakistan Army uniforms, or Pakistani soldiers themselves. It was also realistic, because it gave New Delhi the space to continue with the recent warming trend in relations with Pakistan. This is not a one-way street; though much weaker, there is a Pakistani constituency which seeks peace. Now with political parties and the media inflaming the situation, we are reaching a point where India and Pakistan are matching each other in adopting belligerent postures.

Among the major achievements of the Vajpayee-Musharraf détente was the ceasefire that Pakistan announced in November 2003. Though there has been a heating up along the LoC in recent months, the ceasefire has largely held.

Today, because of the Pakistan Army’s commitments in the country’s mountainous western border, the ceasefire is useful for Pakistan, but it is, perhaps, more useful for us. Both India and Pakistan benefit from the reduced casualties there, though India alone benefits from the fact that it has denied jihadis the invaluable and irreplaceable benefit of covering fire. Recall that in 2000, as many as 114 security personnel and 36 civilians died in border firing; in 2001 it was 36 and 17; in 2002 it was 81 and 74, and 2003, 29 and 38. Thereafter, for the next couple of years it went down to zero.

In the last few years, it is evident that the military threat from Pakistan is declining. The country is descending into chaos, and its security forces are hard-pressed to contain the challenge from within. They are trying to externalise the challenge by pushing jihadis at India, but any balanced analysis will show that it is the jihadi threat to Pakistan itself which is growing apace, rather than the one to India.

On the other hand, China is in the ascendant. With its massive economic growth, its military power has shown commensurate increase. Chicken hawks will welcome battle on all fronts, but prudent calculation requires us to adopt a different course. India’s grand strategy must be to reduce, if it can, both threats, or to lessen at least one of them. Above all, India needs to prevent a two-front situation in which it can only come out the loser. In this endeavour, you have to have a set of strategy and tactics to achieve your goal. India does not have a published national security strategy but connecting the dots of government policy since 1990, the beginning of the Kashmir insurgency, does reveal a strategy with regard to our more pernicious problem — Pakistan.

Seeking peace

All governments, the Congress, BJP or United Front, have followed a policy that notwithstanding Islamabad’s support for terrorist actions in India, New Delhi will continue to seek ways of making peace with it. Indeed, the BJP government, of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has played a heroic role in this, persisting on the peace track with Musharraf, despite Agra and Kargil, as well as assorted cross-LoC massacres — of Sikhs at Chittisinghpura and Hindus at Pahalgam (2000), Kishtwar (2001), the Raghunath temple (2002) and Nandimarg (2003), to name but a few.

In this goal, we have adopted a mix of tactics that have varied from the brutal counter-bombardment at the LoC in the late 1990s and 2000s, and a tough approach in Agra in 2002, to accepting a ceasefire in 2003 and seeking accommodation with Islamabad in 2004. And make no mistake. Across the LoC, India has given as hard, if not harder, as it has got. Indeed, it was India that initiated the stage of cross-LoC attacks, beginning in 1993, to stem the jihadi influx. This tactic demanded, and demands, plausible deniability. But what our TV channels seem to want are public performances that will boost their TRPs.

The insistent demands today that India adopt an inflexible and hard policy will only undermine this larger strategy. Were an alternative strategy and tactical mix on offer, it would be something worth considering, but the only items on the menu offered by the chicken hawks are jingoistic slogans and war cries.

(Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)

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