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Six days after two Indian soldiers were ambushed and mutilated on the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, and just minutes before a senior Indian commander conveyed a strong protest to his Pakistani counterpart at a flag meeting near Poonch, in Jammu & Kashmir, India’s army chief, General Bikram Singh ratcheted up the rhetoric, warning Pakistan that India would retaliate.
“We reserve the right to retaliate at the time and place of choosing,” said the army chief.
Gen Singh asserted Indian troops would respond aggressively whenever provoked, instead of restraining themselves by the ceasefire, as in the past. “I wish to assure you that I have given very clear directions in this regard. I have told the Northern Army Commander that we must maintain and retain moral ascendancy (over Pakistani troops) at all costs.”
“We shall uphold the ceasefire as long as the adversary upholds it. But we shall not be passive when we are fired at. When we are fired at, when we are provoked, we will respond immediately. And also to heinous acts of this kind which were committed at Mendhar sector on the 8th,” he said.
Terming the killings and mutilation of Indian soldiers “a gruesome act, a most unpardonable act… that is against the very ethics of soldiering and professionalism,” General Bikram Singh warned that the beheading of a soldier’s body would impact on broader Indo-Pakistan relations.
“Militarily, this operation is at the tactical level but it has got strategic nuances… and our concerns have been conveyed to the Government of Pakistan by our government,” he said.
Even while recognising the potential for tactical actions to spiral out of control, unleashing strategic consequences, Gen Singh paradoxically claimed his LoC commanders would respond as aggressively as they deemed fit to provocations by Pakistan.
“Operations would be undertaken as per the plans made at the theatre level. We would not be (vetting) these plans at the Army HQ, where we operate in the strategic arena… Tactical is left to the corps commanders, the div commanders.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which manages the Indo-Pak dialogue process, is watching the rhetoric carefully. A senior diplomat, speaking off-the-record to Business Standard, said the MEA understood the need to cater to outraged public sentiment, but was also concerned the dialogue process could be destabilised.
The dialogue currently centres on issues that New Delhi holds important, i.e. trade and commerce, transit and travel and terrorism, with inconvenient subjects like Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek placed on the back burner. During nine years of relative peace on the LoC (the ceasefire came into effect on December 26, 2003), Pakistan has moved out some 70,000 soldiers for counter-terrorist operations in the tribal areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Even though the last year has seen 117 ceasefire violations, many of them during 62 bids by militants to infiltrate across the LoC, the army chief termed the LoC as largely peaceful. Most violations took place in just two sectors: Uri and Poonch.
With firing along the LoC claiming over a hundred Indian soldiers’ lives each year before the ceasefire, at least 1,000 soldiers’ lives have been notionally saved over nine years of ceasefire.
While citing the mutilation and beheading of Indian soldiers as the reason for his outrage, Gen Singh conceded this was not the first such instance. He admitted Pakistani soldiers had beheaded some soldiers of 20 Kumaon last year, and others from a Rajput battalion in 2011.
Rejecting media accounts that the Pakistani raid at Mendhar was in response to an Indian raid on a Pakistani post in Uri on Jan 6, the army chief alleged the “pre-mediated and pre-planned” Pakistani attack was previously orchestrated, since it came within 50 hours after the alleged Indian raid in Uri.
“Such operations require time for planning… it requires reconnaissance. In other words, their (Pakistan’s) troops were poised for this operation. Therefore this entire information campaign, which was launched by them, which is based on lies, has to be understood in the correct perspective,” says General Singh.
When asked what might have motivated the Pakistan Army to launch such an operation, Gen Singh said the Army was still analysing the matter, but it could be because Pakistan wants the LoC to become active again; or to boost their status within Pakistan.