By Ajai Shukla
Since the January 8 killing of two Indian soldiers and the mutilation of their bodies in a Pakistani attack on the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), the government has faced a growing clamour from hard-line nationalist sections of the media — especially electronic media — for “action” to be taken against Pakistan.
After a relatively restrained response in the immediate aftermath of the killings, the government — apparently due to relentless media pressure — shifted to a harder line against Pakistan. On January 8, first reports from the army’s Northern Command of the deaths of two Indian soldiers in a “ceasefire violation” in the Mendhar sector, had mentioned that the bodies had been mutilated. Although the press release made no mention of beheading, senior army officers quickly leaked the shocking news that one soldier had been beheaded and the head taken away. Only four days later, on January 12, was this news corroborated by a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson.
But on the evening of the incident (Jan 8), with a crop of retired generals baying on television for the army to be “unleashed” against Pakistan, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid appeared on television, conveying serious concern but also restraint. The next morning, Pakistani High Commissioner Salman Bashir was summoned to the foreign ministry and conveyed India’s concern. Statements from Pakistan, including one by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, also sought to put a lid on the incident.
From New Delhi’s perspective this was unsurprising, given the government’s wish to prevent this incident, howsoever brutal, from derailing a ceasefire that had held for almost a decade, saving countless lives. Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) sources emphasise that the Indo-Pak dialogue should not be disturbed, since it is going India’s way. Discussions focus on the issues important to India (commercial ties, liberalisation of visa regime, terrorism, and people-to-people contacts); while there is lesser emphasis on the issues that New Delhi wanted to avoid (Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek).
Nor is the MoD keen to disturb the ceasefire; the Pakistan Army has shifted some 70,000 soldiers from the LoC to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, for counter terrorist operations in the tribal areas. If India turned on the heat seriously, an insecure Pakistan Army could move troops back to the LoC. Indian intelligence agencies also worry that an aggressive Indian response could cause the Pakistan Army to mend fences quickly with the jehadi groups they are currently fighting.
But this logic has been ignored by large sections of the Indian media, which covered the incident in gory detail on the morning of January 9, even as there was deafening silence from the Pakistani press. After a full day of Pakistan-bashing on television, January 10 saw two Indian newspapers — The Hindu; and DNA (Daily News & Analysis) — prominently headline the news that the Pakistani attack in Mendhar was in response to an Indian attack in Uri the preceding Sunday, in which one Pakistani soldier was killed and another grievously injured in an attack on a Pakistani post. The article also stated that earlier Indian attacks on Pakistani posts on the LoC had been accompanied by the beheading of Pakistani soldiers.
For many Indians, this revelation somewhat changed the complexion of the debate. From a dastardly sneak attack that involved the barbaric chopping off of Indian heads, the Pakistani action was now retaliation; and its barbarity viewed in the context of a wider barbarism on the LoC. But large sections of the media simply ignored the report, maintaining a relentless drumbeat for action against Pakistan.
Like many Pakistani television guests, the Pakistan Army’s former Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Tariq Majid, emphatically reject allegations that Pakistani soldiers could have deliberately taken an Indian head. He argues that explosions during combat sometimes mutilate soldiers’ bodies.
“The perception in our official circles is that this (Indian allegation) is yet another manifestation of the blow-hot-blow-cold policy being pursued to keep Pakistan under pressure,” says General Majid.
Currently, even as the firing gradually abates on the LoC (on January 10, a second Pakistani soldier was killed in alleged firing by India), the government struggles to placate the nationalist media on the one hand; and keep the Indo-Pak peace process afloat on the other. This is proving difficult; the latest remark that the Indian media has seized upon is the statement on Saturday by Indian Air Force (IAF) boss, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne, that if “these violations continue to take place, then perhaps we may have to look at some other options for compliance.”
With the TV channels flashing this “Breaking News”, MoD spokespersons began calling in to clarify that the options that Browne referred to included “political and diplomatic options as well.”
The foreign minister has now gone on record to cool tempers, placing the issue in a larger context. In an interview on Saturday he said, “There's a much larger situation... the situation demands very responsible and sensible and moderate behaviour. We're not going to be pressurised by wild calls for revenge and reaction. We will do what is in the best interest of the country and peace, keeping in mind that there is a lot at stake.”