India’s media fuel outrage over soldier’s beheading, but story may be more complex


An Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldier keeps watch at an outpost along the India-Pakistan border in Abduliah on Jan. 9, 2013. (TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
January 10, 2013

The news that two Indian soldiers had been killed by their Pakistani counterparts along a disputed border in the Himalayan region of Kashmir sparked full-blown outrage in the national media here this week, after military officials said one of the bodies had been decapitated and the head taken to Pakistan.

Over menacing music, Indian television news anchors fanned the flames Tuesday, asking: What were India’s options for punishing Pakistan? Was there any point in continuing the peace process — or even playing cricket against the Pakistani team?

With details of the incident released just in time for the evening news, the story dominated prime-time talk shows as retired Indian generals lined up to take potshots at their old foe. The Indian government spoke of the “barbaric and inhuman mutilation” of the corpses and denounced the “ghastly” and “dastardly” act.

But the full story of the recent violence in the disputed region may be at once more complex and less one-sided.

For a start, both sides’ armies may have beheaded enemy corpses in tit-for-tat exchanges last year, according to a report in the newspaper the Hindu by respected journalist and editor Praveen Swami, who cited senior military and government officials as sources.

Tuesday’s attack by Pakistani troops also appears to have come in retaliation for an attack by Indian troops a few days earlier, in which one Pakistani soldier was killed, a senior Indian security official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

Indeed, the Hindu said, the tension along this stretch of the border began in September, when a Kashmiri grandmother sneaked across to join her sons, who were living on the Pakistani side.

Indian troops, concerned about the ease with which she seemed to have crossed, started building bunkers around her village to keep a closer eye on residents. Pakistan viewed such a move so close to the frontier as a violation of a cease-fire agreement and tried to halt it by shelling and firing on the area. In October, three villagers were killed by Pakistani shelling, and on Jan. 6, an Indian brigadier general ordered raids on the Pakistani positions, the Hindu report said.

In a statement Thursday, the Indian army said “certain aspects” of the report were incorrect, specifically denying that its troops had crossed the border, known as the Line of Control, on Jan. 6. The army said it had instead carried out “controlled retaliation” for Pakistani cease-fire violations. It also said that the grandmother crossed the border in September 2011 and denied any link between that and recent events.

Amid the outrage, some journalists on both sides of the border took to Twitter on Thursday to ask whether the Indian media had taken things too far.

The Twitter user @Smita_
Sharma wrote, “Jingoism Never Won a War, Nor Served Peace. #justsaying.” She also tweeted, “It’s worrisome & dangerous when Journos are expected to be Nationalists first. Questioning Deep State shouldn’t be branded as anti-national.”

Another Twitter user, @omar_quraishi, wrote, “India initiated the LoC violations, to which Pak may have responded — however one needs to read the commentary in both country’s media.” He also tweeted, “In one there is muted coverage, in the other there is rally to war — as if the next logical step is a full blown battle.”

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told the Associated Press on Thursday that she was “unpleasantly surprised” by India’s accusations, but she tried to allay fears of an escalation.

Pakistan’s government and its people “have demonstrated a deep and abiding commitment to normalize and improve relations with India and to really start a journey of trust-
building,” she said, according to AP.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States was urging India and Pakistan to “de-escalate” after the recent clashes and continue high-level consultations to work through their differences.

“Violence is not the answer for either country,” Nuland said in Washington on Wednesday, AP reported.

India’s frustration with Pakistan is understandable. There is no dispute in global diplomatic and intelligence circles that Pakistan has been sending militants across the border for many years to join an anti-India insurgency in Kashmir. India also says that cross-border infiltrations picked up again last year after a lull.

The wounds of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which gunmen from Pakistan killed 166 people during a three-day siege, also remain fresh.

India summoned the Pakistani ambassador Wednesday to lodge a “strong protest” about the border incident, but Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said at a news conference that it was important to prevent tensions from heightening.

On Thursday, however, a Pakistani army spokesman said Indian troops had killed another Pakistani soldier in “unprovoked” fire, Reuters news agency reported.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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