India, Pakistan must continue bilateral dialogue to diffuse tension

Tags: Opinion
There has been widespread outrage in India over the beheading of an Indian soldier during a firing incident in which two soldiers were killed along the Line of Control. The incident took place a few days after Pakistan alleged that Indian soldiers had crossed the LoC and killed a Pakistani soldier and injured another in the Uri sector.

There is ceasefire along the Line of Control since 2003, which has largely maintained peace in the region. There are, however, some sectors where skirmishes and occasional exchange of firing have taken place in the past, but the gruesome action of beheading is a grave escalation of confrontation.

Indian army sources contend that Pakistanis have a pattern of opening fire to create a diversion that allows terrorists to sneak into Kashmir. However, the recent incursion by Pakistani troops into Indian territory, beheading of one of the slain Indian soldiers, and taking the head away as trophy have raised a number of questions. The most important one being, whether it was a decision taken at the level of a local commander or the grisly raid had clearance from higher levels at military headquarters.

The Indian army has stated that the raiders were regular Pakistani army soldiers. Beheading an enemy is a tactic used by militants in Pakistan in order to strike terror in the minds of their victims. There are reports of a Sikh shopkeeper being beheaded in the Khyber tribal area after being recently kidnapped. The militant group, Tawheedul Islam has claimed responsibility for this killing. Other terrorist groups in Pakistan have also beheaded their victims as in the case of Daniel Pearl, a journalist, abducted in Karachi.

The Pakistani government has denied that Pakistani soldiers crossed the LoC into Indian territory, dismissing the allegations as ‘propaganda’. But the brutal incident has cast a shadow over the peace process being pursued by the two governments. It has also raised doubts about the Pakistani army’s presumed support to the peace process. It was said through the past year that the army was fully backing the dialogue process and the improving of bilateral ties with India. The new relaxed visa regime is to go into effect shortly. But there have been a couple of blips recently in the process of the bilateral engagement. Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik is known for his controversial remarks, but was needlessly provocative with his infelicitous comments while on a visit to Delhi last month. More significantly, Islamabad has not stuck to its repeated assurances on normalising trade ties with India by the end of 2012.

It is significant that the ghastly incident has taken place at a time when Islamabad’s ties with America are on the mend. The severe embarrassment faced by the Pakistani army at the American raid for Osama bin Laden was followed by severe strains in their ties with the US. The Pakistani army remained under pressure through this period to focus attention on its border with Afghanistan instead of concentrating on its eastern sector. The Pakistani army is reported to have made changes to its security doctrine, where it identified the biggest threat to national security as emanating from militant action along the Afghan border and the attacks on its security forces, rather than from India.

As the US deadline for withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan draws near, the American dependence on Pakistan for facilitating the withdrawal has meant a revival in their relations. Has this restoration of camaraderie led to a change in thinking at the Pakistani army headquarters?

As Washington begins its withdrawal from Afghanistan and given Pakistan’s importance in that exercise, will New Delhi come under pressure to ensure that its ties with Pakistan remain on an even keel? These questions need careful consideration.

The directors general of military operations have been in touch over the incidents. India has asked the Pakistani government to investigate. The US has called on both sides to cool down tensions caused by the border incidents. More governments are likely to follow suit. However painful the incident, it should not be allowed to take away the gains the peace process or disrupt bilateral dialogue.

(The writer is a foreign affairs commentator)

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