The killing and decapitation of two Indian soldiers along the country’s border with Pakistan is threatening compel New Delhi to at least consider a precipitate action.
While the Indian government has said it would offer a “proportionate response” to the killing and mutilation it accused Pakistani troops of carrying out, it is hard to define what it might mean operationally on the ground.
India says two Indian soldiers deployed along what is known as the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir’s Mendhar sector were killed by Pakistani troops. Although occasional deaths along this border are fairly common, what has elevated this particular incident to the level of upending the current diplomatic thaw is the Indian charge that the Pakistani troops entered Indian territory, killed the soldiers and mutilated their bodies. The head of one of the soldiers was said to be missing.
The Indian Army has been quoted as saying that the head of Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh was taken away by the attackers. The other soldier killed and decapitated was identified as Lance Naik Hemraj.
Pakistan has dismissed the Indian charge as “propaganda” and called it an attempt to divert from last Sunday’s raid by Indian troops on a Pakistani post farther north in Jammu and Kashmir. That raid was said to have killed one Pakistani soldier and wounded another.
"Pakistan strongly rejects the Indian allegation of an attack across the Line of Control (LoC) on its military patrol in which two Indian soldiers were claimed to have been killed. These are baseless and unfounded allegations," the Pakistani foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Xinhua.
On its part, India has called the killing “unacceptable” “inhuman” and “highly provocative.” It has specifically said troops belonging to Pakistan’s 29 Baloch regiment carried out the attack on Tuesday, taking advantage of the fog in the region. Apart from the two killings, another soldier was also wounded.
It is intriguing that while calling it “propaganda”, Islamabad is also “strongly” rejecting the allegation of attack. Is it Pakistan’s case that there was no attack at all and therefore no deaths? Because if that is the official position, then we need to explain the two bodies. There is nothing baseless or unfounded about the two bodies just as its claim of the death of a Pakistani soldier can be verified by the presence of his body. The cause may be a matter of investigation in both cases but that the deaths occurred is not in question at all.
The implication of Pakistan’s official response is that even if the two Indian soldiers died, Pakistani troops did not kill them and mutilated one of them. That leaves two possibilities—either Indians killed their own soldiers and beheaded one of them or some non-state actors along the border carried out the raid. Of the two, the first should be rejected out of hand because it makes no sense from any angle.
Even if one considers the second possibility for the sake of argument, non-state actors ought to have been from across the border. It seems inconceivable that India would let non-state actors kill their own troops to score some propaganda points because it feels cornered over last Sunday’s killing of a Pakistani soldier. This construct is absurd even by the generally absurd standards practiced by Pakistan in such situations. If non-state actors were involved, they had to have enjoyed a clear passage and easy connivance from the other side. There is only other rational explanation which is that the attack was indeed carried out by Pakistani troops.
Postmortem of the bodies will reveal the circumstances of the deaths and forensics will hopefully establish how the decapitation was carried out. This science is reasonably exact and, at the very least, it will prove someone right and someone wrong.
One could get into the larger strategic motive behind the raid by analyzing the flux in Pakistan’s domestic power equations but it is a pointless exercise because Pakistan’s domestic power equations are always in a state of flux. India should be more concerned with how it wants to respond to this provocation rather than forever trying to understand the causes behind its neighbor’s internal ferment.
There is already a constituency in India calling for a military response. Those who support a military response argue that the Indian State always betrays its inherent “softness” in the face of such provocations. This constituency heaps derision on peaceniks whom they say are led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. For this constituency the beheading and mutilation cross the line and effectively close all peaceful options. They also point out with some smugness that the existence of a military means it ought to be put to its natural use from time to time.
On the other side of the debate is a constituency that insists dialogue with Pakistan must continue coupled with some very specific warnings in the aftermath of the latest provocation. This constituency argues that a precipitate military action now, while dramatic and demonstration of a firm resolve, will achieve nothing lasting. This constituency is influenced by complex domestic, geostrategic, military, economic and nuclear calculations and generally tends to be part of the traditional establishment thinking.
Caught between the two positions and many other layers of hostility, confusion, and ambiguity is the Singh government whose default strategy has so far been dialogue. It is in this context that I am unsure what a “proportionate response” really means. It obviously does not mean that at the first opportunity India too will kill and mutilate Pakistani troops. It means drawing an unambiguously tough diplomatic line and perhaps even scaling down of bilateral engagement. The problem with a tough diplomatic line is that the limits of its effectiveness are reached very quickly. Pakistani State, such as it is, is not necessarily impacted in any serious way by giving up constructive engagement with India because it has become accustomed to it.
I am sure some red flags are going up in Washington after the killings. America’s calculations in the region are so very different from India’s. Now that the US government is considering a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014, Pakistan’s role acquires a different meaning. If there is no US military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Washington would like to ensure that its strategic interests in the region are protected. Whether it depends on India to play some of that role is an open question because New Delhi, while wanting to remain a decisive presence for its own sake, may not necessarily like to be a US proxy. It is reasonable to say that Washington would expect Islamabad to play a responsible role after its departure.
Against this backdrop of a larger strategic consideration, one is not sure how Washington would treat the border killings in so much as they mean leaning on Islamabad at New Delhi’s urgings. Beyond a point though New Delhi knows that it is a fight that it must carry out on its own without much thinking about other parties’ interests. The calculation is not that straight forward for Pakistan which seems always mired in its internal contradictions and external ambiguities.
On balance, if India wants to attack Pakistan this is perhaps the best justification after the November 26, 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks which were a far more serious invasion of its territory by armed Pakistanis. My problem as a peacenik is that neither a limited military action nor a full-fledged one would really solve anything other than telling Pakistan that there are only so many times that you can kick us. The hawks might rationally counter saying that sometimes a nation-state has to strike just for sake of striking and demonstrating that it doing so on principle even if it does not achieve a lasting solution.
If Pakistani troops did indeed cross the LoC and carry out the killings in a deliberate action, it stands to reason that the operation ought to have been cleared at very high levels, if not the highest level, of the chain of command. That is a factor India has to bear in mind as it contemplates what it calls a “proportionate response.”