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Fifth column

November 20, 2016

LoC: politics of the macabre


November 20, 2016

The latest deaths of seven Pakistani soldiers on the Line of Control (LoC) in the Bhimber sector in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) is a grim indication of the slowly but definitely widening theatre of war. Gauging the gravity of the situation, the government of Pakistan has directed the provincial AJK government to prepare a contingency plan for the evacuation of civilians near the LoC, evoking memories of the early 90s when cross-border firing, shelling and the attendant bereavement had become a diurnal feature.

Irrespective of the merits of the official narratives emanating from either side, the current situation once again proves the futility and fragility of the India-Pakistan engagement in the absence of any meaningful progress on the unresolved and simmering issue of Jammu and Kashmir.

The current war-like situation on the LoC has a direct relation with the ongoing mass uprising in Jammu and Kashmir where more than a million Indian army and paramilitary soldiers are clamping down, though unsuccessfully, a mass public rebellion for the past five months running. So far, the Indian army and paramilitary forces have killed more than 100 civilians in the most brutal fashion ever imagined – using hunting shotguns or medieval beatings and stoning.

In addition to blinding over 1,000 civilians by directly aiming guns at people’s faces, more than 15,000 Kashmiris have been injured and an equal number arrested for participating in peaceful rallies demanding freedom from the oppressive Indian occupation. Thousands of houses and other private properties have been destroyed in deliberate attacks to bring the agitating populace to submission in what is locally called ‘Operation Tor-Phor’ (operation destruction).                

The ferocity of death and destruction inside Kashmir matches the intensity of the rage in the villages and army installations that straddle the LoC. In the last four months, nearly 80 bodies of soldiers and civilians on the two sides of the divide have piled up while hundreds have been injured and thousands of village folk have relocated to safer places. The civilian authorities in AJK are claiming that the current “Indian aggression” is larger compared to previous such attempts, indicating a much larger relocation under a plan announced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif this week. It is very hard to verify the claims and counter-claims of the two warring armies because of the nature of the terrain and in the absence of any impartial scrutiny, as India continues to obstruct the UN military observers whose mandate to ensure a ceasefire and report and verify any anomalies remains partially unfulfilled. 

In Kashmir, it is widely believed that the Indian escalation along the LoC is a deliberate and calculated act to seek at least four objectives: first, divert international attention from the massive humanitarian disaster and mounting human rights violation, something that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also alluded to few days back. Second, blackmail the international community to seek concessions from Pakistan in the form of not raising the profile of the Kashmir issue at any level – national or international. Third embroil Pakistan so much in responsive fire-fighting that it fails to formulate any meaningful and coherent strategic policy response. And finally, frustrate the ongoing efforts of the Pakistani state against the regionally sponsored terror groups of various motives and persuasions – ethnic, linguistic, religious or sectarian.

The enactment of the Uri terror attack, the claims of a ‘surgical strike’ followed by the chest-thumping threats of war worked well in Indian favour for it successfully diverted attention from the mass uprising in Kashmir  as          the world became more concerned about the possibilities of an enlarged confrontation between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The continued failure of the Indian military might against a resolute pro-freedom Kashmiri populace has left India little room for imaginative politics beyond violence – both against the Kashmiris and across the arbitrary wall that divides Jammu and Kashmir. As the Kashmiri uprising continues unabated, India’s response has oscillated between brutalisation of Kashmiris inside the occupied territory and across the border through firing and shelling, and blaming Pakistan for financing the uprising as well as allegations of cross-border incursions through violent non-state actors.

In late October, the Indian army, per Indian media reports, introduced heavy artillery to raise the stakes of the cross-border engagement. In one single incident last month, during a massive assault in the Keran sector of northern Kashmir’s Kupwara district, the army used heavy artillery not only to destroy Pakistani army posts but also to attack several villages causing several fatalities and large-scale damage to homes and other civilian infrastructure. After more than 13 years, since the 2003 ceasefire agreement, this was the first such case of artillery fire employed against the army and civilians alike, effectively burying the last vestiges of a peace process that always looked frail and fragile. Since then, the roars of heavy artillery have been the new normal as India pushes the limits of military engagement. Last week, while briefing the P5 envoys in Islamabad, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry showed concern towards a growing danger that the “aggression may lead to strategic miscalculation” as heavy artillery is becoming a permanent feature in the ongoing battle.

This adventurous escalation may be a part of a deliberate plan of India’s Hindu extremist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rose to power not only by demonising Muslims and Pakistan but also overseeing an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 that caused the death of more than 2000 Muslims and forced the evacuation of more than a quarter of a million of them. The rise of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be clearly attributed to its continuous anti-Pakistan and Islamophobic rhetoric and actions, provoking hundreds of anti-Muslim riots that claimed lives of thousands of Muslims throughout India.

Over the last 20 years, the BJP’s rise is directly linked to its murderous actions against Muslims and its unabated hatred of Pakistan. The Indian side, under Modi, has shown a penchant for glamourising and dramatising deaths akin to the melodramatic but often incoherent plots of Bollywood cinema. The triumphalism and     chest-thumping of Indian politicians and civilians on the alleged ‘surgical strikes’ across the LoC in late September, claiming to have killed several ‘terrorists’ deep inside Pakistani territory, assumed a fabled status even in India – to the extent that any outlandish action is now likened to a ‘surgical strike’. The current crisis seems an organic extension of this escalation.     

But there may be a more self-serving – yet very dangerous – reason for this acceleration of hostility from India. The recent demonetisation move by the Modi government, in which it suddenly nullified currency notes of INR 500 and 1000, has caused a massive outpouring of grief and anger amid dozens of suicides or grief-fuelled sudden deaths across the country. Escalation against a traditional rival Pakistan would divest public fury and dampen the mounting public perception that Narendra Modi is not only inept but also out of step with public sentiment.    

The elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the most populous Indian state, are less than a year away. Narendra Modi’s gambit of escalating tensions with Pakistan while simultaneously continuing with unabated murder and mayhem in Kashmir and targeting Muslims in India is a short-cut recipe to attract votes once again from a population that seems to be in thrall to an assortment of hate-filled assassins and murderers. Addressing a public rally in August, one of the famous Dalit leaders and former chief minister of UP, Mayawati, raised public alarm about possible Hindu-Muslim riots engineered by the BJP purely for electoral benefits. She also made a much more dangerous prognostication: “Ahead of [the] Uttar Pradesh polls, a desperate BJP may in order to divert attention from its government’s failures trigger a war with Pakistan”.

The writer is a journalist, author, and communications and security specialist. He lives betweenLondon, Lahore and Srinagar,Kashmir, where he is currently stuck.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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