On October 16, 2012, the petrified residents of Churunda village, virtually sitting on the Line of Control (LoC) in Uri sector in Jammu and Kashmir, raised white flags and used loud hailers from a local mosque pleading to trigger-happy Pakistani troops to stop firing and shelling so that they could read “namaz-e-janaza” and bury civilians killed in crossfire that day.
The genesis of the current flare-up between India and Pakistan on the LoC lies in the killing of these three civilians, including two students, in this nondescript village, and culminated in the savage killing of two Indian soldiers in a Pakistan army cross-border raid in Mankot sector in Mendhar on a foggy January 6 morning. Amidst cries of warmongers in the media on both sides and a flurry of diplomatic demarches and protests — with Islamabad trying to make political capital out of its appointment as head of the UN Security Council this month — the truth is, cross-LoC firing has been a fact of life since both countries went to war over Kashmir in 1948.
While the Indo-Pak November 26, 2003 ceasefire pact vastly reduced violence along the international border, LoC and Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) in Siachen, sporadic firing and wanton killing is part of the complex brutal messaging process between the two armies. With mirror deployments, both armies play a cat and mouse game to get a leg up on the other or “sort out the enemy” in army lingo. While the killing of Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh and beheading of Naik Hemraj Singh of 13 Rajputana Rifles by the Pakistan army is a sure sign that Islamabad wants to escalate matters, there is a history to the macabre killings.
The trigger to the present stand-off lies in the Indian army’s suspicion last September that Churunda villagers were were passing vital military information to the Pakistanis. Indian commanders under the 19 Division, which guards Uri, decided to build a new bunker close by to monitor Churunda. The village curiously sits across the fence and zero line of the LoC. As under the 2003 ceasefire pact, no new bunkers could be constructed within 150 meters of the LoC. Pakistani troops protested using a loud hailer thinking it was a pact violation. Indian troops dismissed them, replying that they were within their rights to build the bunker. This difference of perception led to Pakistani troops opening fire.
With the Pakistanis firing heavy machine guns and 120 mm mortars at the bunker, Churunda residents paid the price. On October 16 a shell hit the village causing casualties. The firing stopped after the incident, with the Jammu and Kashmir home minister and director general of police visiting the village. While the Indian army is tight-lipped about the incident, ground reports indicate that Indian troops started building a tunnel to the bunker. When the enemy noticed, they opened fire again and perhaps managed to hit the bunker with mortar fire. On January 6, Pakistan accused the Indian army of a cross-LoC raid on Sawan Patra post across Churunda, killing one soldier and critically injuring another. The raid was hotly denied by New Delhi indicating that Pakistani troops may have been shot by sniper fire while maintaining the sanctity of the LoC. The killing of two 13 Raj Rif troops was the Pakistani answer to the Uri incident, which in turn cascaded into the killing of another Pakistani troop in sniper fire from across Tatapani in Poonch on January 10. Taking advantage of the fog around 11.15 am, Pakistani regulars of 29 Baloch regiment caught two Indian soldiers unawares as they moved along the mine-cleared paths between the fence and the zero line. The Indian Cabinet Committee on Security was briefed about the January 6 incident and Deputy National Security Advisor Nechchal Sandhu, flew to Jammu for a spot analysis last Tuesday.
“Despite the reprehensible incident, the UPA has exercised restraint and made a deliberate effort to de-escalate the tension. There is a need for both armies to sit together and sort this out otherwise all gains of past diplomacy will be frittered away,” says diplomat Shyam Saran, former special envoy of the PM. Avoiding jingoism and war-mongering, the PM’s office has gone for the big picture. They do not want to play into the hands of Rawalpindi GHQ so that India is again made a villain in the forthcoming Pakistan general elections. New Delhi knows that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani will use Indian escalation to restore credibility to his troops. With US forces ready to leave Afghanistan next year, India does not want to give Kayani an excuse to move troops from anti-insurgent duties on the western border to the eastern side. “Any escalation from the Indian side is no longer purely a military decision. It has to be a politico-military decision,” says former army chief General VK Singh. “The government is assessing the situation closely in context of motives of the Pakistan army. We don’t want to be over-reactionary but at the same time we’ll do everything to protect our borders,” says a top defence ministry official.
While New Delhi is fuming over the beheading, this spiral of violence has been played in the past with both armies trying to balance the numbers. In July 2011, an infiltrator and cross-border source of the Pakistan army was killed in Keran sector of Kashmir by the Indian army. The Pakistan army’s reply was swift as two troopers of 20 Kumaon regiment — Jaipal Singh Adhikari and Devender Singh — were beheaded. The Indian army apparently kept quiet and waited for an opportune moment. Three months later, heads of three Pakistani soldiers went missing with Islamabad lodging a protest with New Delhi on the alleged killing. In August, 2003, Pakistani troops ambushed an Indian patrol in Nowshera sector and killed four troops of the Jat regiment. The intruders beheaded one soldier and took his light machine gun. A month later, nine Pakistani soldiers were killed in the same sector with heads of two missing. On February 27, 2000, Sepoy Bhausahed Maruti Talekar of Maratha Light Infantry was beheaded by Pakistani troops in Jangad in Rajouri sector but curiously a ranking pan-Islamic jihadist, Ilyas Kashmiri of Al Qaeda, was given credit with Islamabad displaying the badge and weapon of the solider in a macabre display. This apparently was a response to allegations that Indian troops had killed 20 Pakistani villagers in a raid after the Kargil war.
While a mechanism exists for de-escalation on the LoC — with designated places for flag meetings at company, battalion and brigade commander level with prior notice through the director general of military operations, dialogue — it is rarely exercised to defuse situations. There was no meeting sought by the two sides despite routine exchanges in Uri and Krishnaghati, a key infiltration route, in Poonch last year. The fact is that flag meetings rarely end in solutions unless there is pressure from the respective headquarters. If India-Pakistan have plans to normalise relations, then the time has come to put a stop to these local private wars and head hunting games.