LoC tensions: Need facts, not hype

Jan 8, 2013: A grieving mother, mourning her son, Lance Naik Mohammad Alam.

Jan 8, 2013: A grieving mother mourns her son… Lance Naik Mohammad Alam.

My article in The News on Sunday, Jan 13, 2013

Need facts, not hype

Beena Sarwar

News about the death of two Indian soldiers at the Line of Control in Kashmir on Jan 8 triggered anger in India. Yes, a Pakistani soldier had been killed just two days earlier. But his body had not been mutilated. He had not been beheaded. For that is what Indian reports said, creating hysteria and leading to the beating of war drums: the bodies of their jawans had been mutilated, one of their heads was missing, and Pakistan was responsible (small mercy, authorities asked Indian journalists not to use the word ‘beheaded’ but ‘decapitation’).

India seemed to erupt in a storm of anger, outrage, and indignation, betrayal and hurt, and calls for retaliation against Pakistan. Understandable. Imagine the reaction in Pakistan had it been the other way around.

Someone's son, brother, father, husband...

Someone’s son, brother, father, husband… Lance Naik Hemraj, Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh

But things are not always what they seem. The only facts out there were that there was an escalation of tensions along the LoC, Lance-Naik Aslam of Pakistan was killed on Jan 6, two Indian soldiers died on Jan 8 (at the time of writing, on Jan 10, another Pakistani soldier has been reported killed).

The initial Indian army statement on the Jan 8 incident states that, “Pak army troops, having taken advantage of thick fog & mist in the forested area, were moving towards own posts when an alert area domination patrol spotted and engaged the intruders. The fire fight between Pak and own troops continued for approximately half an hour after which the intruders retreated back towards their side of Line of Control. Two soldiers Lance Naik Hemraj and Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh laid down their lives while fighting the Pak troops.” (NDTV, Jan 8, 2013)

“Can you spot the word ‘beheaded’ or ‘decapitated’ or ‘headless’ or even ‘mutilated’ in that statement? Neither can I,” writes Delhi-based journalist Shivam Vij in his courageous and nuanced article ‘Was an Indian soldier decapitated at the Line of Control or not?’ (Kafila.org, Jan 10, 2013).

A Reuters report of Jan 9 carries a denial from an Indian army spokesman about the decapitation: “The body of one of the soldiers was found mutilated in a forested area on the side controlled by India, Rajesh K. Kalia, spokesman for the Indian army’s Northern Command, said. However, he denied Indian media reports that one body had been decapitated and another had its throat slit.”

The Indian army subsequently said that post mortems will determine the cause of decapitation and mutilation, whether firearms or other weapons. So the hype about the nature of the mutilation and who committed it is based on speculation.

“It is almost certainly a retaliation for what happened in Charonda”, a military official in New Delhi said. “This kind of thing has often happened in the past, though it hasn’t got quite so much media attention.” (The Hindu, Jan 10, 2013)

My first response to news of escalating tensions: Predictably something nasty happens between India and Pakistan just as goodwill is at its peak. Vested interests don’t want peace.

My second:  I have my differences with Pakistan army but find it hard to believe that Pakistan army soldiers would mutilate, behead bodies. That’s what Taliban do.

Not that the Pakistan army is incapable of it. Men in conflict situations, no matter what their country or religion, are capable of barbarism, contrary to the assertions of those who insist that ‘our men’ are ‘professional’ and would never stoop to such acts – remember American soldiers in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistani soldiers (1971) Indian soldiers (Kashmir, Manipur).

Barkha Dutta (right) at an Aman ki Asha journalists' conference in Karachi, 2010

Barkha Dutta (right) at an Aman ki Asha journalists’ conference in Karachi, 2010

Indians bring up the torture and death of Capt. Saurabh Kalia and his five men in Kargil, 1999. Pakistan insisted that only non-state actors were involved (a claim later proved to be false) and refused to receive the bodies killed in the fight, that the Indians buried. But on the other side too, there were atrocities which came to light later. Barkha Dutt recounts how a colonel showed her, behind the army’s administrative offices, through a peephole:

‘…a head, the disembodied face of a slain soldier nailed onto a tree. “The boys got it as a gift for the brigade,” said the colonel, softly, but proudly. Before I could react, the show was over. A faded gunny bag appeared from nowhere, shrouded the soldier’s face, the brown of the bag now merging indistinguishably with the green of the leaves. Minutes later, we walked past the same tree where the three soldiers who had earlier unveiled the victory trophy were standing.’ (“Confessions of a War Reporter”, first published in Himal Southasian, June 2001, excerpt reproduced in The Hoot)

She decided not to report this “at least not while the war was still on”. A Pakistani reporter may have made the same choice in that situation. But there is public outcry only when something becomes public knowledge.

We can’t afford to be ‘holier than thou’ here. Let’s condemn the barbarity and expose them when possible, no matter who commits it. But also, let’s not jump to conclusions about who did it, until we have the facts.

Consider the timing of the latest incident, just days after the Pakistan army’s paradigm shift acknowledging that internal threats are a greater danger than danger from India.

It started with “a relatively innocuous incident”, when a 70-year-old woman named Reshma, from Charonda village on the Indian side of the LoC, on Sept 11, 2012 crossed over to be with her family on the Pakistani side, reports Praveen Swami (‘Runaway grandmother sparked savage skirmish on LoC’, The Hindu, Jan 10, 2013).

Indian troops saw her departure as “highlighting vulnerabilities” in their defences and began constructing observation bunkers around Charonda. Pakistani troops protested the construction as a violation of the terms of the LoC ceasefire of 2003. Indian commanders conceded that the construction was in violation of the ceasefire but refused to stop work, reports Swami.

Tensions began to escalate. Pakistan “made announcements over a public address system, demanding that Indian troops end the construction work”, then began shelling Indian positions. The firing killed three villagers. Occasional shots continued to be fired in the weeks leading up to the New Year. On Jan 6, Indian troops responded aggressively.

Pakistan says its post was raided by Indian troops. India denies this. The fact is that the firing killed a Pakistani soldier and led to a raid from the Pakistan side, killing two Indian soldiers.

20130108-indian-soldiers-killedThe attacking party was reportedly dressed in black dungarees like those worn by Pakistan’s Special Service Group (SSG). This does not prove that SSG’s involvement. Taliban have attacked military posts in Pakistan wearing Pakistani military uniforms.

The attackers could also be ‘irregulars from the LeT’ says a report in DNA — LeT chief Hafeez Saeed has been raising ‘Border Action Guards’ to attack Indian troops on the LoC (‘Uri commander’s forceful retaliation led to beheadings?’, DNA Exclusive, Jan 10, 2013).

The Pakistan army no longer controls these non-state actors, once its ‘strategic assets’, who have been targeting Pakistani civilians and soldiers, causing over 40,000 casualties over the past decade.

Amidst the cacophony of sensationalist warmongering, it is reassuring to hear sane voices.

“It brings them (Pakistan) no gain whatsoever,” the Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid told Barkha Dutt on NDTV. “It’s a clear attempt to derail the dialogue. I think it is important in the long term that what has happened should not be escalated.”

On Jan 15, parts of the new visa regime are expected to go into effect as planned, allowing senior citizens to cross over the Wagah-Attari border without visas. Indian and Pakistani citizens have issued joint statements urging governments to not allow the peace process to be derailed. Thoughtful and civil, even if heated, discussions are taking place on facebook and twitter.

That remains the bottom line. Those who want good relations need to be like the deaf frog, who reached the top of the pole while the others fell off — he kept his focus on the goal, unable to hear the cacophony of nay-sayers shouting that what he was attempting was impossible.


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