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Pak preoccupied, PM swims with the tide

- India takes eyes off long-term goals and focuses on reassuring domestic audience

New Delhi, Jan. 15: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today said there could not be “business as usual” till Pakistan atoned for the recent murder of Indian soldiers, in what appeared to be the beginning of the dismantling of a peace initiative that began three years ago.

A day after a combative army chief said his troops “will retaliate at a place and time of our own choosing” against the beheading and killing of two soldiers, India-Pakistan tensions were set to climb an escalatory ladder despite foreign minister Salman Khurshid hoping against it.

But New Delhi is also in a quandary on who to negotiate with in a leaderless Islamabad. Pakistan’s Supreme Court today ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf even as protesters in thousands, led by a cleric suspected to be backed by the army, demanded that the government quit.

Mohammad Badar Alam, the Karachi-based editor of The Herald magazine, said: “We are so preoccupied with our internal problems that we can’t even think about issues beyond our borders. Even when those issues are closely linked to the strategic and regional interests of our state, like relations with India and the situation in Afghanistan, we don’t seem to find time from our domestic troubles to attend to them.”

The first suggestion of the dismantling of confidence-building measures was at the border crossing in Wagah where a liberalised visa regime, which was to take off today, was put on hold.

The impact was also felt in the sporting arena. Nine Pakistani players hired to play for clubs in the Hockey India League were sent home. The International Cricket Council may also be compelled to shift the women’s World Cup, which includes a team from Pakistan, from Mumbai. In an extreme step, possibly out of India as well. (See Sport)

The weekly passenger bus service, which began between the two Kashmirs as a confidence-building measure, did not cross the Line of Control on Tuesday.

Elsewhere along the taut border, India’s northern army commander, Lt Gen. K.T. Parnaik, said Pakistani troops violated the ceasefire thrice since Monday and at one spot planted anti-personnel landmines between two Indian border posts.

The Prime Minister’s comments came at a reception in army chief General Bikram Singh’s house, a customary ritual on Army Day.

“After this barbaric act, there cannot be business as usual with Pakistan,” he said in his first public remarks on the mutilation and beheading of the soldiers seven days ago. “Those responsible for this crime will have to be brought to book. (I hope) Pakistan realises this.”

The turnout of the political leadership at the army chief’s residence was also a sign that it endorsed army chief Bikram Singh’s views.

Dispelling notions to the contrary, foreign minister Salman Khurshid said: “He is our General.”

The Centre also moved to create a political consensus on its shifting Pakistan policy. On the Prime Minister’s directions, national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon briefed BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley who have been advocating a hard line.

Khurshid said there was a “sense of urgency” after the LoC killings and added the government had “reflected very carefully and closely” on the matter.

“It should not be felt that the brazen denial and the lack of a proper response from the Government of Pakistan to our repeated demarches on this incident will be ignored and that bilateral relations could be unaffected or that there will be business as usual,” Khurshid said, reading from an official statement.

“Such actions by the Pakistan Army, which are in contravention of all norms of international conduct, not only constitute a grave provocation but lead us to draw appropriate conclusions about Pakistan’s seriousness in pursuing normalisation of relations with India.”

Asked what steps the government would take, Khurshid said such decisions would be based on the response from Pakistan and on consensus within the government.

“At present, we feel that it’s important that a convergent single point of view on behalf of the government which reflects a large section of our public opinion should be made clear and let it be known to everyone here as well as across the border that we are extremely determined and serious in this concern of ours and we have taken resort to all such instruments and all such methods that are available to us at this time,” the foreign minister said.

Although home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said the visa-on-arrival scheme for seniors did not take off today “for technical reasons”, foreign office sources said “it is also because of the current developments”.

One part of the agreement was to get operationalised today when elders and children could have been allowed “on foot” through the Attari-Wagah border in Punjab. “However, there were no applicants for today so no one had to be turned back,” said a home ministry official.

The army repeated that its officers and troops had been instructed to remain “offensive and aggressive” on the LoC. Bikram Singh, while reviewing the Army Day parade, said Indian troops must continue to operate in an ethical manner in war and peace.

Lt Gen. Parnaik, in whose area of responsibility the killings took place, said his troops were “exercising great restraint” but “Pakistan was being as adamant and arrogant as they are”.

For Parnaik, the killing of lance naiks Hem Raj and Sudhakar Singh on January 8 is also a matter of personal umbrage. The soldiers belonged to Rajputana Rifles, the regiment that Parnaik is the senior-most officer and Colonel Commandant — pater familias — of.

“We have definite plans to retaliate but not in haste and anger, and at the time and place of our own choice,” he said in Udhampur.

The chiefs of the army, navy and the air force had an “informal briefing session” with the Prime Minister yesterday.