With the rain coming down in steamy sheets, the aptly named ‘Monsoon Session’ of parliament convened for its fourth day this morning in the Indian capital New Delhi. And in the eye of the darkening storm was Defense Minister AK Antony, defending his response to the shooting on August 6 of five Indian soldiers near the border with Pakistan.
Indian media and politicians have been in an uproar over the government’s response to the killings, the latest in a series of deadly skirmishes at the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the Kashmir region between Pakistani and Indian controlled halves. Though both countries agreed to a ceasefire in 2003, there have been regular outbreaks of shooting at the LoC over the past decade. In January, several clashes at the border brought neighborly relations to an unusually edgy low, and diplomats on both sides have been trying to undo the damage ever since. Their efforts may well go to waste.
On Tuesday, the Indian military announced that its troops were killed by the Pakistan military on the Indian side of the LoC, but shortly after Antony seemed to let Islamabad off the hook by suggesting that the ambush was carried out by well armed militants wearing Pakistani uniforms.
The fallout over the differing version of events has been fast and furious. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s main opposition party, cited the contradictory accounts as another example of the Congress-led government’s toothless foreign policy. Antony tried to defend his statement, explaining it was made using the intelligence he had at the time. But rather than accept that the Defense Minister was reluctant to lob accusations at a nuclear-armed neighbor, the media and opposition have framed his choice of words as an attempt to withhold the facts.
And so this morning Antony made an about-face. “It is now clear that specialist troops of Pakistan Army were involved in the attack when a group from the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir side crossed the LoC and killed our brave jawans [privates],” he said in a new statement before parliament. “Naturally this incident will have consequences on our behavior on the Line of Control and our relations with Pakistan.”
It is certain that Pakistan will be affronted by Antony’s new position. Islamabad quickly denied any involvement in the attack and reaffirmed its commitment to the ceasefire, even though fighting on the troubled border has continued in the wake of Tuesday’s killings. On Wednesday, both sides accused the other of unprovoked attacks, while protests erupted across India. After demonstrators clashed with police outside Pakistan’s High Commission in New Delhi, Islamabad asked the Indian government to step up security for its diplomatic staff.
The extremists bent on staging these acts of violence — whether they are state or non-state actors or a combination of both — seem to be prevailing once again, sabotaging the fragile conversation that has been building between the long-time rivals. Earlier in the week, both sides were working the back channels to keep things from spiraling, with Pakistani and Indian military officials reportedly in contact via a “hotline” to prevent the incident from escalating further. What happens next, however, is unclear. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs said the government had “been in touch with Pakistan until recently through diplomatic channels to work dates out for possible secretary level talks. However, since the recent incident there have not been any discussions on the subject.” Opposition leaders have demanded a proposed meeting next month between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Nawaz Sharif be called off. If things keep moving in the current direction, they may very well get their way.