In the wake of the beheading of a slain Indian soldier by 29 Baloch Regiment regulars on the ceasefire line, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, warned about “other options”, implying something stronger by way of a reaction than the usual harrumphing by New Delhi.
Such expectations were toned down by the Army Chief, General Bikram Singh, on January 14, who said the Army would choose the time, place and type of retaliation. This latter statement is actually the right response. The Indian Army will go punitive, do whatever it has to do, whenever it chooses to do it. Provocative acts can be the result of plain cussedness, or bad blood owing to particularly aggressive actions by this or that unit on the LoC, marking it out as an entity to be “dealt with” by units on the other side. Straying soldiers, who would be waved off in more placid times, become targets in these situations. This is an aspect of the blood sport the two Armies have engaged in for the last 42-odd years since the Line of Control (LoC) formally came into existence.
The trouble is that India-Pakistan relations have always occupied the indeterminate grey area between intimacy and enmity. The organic links of kith and kinship, ethnicity, religion, and culture have tied up the two countries in a difficult embrace, and their relations in knots. Reflecting this affinity are the “wars” the Armies of India and Pakistan have fought, which the late Major General D.K. Palit, director, military operations in the 1962 China conflict, memorably described as “communal riots with tanks”. These essentially counter-force engagements are space, time and scale-constrained affairs which, in peacetime, transform into a sort of ill-natured intra-mural blood sport involving the occasional gruesome act, sniper kills and localised special forces-created mayhem.
It is clear that other than the Prime Minister and politicians heading the defence, home and external ministries, the political class generally knows nothing of this reality on the LoC, evidenced in the Opposition demanding Pakistani pound of flesh. This was nothing compared to the bombast in the media, especially the television channels. Swayed as much by ignorance as by the need for tamasha and raised TRPs (television rating points), over-wrought, mindlessly provocative anchors were outdoing even William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, owner of the New York Journal who, with the US intervention in Spanish-held Cuba in mind, in 1897 supposedly told the painter, Frederick Remington, “You furnish the pictures, I will furnish the war”! In the event, Hearst got his Spanish-American War, and Manmohan Singh stopped the rapprochement process in its tracks. “No business as usual”, he said, suspending, in the process, the policy of issuing visas at the border for Pakistanis 60 years or older, driving Pakistani stars out of the Hockey League, and disinviting the Pakistani team to the Women’s World Cup to be held in India later in the year. These measures came into force just as General Headquarters on both sides agreed to strictly observe the ceasefire and the Pakistani foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, mouthed the Congress Party Rajya Sabha MP Mani Shankar Aiyar’s mantra, of dialogue between the two countries to be “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”.
This mantra is right not for the reasons adduced by Aiyar, but rather because the Indian policy establishment is simply not sophisticated or farsighted enough to conceive and conduct a non-linear foreign policy simultaneously prosecuted with different approach and attitude at different levels, with all policy activity driven by a single strategic vision. Aiyar’s view in that sense falls short but is useful to the extent that it seeks normalisation of relations regardless of any disruptive incidents, which is in line with the principle of non-linearity of policy. The Chinese, for instance, are masters of the non-linear, multi-layered approach, and do this so well that India is effortlessly disadvantaged. India’s attempt at prosecuting a multi-level policy, like in the case of Pakistan, is ham-handed and buckles at the first hint of pressure. Thus, the Manmohan Singh government kept aloof from the beheading hullabaloo for some 10 days, saying and doing nothing to suggest that a breakdown of the diplomatic interaction was in the offing, and using IAF Chief Marshal Browne and Gen. Bikram Singh to signal its anger. But then it abruptly capitulated in the face of the media-induced hysteria, exposing once again India’s absence of strategic vision of course, but also the lack of conviction and political will to persist with policy initiatives that New Delhi, in any case, will be compelled to revive after the situation cools down.
This is to say that India’s bilateral relations with Pakistan will, in practice, have to be more nuanced and multi-layered. The composite talks have to be resumed, but larger volumes of trade and commerce between the two countries do not have to depend on the Sir Creek issue being resolved tomorrow, or a solution for the Kashmir dispute being nigh, and neither does the whole slew of interactions in the other spheres — sports meets, the movement of drama troupes and cinema and music stars, and the easing of visa norms to allow freer travel and tourism. None of this means India and Pakistan will see eye to eye on Afghanistan, China, the US, Indian Ocean, or nuclear strategic issues. Even less likely is it to blunt the combative instincts of the Indian and Pakistan militaries. Therefore, there will continue to be tensions, and cross-border firings and inconsequential artillery duels, which should be left to the directors-general, military operations, and flag meetings to deal with. The future of South Asia cannot anymore be hostage to isolated incidents and occurrences involving the Indian and Pakistani Armies.
“[Published January 18, 2013 as "Out of control on line of control" in the Asian Age, at http://keralawww.asianage.com/columnists/out-control-line-control-031 and in the Deccan Chronicle at http://deccanchronicle.com/130118/commentary-columnists/commentary/out-control-line-control ]