Before 2003 the Indian Army would constantly engage in, what they euphemistically call “prophylactic firing.” Every post on the Line of Control (LoC) on both sides would be given a quota of ammunition to be fired on the “enemy.” The firing, I was told, was not meant to “produce any results,” but ensure that the other side knew that we were alert. So “prophylactic” became an integral part of the lexicon of the LoC, as both sides kept updating a 65-year-old war.
All that changed in 2003 when an embattled President Pervez Musharraf unilaterally announced a “ceasefire” on the LoC. By then New Delhi had endured betrayal in Kargil in 1999 and an attack on the Parliament in December 2001 and finally mobilised its troops that would spark off a nine-month long stand-off between two nuclear cousins. But somewhere in the madness of Operation Parakram and sabre rattling, it emerged that there was more sense in keeping the guns silent than to go about raiding each other’s posts in search for heads.
Truth be told, beheading was never an Indian trait. India has always been defensive in its posture on the LoC, only responding when challenged. Of course Islamabad will immediately protest and point out that New Delhi was hardly defensive in 1971 when Indian tanks crossed the Padma River and dashed towards Dhaka. But the fact is that after months of a Pakistani-army sponsored genocide New Delhi was pushed into a corner. Once the Pakistani Sabre jets crossed into Indian air space, New Delhi had no option but to accept war.
Siachen was also a similar move when Pakistan began to issue leaflets to the international community inviting trekking expeditions into the glacier. India, alarmed at Pakistan illegally ceding territory to China in Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir, was once again forced to act with alacrity and send in a Kumaoni battalion to stake its claim on the glacier in 1984. A year later commandos from the elite 9 Para (Special Forces) would engage the Pakistanis just south of the Siachen glacier to repulse a Pakistani foray in an unguarded sector of the LoC.
Conflict is an inevitable legacy of the two nations that were violently separated at birth. For military commanders on both sides it is a challenge to keep their troops motivated while they endure regular attacks on the posts they command. On the night of January 6, after several Indian posts in the Churunda sub-sector of Uri came under heavy firing from Pakistan, the local commanders decided that it was time to retaliate. Brigadier Gulab Singh Rawat was always known as a no-nonsense and straight forward military commander who always took care of his troops. Posted as a Col (General Staff) in the 29th Division he would go out of his way to ensure that his troops received the best equipment in the shortest possible time to keep up operational proficiency. On the night of January 6, when Indian troops carried out a “controlled retaliation” they were ensuring that their Pakistani counterparts got a taste of the same medicine they had been dishing out for months.
But what happened two days later, when two Indian soldiers were brutally killed and one of them beheaded, was clearly unacceptable. Wars are not meant to be prim, proper and pretty. They are ugly and are always meant to be the last resort of state policy when all other options have failed. But even in war, there is an agreed code of ethics between soldiers. They are time-honoured simply because no one hates the war more than the soldier who fights it.
Wars are not fought by politicians, media editors or senior generals in Delhi. So, it is easier for the politicians to indulge in asking for ten heads in return for one, while editors sitting in TV news studios whip up a frenzy that will boost their TRP ratings. Even the generals sitting in South Block, New Delhi or General Headquarters in Rawalpindi are no better because a good war always means better career profiles. So press conferences are quickly held and all the right noises are made while an ill-equipped army, desperate for modernisation is left to fend for itself when the balloon goes up.
But the fact is that if New Delhi is serious about discouraging Islamabad, it must realise that deterrence doesn’t come from aggressive statements. It comes from better tanks, artillery guns, warships and combat aircraft that will be used if the territorial integrity of a nation is threatened. Even the elite Special Forces, which emerged as the most potent deterrent in a new kind of war where old doctrines no longer hold good, has been ignored for decades. Peace is a rare commodity that is earned after soldiers have died, winning and defending it on the battlefields. To lose it in a made-for-TV outrage is an insult to the memory of the very people who died to ensure that peace endures.
Saikat Datta is DNA’s chief of bureau in New Delhi