The beheading of Lance Naik Hemraj of the Rajputana Rifles, confirmed by the Army Chief General Bikram Singh on January 14, is an act that strays beyond incomprehensibility and into the area of the unfathomably egregious. The habit of mutilating bodies of slain Indian soldiers, a bizarre throwback to primitive warfare is, of course, giving the Pakistan Army a bad name. If the corpse of Captain Saurabh Kalia (4 Jat Regiment), returned quite literally in pieces after the 1999 Kargil border conflict, could be dismissed as an aberration, the latest such incident suggests a new standard operating procedure for Pakistani troops — ambush Indian soldiers, shoot them dead, lop off their heads to carry back as prize and otherwise disfigure the dead bodies, and scoot back. Where’s honour that the Pakistan Army, like the Indian Army, swears by in such atrocities? A competition in grisly and gruesome actions on the Line of Control could follow. The government was barely able to contain a fully mobilized Indian Army from launching a massed offensive during Operation Parakram after Pakistan-trained militants struck the army camp at Kaluchak in May 2002. Flag meetings on the LoC notwithstanding, it may not be able to prevent retaliatory actions contravening the Geneva Convention.
As if India and Pakistan did not have trouble enough already in dealing with each other to now have this hugely emotion-stirring problem run bilateral relations that were on an upswing into the ground. The reason for change and optimism was the reading of the trifecta of threats by Pakistan’s rulers. There is (1) the shrinking US and NATO presence in Afghanistan but a sustained “drone war” against terrorist targets within Pakistan that alienates the people, (2) the military, economic, and development aid to the Karzai regime by the West, Iran, and India whittles away Pakistan’s leverage in obtaining a peace accord to its liking; and (3) conventional military-wise and economically India grows stronger, retaining a strong hand in Afghanistan with an assist from Kabul, nursing its old friendship with the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, and opening lines of communication to sections of the Afghan Taliban. The ending of the US military role in Afghanistan, in the event, would seem to Islamabad to be a mixed blessing. Its involvement in covertly indentifying targets for the American drones to hit has sufficiently riled powerful elements within the Afghan Taliban to make Islamabad really uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s “all-weather friend”, China, has been noticeably cagey in this period of Pakistan’s toil and trouble. Apprehensive about driving India into a full-fledged entente with the US and Japan, which would blunt the edge Beijing enjoys in dealing with them separately, China even blamed Islamabad for sunni mullahs propagating jihad in the Uighur Muslim province of Xinjiang.
More alarming still from the Pakistani perspective is the near complete breakdown of internal order. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is waging war against the state and society. The Saudi and Gulf-funded salafi sunni extremist groups, such as the Sipah-e-Sahiba, are mounting pogroms especially against the Hazara shias of Gilgit-Baltistan, thereby violently deepening the sectarian divide in the country, stoking the freedom movement in the Northern Areas, and bringing Iran in support of the beleaguered minority, whence the growing incidence of attacks by suspected armed shia groups against sunni targets. Pakistan has been turned into a vast free-fire zone.
In this domestic milieu, presided over by the politically weak government of President Asif Zardari, where whatever could possibly go wrong is going wrong, the Pakistan Army Chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, stepped in to firm up the country’s security situation, starting with a bit of plainspeak. In his Independence Day address August 14, 2012 at the Pakistan Military Academy, he declared war on “extremism and terrorism” and challenged the presumed infallibility of the religious zealots and, implicitly, downgraded the threat from India. Taking the cue, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf talked of reconfiguring Pakistan’s military doctrine at the National Defence University. Espying a glimmer of hope in a reforming Pakistani attitude, New Delhi resumed the “composite talks”, the resolution of the Sir Creek dispute seemed imminent, trade norms were eased, Indian land access to Afghanistan and Central Asia was dangled, India voted for Pakistan to replace it as non-permanent member in the UN Security Council, the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project was sought to be revived, the visa regime was loosened, cultural interaction followed, and then, with the first reports of the beheading, and just like that, wham! the rapprochement process hit a stone wall.
The question is: Will India and Pakistan ever escape their baser instincts to work on their natural affinities, and muster the strategic good sense to ride over the invariable bumps on the road to a necessary peace in the subcontinent that’ll enable India to deal better with China and Pakistan to prosper?
[Featured in India Today, January 28, 2013]