Leaders’ moment

Tuesday morning's cross-border raid across the Line of Control (LoC) in Poonch, allegedly by Pakistan army regulars, adds to the sense of a rapid escalation of tensions that had been building up in recent weeks. India has accused Pakistan army regulars — not militants or non-regular forces — of killing two of its soldiers, injuring two others and mutilating one of the bodies. In the accusations and counter-accusations that followed, India has lodged a strongly worded protest with Pakistan, calling the action "highly provocative", and asking Islamabad to investigate. While denying that its soldiers were involved, Pakistan has called the matter "propaganda" to divert attention from "Sunday's raid on a Pakistani post by Indian troops" that led to the death of a Pakistani soldier — an allegation denied by India.

It would be a pity if the ceasefire along the LoC were to be threatened in its 10th year. In place since the end of 2003, it has largely held, despite a spurt in local violations in recent years. For anyone familiar with the continuous military tension in the 1990s and the two decades of militancy in Kashmir, the gains of the ceasefire have been too obvious to be denied. Apart from being an important part of the mutual confidence building measures, the ceasefire has allowed bilateral relations to shift focus from Kashmir and build on trade and economic ties. While India has pointed to the problem of cross-border terrorism, the relative military tranquillity on the LoC has provided a new basis for bilateral engagement, and reduced the scope for the rest of the world to meddle in India-Pakistan relations.

As the rhetoric sharpens, the moment would appear to be ripe for a high-level political intervention. It is time for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to talk to each other, take the situation in hand — not merely to calm passions, but, more crucially, to revive a process that has evidently slackened in the past year or so. At this delicate stage, if India-Pakistan relations are left to the security forces and foreign offices on both sides, they could fall back into old habits of inertia or worse, mutual recrimination. With Afghanistan entering a decisive phase, an effort is again afoot in the West to link an Afghan settlement to the India-Pakistan dynamic. Delhi cannot afford to drift along, or point to the uncertainty caused by the impending elections in Pakistan. A precious period of peace has already been wasted.

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