WITH luck the latest fracas between India and Pakistan, over the death of soldiers along the line of control (known as the LOC) in disputed Kashmir, may still be remembered as another example of how the two countries are learning to manage the long-running tension between them. Yet the news, on January 10th, that a fourth soldier had been killed in a third incident of cross-border fighting in just five days, is a worrying new development.In general, India and Pakistan have been going through a spell of relative calm and friendly relations. Kashmir itself has been remarkably peaceful and quiet in the past two years, perhaps in part because Pakistan is making little or no effort to stir up trouble there. Pakistan’s poor relationship with America and its troubled economy have given it an incentive to seek friendlier ties with India.
Pakistan’s civilian leaders, who look slightly less bullied by the military types than before, see reason to reach out to India, for example trying to promote more trade over the border. India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh, in turn, has yearned for a breakthrough with Pakistan. Building on two visits by Pakistani leaders to India in the past couple of years, he has toyed with the idea of going the other way, at least if something substantive could be agreed upon.
In that context conspiracy theorists might say that the current border clash has been ordered by someone powerful who hopes to discourage all this. Yet it is more likely that this is an accidental confrontation that got out of hand. Firing across the LOC is pretty routine. The Indian army says there were 75 ceasefire violations last year alone. Soldiers from each side take pot shots at each other; the Indians accuse Pakistani soldiers of firing in order to give cover to Kashmiri militants who slip into Indian-run territory. And the occasional deaths of soldiers are, sadly, common enough too. In 2012, for example, eight Indians (but no Pakistani ones) were killed on the LOC.
Two things make the current situation potentially more worrying. Most obviously, the number of deaths is beginning to rise. On January 6th India was accused of an incursion into Pakistani-controlled territory, where a gunfight reportedly left one Pakistani soldier dead. Then—although none of the details have been confirmed—in what might have been retaliation, a Pakistani unit crossed into forest on the Indian side on January 8th, was confronted by Indian soldiers, two of whom were killed. Now, on January 10th, Pakistan’s army reports that Indian soldiers shot and killed a Pakistani soldier during “unprovoked firing”. Three fatal incidents in five days is beginning to look like a troubling trend.
The other reason for particular tension is that at least two of the killings look unusual. The two Indian soldiers who died, on January 8th, were also reportedly mutilated--one may have been beheaded. Such details have naturally proved the most upsetting. India’s press have drawn comparisons to the 2000 beheading of an Indian soldier, supposedly by Ilyias Kashmiri, who became an al-Qaeda leader. According to some versions of that attack, the head of the unfortunate Indian was taken to Islamabad and paraded before the then president, Pervez Musharraf.
Whether or not the details of the mutilation turn out to be entirely true, certain quarters in India are now furious—while Pakistanis, too, will now begin to get angry. On the Indian side leading political figures, including the chief minister of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, and India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, have called for moderation and calm. Mr Abdullah has tweeted that he suspects someone is trying to stir problems between the two countries. But, predictably, hot-headed types have an excuse to vent their frustration. On January 10th a particularly idiotic individual from the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist political party and an ally of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, reportedly even called for India to “nuke” Pakistan in revenge for the border incident.
Another detail is certainly worth assessing. According to a report in the Hindu newspaper, the origin of the whole incident may in fact be a 70-year-old granny who skipped over the LOC, in the same area, in September. She apparently left the Indian side in order to join her sons, who had earlier fled to the Pakistani side to avoid being arrested for smuggling. India’s soldiers were so dismayed to see how even a little old lady could cross the border that they began construction work in the area to fortify the LOC. In turn the Pakistanis objected that such building work violated an agreement between the two countries, and thus tension grew.
Here's hoping that granny’s daring escapade does not lead to a wider confrontation between two nuclear-armed powers. It still looks most likely that calm will return. Despite some talk of this being evidence of the worst Pakistani incursion since the Kargil invasion of 1999, far better comparisons are to other small incidents in the past few years that quickly blew over. For example in October 2011 an Indian military helicopter strayed into Pakistani airspacein Kashmir and was forced to land. The peaceful resolution of that incident was evidence of broadly strengthening bilateral ties. The odds should now be for a return to tense normality, but any more killings over the LOC will darken the mood profoundly. By Banyan