After 4 incidents, back to square one

Columnist  | Manish Tewari

Opinion, Oped

The situation in J&K is belly up for the lack of a better word.

File photo of former Indian naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav who has been sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court on charges of 'espionage'. (Photo: PTI)

Four unfortunate incidents over the past one month and India and Pakistan are back to normal — at each other’s throats. It all depressingly began again with the chief of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, confirming the death sentence of Kulbhushan Jadhav handed down by an opaque general court-martial process. Almost concurrently, the confirmation coincidently coincided with the disappearance of a retired lieutenant-colonel of the Pakistani Army, Habib Zahir, in Nepal. His last reported whereabouts were in the Buddhist pilgrimage town of Lumbini. Then there was a terror attack on an Indian Army camp in Kupwara that led to the death of three Indian Army personnel, including a captain.

This was followed by the barbaric beheading of two Indian jawans, Naib Subedar Paramjit Singh, a 42-year-old junior commissioned officer with the 22nd Sikh Regiment, and 45-year-old head constable Prem Sagar of the BSF’s 200 Battalion, who were ambushed by a Border Action Team of the Pakistani Army and decapitated on the Line of Control in the Krishna Ghati Sector in the Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir.

This incident took place right after the Pakistan Army Chief ostensibly visited Haji Pir on April 30.

With the television media in India on an overdrive and competitive jingoism being unleashed by the Pakistani media too, the only winners of this zero sum game are the prophets of doom who thrive on hostility, hatred, conflict and chaos.

For the Pakistani civilian government that otherwise pays lip service to the cause of peace between the two countries, this standoff is a welcome distraction after the pyrrhic Supreme Court victory in the Panama Papers case. However, for the Indian establishment, these portentous developments come at a time when there is a dangerous drift in the internal security situation.

The situation in J&K is belly up for the lack of a better word. Stone-pelting has become the everyday norm rather than the exception. Banks are being looted on a daily basis. The voter turnout in the recent Srinagar bypoll was an abysmal seven per cent, down from a high of 65 and a half per cent in the Assembly elections held in the autumn of 2014.

The Election Commission had to cancel the Anantnag parliamentary bypoll because the security situation is extremely volatile and non-conducive to a free and fair democratic franchise.

All these developments underscore one basic fact — that the experiment of ideological incompatibles BJP and PDP has proven to be a non-starter. Nothing underscored this failure better than the extremely poignant lament of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti after her meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “We are where Vajpayee left us,” she bemoaned.

The chief minister obviously did not have the courage to say that the situation during the 10 years of the United Progressive Alliance was far better, for to do so in the current atmosphere would be nothing short of blasphemy.

However, it may just be worth recalling the roller coaster ride that India-Pakistan relations went through during the Vajpayee era, specially after the Agra Summit held in July 2001.

For those who may have forgotten, that after the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee publicly vowed there would be an aar-paar ki larai (a fight to the finish). His Cabinet Committee on Security greenlighted the largest-ever mobilisation of the Indian Army after the 1971 war. The deployment, codenamed as Operation Parakram, saw a million men and women on both sides of the border staring each other down eyeball to eyeball.

In the midst of this unprecedented tension another terrorist attack, this time on an Army camp in J&K, almost tipped the balance. On May 14, 2002, near the town of Kaluchak, three militants attacked a tourist bus from Himachal Pradesh and killed seven people. After that they entered the family quarters of the Army and fired indiscriminately at the inmates, killing 23 people, including 10 children, eight women and five Army personnel. The age of all the children killed ranged from four to 10 years. Thirty-four people were injured in the attack. Incidentally, the next attack of this magnitude on an Army camp happened 14 years, later on September 19, 2016, in Uri, that left 17 solders dead and almost two-dozen injured.

The Kaluchak outrage sent alarm bells ringing across the world. In New Delhi the embassies of Western powers ordered the evacuation of all non-essential personal. The “N” word was bandied about carelessly on both sides. Back-channel persuasion by the US and other influential powers had a salutary effect on both the countries. The US and their allies were heavily committed in Afghanistan. They did not want a full-scale escalation between two nuclear weapon states to add to their bundle of woes. After 10 months of mobilization, the Indian Army was asked to stand down and return to its barracks without a shot being fired. The Indian Army lost over 1,800 officers and men during this operation. In reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha on April 30, 2003, then defence minister George Fernandes stated: “The number of Army personnel killed or wounded in J&K and the western sector during the mobilisation, Operation Parakram, from December 19, 2001 to October 16, 2002 was 1,874.”

Finally, on April 18 and 19, 2003, Mr Vajpayee travelled to Srinagar where he extended an olive branch to both the Hurriyat and Pakistan simultaneously for he had figured out in the five years of his prime ministership till then that the separatist movement in Kashmir could not be untwined and dealt with separately. It had been tried, but a number of Hurriyat leaders who had mustered the courage of striking out on their own had been assassinated by the deep state in Pakistan.

That initiative led to the ceasefire agreement of November 25, 2003, which by and large held the field throughout the UPA years, only to be rudely shattered in September 2014, when unprecedented firing from both sides started off and is still continuing along the international border, Line of Control and the Actual Ground Position line (AGPL).

Fifteen years later, the summer of 2017 bears an eerie resemblance to the summer of 2002. India-Pakistan relations are at a nadir, jingoism is at its peak, negotiating space is getting constricted. The “N” word is irresponsibly invoked on television channels by hawkish former military types from both sides. The difference, however, is that the situation in J&K in 2002 was better than it is today. A new PDP-Congress government under late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had assumed office and there was hope of a better future in the air, which is not the case today.

Though Mr Modi and his strategic team feel that they are on top of the situation, they would be well advised to revisit those fateful years and draw a leaf out of former Prime Minister Vajpayee’s book, who was fond of saying that you cannot choose your neighbours. He told Parliament on April 23, 2003: “I assured the people of J&K that we wish to resolve all issues — both domestic and external — through talks. I stressed that the gun can solve no problem; brotherhood can. Issues can be resolved if we move forward guided by the three principles of insaniyat (humanism), jamhooriat (democracy) and Kashmiriyat (Kashmir’s age-old legacy of amity). In my speech, I spoke of extending our hand of friendship to Pakistan. At the same time, I also said that this hand of friendship should be extended by both sides. Both countries should resolve that we need to live together in peace.

Perhaps, like Mr Vajpayee, it would take Mr Modi also another few years to learn this lesson — by then it may be too late. The wheel of democracy can behave rather quirkily that Prime Minister Vajpayee too discovered to his peril.

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