by Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra
While the New Year celebrations are still on high gear, Kashmir mourns the death of soldiers on both sides of the border. India and Pakistan have traded charges against each other, and from the maze of these allegations and counter allegations the truth emerges that relations in the first month of 2013 have soured. Though the death of three soldiers, one from Pakistan and two from India, during cross border firings does not indicate a decisive reversal of the peace process, it certainly adds suspicion as to whether both the countries will go along this year in fostering peace or will indulge in endless saber rattling.
Pakistan alleges that the Indian army killed one of its soldiers on 6 January 2013 in a cross border firing incident. India alleges that Pakistani soldiers crossed the line of the control (the official term for the border in Kashmir) and killed two Indian soldiers on 8 January 2013. The tense relations afterwards spiraled up with both the countries summoning each other’s High Commissioner (Ambassador) to their foreign offices and issuing démarche. Pakistan closed one border crossing point at Poonch, operational since 2006 for travel and trade. Its foreign ministry called for the United Nations intervention for an investigation into the charges of both the countries. The Indian defense minister accused Pakistan of violation of bilateral agreements and the Indian air force chief threatened exploring ‘other options’ to address the issue.
For the first time the ceasefire at the line of control, declared by India and Pakistan in 2003, has been violated. Though there were violations earlier, none of them had received wide national and international attention and led to death of soldiers. The last decade remained largely peaceful, raising hopes for a resolution of the conflict through means of bilateral dialogue and deliberation. Leaders of both the countries termed the peace process historic and irreversible. Despite various set backs such as the attack on Indian Parliament in 2001, or on Mumbai 2008, the tense atmosphere did not jeopardize the peace process. The peace process had gathered momentum since 1999 when then Indian prime minister boarded a bus from New Delhi to Lahore. The later years witnessed cooperation between the two countries, and as a result the impregnable line of control was made flexible, people were allowed to meet, and intra-Kashmir trade commenced.
The question now arises: will the new year skirmishes soon be the past and both countries will positively reshape relations? Or will they further escalate, thus dampening the hopes accumulated over the past decade? At present, in the charged atmosphere, it is difficult to predict the course the relations will take. But the premonitions are not that good. First, as Pakistan is going to hold general elections this year, and India the next year, Kashmir which is a vote catcher may get renewed attention not as a crucible of peace but as an issue in national prestige to be fought over. Jingoism may trump over sobriety during these election years. Second, as the countries pass through raging problems – in Pakistan the menace of extremism and terrorism and economic stagnation and in India the cases of massive corruption and law and order problems accompanied by public anxiety and protests – Kashmir may become a diversion from crucial national issues.
Wise counsels will likely prevail on the leaders of both the countries despite extremists on both sides of the border vying for blood. One of the Indian leaders called the peace process a sham and argued for stern measures against the rival . Extremist groups in Pakistan, including the one behind the Mumbai attack, called for more violence as a means to resolve the conflict in Kashmir. The top leaders of both countries did not speak the language of violence, though the cloud of suspicion and frustration is visible in their press statements. India called an emergency meeting of Cabinet Committee on Security to deliberate the ongoing situation. Its defense minister, while accusing Pakistan for the stalemate, termed the recent developments ‘tragic’ and ‘provocative.’ (For details see here.) Pakistan’s foreign ministry protested against the ‘unacceptable and unprovoked’ attacks by the Indian army. (For details see here.)
India appears cagey at the suggestion of the Pakistani foreign ministry about the involvement of the United Nations for an investigation of the issue. Pakistan has evinced interest in an investigation led by the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan, a UN mandated body established in 1949 following the first Indo-Pak war. India opposes any third party mediation in Kashmir and refers to the Shimla Agreement, signed by the two countries in 1972 following the second war that mandates the two countries for a peaceful and bilateral settlement of the conflict. Pakistan’s insistence and India’s reluctance for UN mediation may further dampen the relations. While the pressure from the US and the United Nations may help defuse the tension, it requires firm resolve on part of the leaders of both the countries to work for peace and tide over the current turbulence.
Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a PhD student in the Global Governance and Human Security Program at UMass Boston. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy.