8 minute readIndia offers confused response to Poonch killings

Indian Army chief General Bikram Singh paying his respects to the soldiers killed in the ambush in Poonch on Monday night.

Indian Army chief General Bikram Singh paying his respects to the soldiers killed in the ambush in Poonch on Monday night.

India’s foreign ministry postponed its weekly media briefing for the second day in succession on Wednesday. The briefing was originally scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. The ministry “rescheduled” it for Wednesday, not long after news came in that five Indian Army soldiers have been killed on the Line of Control. It “rescheduled” the briefing a second time on Wednesday, this time “for a later date”. Officially, no reasons were given.

But government sources claimed South Block didn’t want to say or do anything that may escalate the situation where governments – both in New Delhi and Islamabad – find themselves sucked into a war of words. Consensus atop Raisina Hill is that any criticism would not only weaken Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, strengthen their Army-ISI establishment but also mean curtains for the ongoing resumed dialogue. India had earlier severed the composite dialogue after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. It was revived in 2011 under the rubric of ‘resumed dialogue’.

Soon after cancelling the media briefing the ministry did something that suggested India’s muted response to the killings of its soldiers had less to do with any new found maturity and more about the confusion and incoherence that has gripped the ruling UPA government. The ministry summoned the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to its headquarters at South Block to serve him a démarche for the large number of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody. The Indian mission in Colombo also raised the matter with the Sri Lankan foreign ministry. Currently, there are 114 Indian fishermen and 21 fishing boats in Sri Lankan custody. These fishermen have been held over the last two months.

Both Colombo and New Delhi have regular consultations over the issue of each other’s fishermen in their respective custody and take steps to ensure their release. Indian government officials have often suggested that much of the conflict is because Indian fishermen who have better boats and equipment go into Sri Lankan waters for fishing which leads to their conflict with Sri Lankan fishermen as also their arrest. The démarche came a day after Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa wrote to the PM to adopt “coercive diplomacy” to stop Sri Lankan Navy’s “attacks” on Tamil Nadu fishermen.

But it looked as if the government, even if not trying to deflect attention from the crisis on India’s western border, did not want the southern parties like its ally DMK and AIADMK to join the chorus of opposition parties who have accused it of meekness in handling its relations with neighbors. The démarche to Sri Lankan High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam was more in the nature placating Dravidian parties.

Whatever the strategy behind the démarche to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, it didn’t save the government from criticism on the issue of the killing of five Indian soldiers. The BJP asked why Defense Minister AK Antony’s statement in Parliament was so markedly different and watered down from the Indian Army’s press statement released from Jammu, and the issue is expected to be live on Thursday as well. It raised the issue in both the houses of Parliament. The BJP also broached the issue of Antony’s statement with the PM when senior BJP leaders met him to discuss the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement that is to be tabled in Parliament.

The first statement, based on information provided by the army said,

A patrol of Indian Army comprising of one Non Commissioned Officer and five Other Ranks was ambushed by a Pak Border Action Team close to the Line of Control in Punch Sector of J&K early morning on 06 August 2013. In the ensuing firefight, five Indian soldiers were martyred. The ambush was carried out by approximately 20 heavily armed terrorists along with soldiers of Pak Army.

This action is a likely consequence of frustrations of the terrorists’ tanzeeems and Pak Army due to successful elimination of 19 hardcore terrorists in the recent months of July and August along the Line of Control and in the hinterland of J&K. The effective counter infiltration grid on the Line of Control has ensured 17 infiltration bids foiled this year resulting in killing of a total of 13 hardcore Pak trained terrorists. The numbers of such attempts have doubled this year in comparison to the corresponding period of 2012. Pak Army’s desperation is also evident in the substantial increase in the number of Cease Fire Violations this year. There have been 57 Cease Fire Violations this year which is almost 80% more than the violations last year.

This statement was withdrawn and superseded by the defense minister’s statement in Parliament, where he said,

A patrol of Indian Army comprising of one Non Commissioned Officer and five Other Ranks was ambushed on our side of Line of Control in Punch Sector of J&K early morning on August 6, 2013. In the ensuing firefight, five Indian soldiers were martyred and one soldier was injured. The ambush was carried out by approximately 20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms.

The numbers of infiltration attempts have doubled this year in comparison to the corresponding period (1 Jan- 5 Aug) of 2012. There has also been 57 Cease Fire Violations this year which is 80% more than the violations last year during the same corresponding period.

The Indian Army successfully eliminated 19 hardcore terrorists in the recent months of July and August along the Line of Control and in the hinterland in J&K. The effective counter infiltration grid on the Line of Control has ensured that 17 infiltration bids were foiled this year.

We strongly condemn this unprovoked incident. Government of India has lodged strong protest with Government of Pakistan through diplomatic channels. I assure the House that our Army is fully ready to take all necessary steps to uphold the sanctity of LoC. Government of India conveys its condolences to the families of the martyrs who made the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty.

On Tuesday, South Block had summoned Pakistan’s deputy envoy to lodge its protest over the killing of the five soldiers. On Wednesday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry summoned Indian deputy envoy to Islamabad Gopal Baglay to issue a note verbale about the safety of Pakistan House in New Delhi after it witnessed anti-Pakistan protests by Youth Congress workers.

By evening, it looked as if India’s response, or the lack of it, may have had much to do with the AfPak scenario post-2014.

In Delhi, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said India-Pakistan dialogue was a continuous process and could not be called off.

In Washington, US State Department spokesperson Jen Paski expressed concern over the incident along the LoC. “We are aware of these unconfirmed reports and are concerned about any violence along the line of control,” Psaki. The state department spokesperson said the US “policy on Kashmir has not changed”.

“We still believe that the pace, scope and character of India and Pakistan’s dialogue on Kashmir is for those two countries to determine,” she said Tuesday. Psaki, when asked whether the killings would impact the ties between the two neighbors, said the US hoped “that India and Pakistan will continue the steps they’ve recently taken to improve bilateral relations”.

Sources in New Delhi said there was unlikely to be a fallout of the incident in terms of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cancelling his scheduled meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next month. The incident could cast a shadow on the meeting of the water resources secretaries of the two countries scheduled to be held after Eid. “The fate of the meeting remains uncertain as yet,” said a source.

It is, however, unlikely that New Delhi will have a strong response like moving additional forces to the border. That the Americans have been quick to send a message across that both sides should ensure peace and dialogue was a sign how anxious Washington was about the situation on the Durand Line. Any forward movement by the Indian Army would mean Islamabad moving its forces from its western border to its eastern border with India. “That is something the American do not want to happen, at least not before they exit from Afghanistan in 2014,” said the source.

That Washington has been more receptive of Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan was evident from its special envoy for the region James Dobbins telling the BBC today that Pakistan’s concerns over India’s presence in Afghanistan are exaggerated but “not groundless”. Dobbins defended India’s presence in Afghan cities like Kabul and Jalalabad stating that it was minuscule and “perfectly reasonable” given India-Afghan economic and cultural ties.

Dobbins had accompanied US Secretary of State John Kerry on the latter’s visit to AfPak region. “The dominant infiltration of militants is from Pakistan into Afghanistan, but we recognize that there is some infiltration of hostile militants from the other direction as well. So Pakistan’s aren’t groundless…They are simply, in our judgment, somewhat exaggerated,” said he.

That the Indian soldiers were killed within days of the bomb attack on Indian consulate in Jalalabad is a sequence of events that has also not missed its import in South Block.

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