No sweets were exchanged by senior border security officials of Pakistan and India on Eidul Azha this year. The traditional gesture of goodwill repeated every Diwali, Eid and Independence Days of both countries was called off after salvos of Indian shell fire claimed the lives of four Pakistanis on the day of the religious festival.
News sources are calling this the worst cross-border standoff in a decade. Pakistan claims loss of 14 lives and India 10. Nightly shelling from both sides has continued for weeks and war-time measures are being taken by civilians living on either side of the border. Federation of Indian Export Organizations president Ajay Sahai said traders of both countries have suffered massive loss because of the suspension of cross-LoC trade. They [traders] were already suffering due to the floods, the shelling has brought it to a complete halt, he said.
While the losses from a breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries are measurable and tangible, what is unclear is why this occurred, or more precisely, whodunit?
Both countries have denied firing the first shots. BSF chief DK Pathak claims the Pakistani troops started shelling so as to provide cover to saboteurs whom they were trying to sneak in to India through the LoC. India claims this was a result of Pakistan’s failed efforts to internationalize the Kashmir issue. Pakistan retort to that is that it has nothing to gain from this as its Army is already engaged in a military operation along the western border. Many in Pakistan believe this is an extension of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cantankerous stance vis-à-vis Pakistan.
Pathak told media that tensions began with sniper fire from Pakistan in mid-July. “Our response will be equal or more. But not less.”
Chenab Rangers Commander Brig Mateen Ahmad Khan said “the flat, bare terrain in the area made it an unfavorable crossing-point for guerrilla fighters, and noting that India has erected a double fence equipped with sound detectors, and illuminated after dark.”
“There is no jungle, no forest,” he said. “Everyone is looking at everyone. Why haven’t the Indians killed or captured anyone who is trying to infiltrate? No crosser has been killed. It is simply because there is nothing like that.”
Commenting on the situation, Analyst Stephen Cohn said it was impossible to tell who fired first. “On one or the other side, a local commander gets a little nervous and starts firing at what he thinks is someone crossing over,” he said. “Or, secondly, a local commander could be ambitious. Or, thirdly, you could have a deliberate policy choice by the government on either side.”
Once one manages to look past the rhetoric surrounding border sovereignty blaring on Indian media, the raison d’être behind the border skirmishes converges on the new governments and their respective policy lines.
One of the most worrisome developments to have emerged out of this incident is the Indian government’s refusal to talk, refusal to make any overtures of peace or take any steps to deescalate violence along the border.
“The message we have been given from the prime minister’s office is very clear and precise,” said a senior Indian Home Ministry official. “The prime minister’s office has instructed us to ensure that Pakistan suffers deep and heavy losses.”
Last week, Modi’s caustic remarks – it is the enemy that is screaming… The enemy has realized that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated – were received by a shocked and confused Pakistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been working towards a semblance of peace with India since he came to power. The idea was to open trade routes and allow Pakistan’s ailing economy to benefit from a much wider market.
If India’s perception of Pakistani media being extremely state-driven is true, sentiments towards India as viewed on Pakistani airwaves seem to be driven more by Fawad Khan’s performance in Khoobsurat than “the screaming enemy”.
As far as public perceptions, almost always driven by media, go, there is a clear imbalance. Hosting a vitriolic coverage titled #PakDare, Arnab Goswami on his talk show on Times Now laid the blame for the entire fiasco on Pakistan – a “state of liars”. Making jibes at Pakistan’s failure to bring the United Nation’s attention to its constant appeals for intervention.
Veteran politician Javed Hashmi said there was a conspiracy to derail the democratic set up in Pakistan and to worry the waters with India. He lamented India’s reaction to this and said if India debases us it should give us back our mangoes.
Credit to whoever makes the first overture. Pakistan has already requested the UN to mediate. Recently Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the issue. He regretted the incitement to hatred by Indian politicians and requested the P-5 countries to request India to be mindful of the 2003 ceasefire agreement.
If Modi continues with his party’s ambitious Mission 44 – forming an intra-state majority so as to move to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution granting Kashmir its special status – the LoC tensions cannot hope to improve. There is a clear deadlock on the matter and India did not stomach Bilawal Bhutto’s statement about “taking back every inch of Kashmir” well.
Both countries need to figure out whether the benefits of working towards shared interests and goals outweigh the political points in making Kashmir a province. This is a matter for the foreign offices to decide and the elected governments to be mindful of. In the event that Modi refuses to budge – after all his foreign policy played a major role in getting him elected – Pakistan needs to develop a fail-safe out of this.