Govt faces Opp. flak for ‘soft line’ on Pak

BJP MPs at the Lok Sabha in New Delhi on Wednesday.

BJP MPs at the Lok Sabha in New Delhi on Wednesday.

The Manmohan Singh government came under heavy attack from a furious Opposition in Parliament on Wednesday over the divergence between the initial Army statement on Tuesday — that directly blamed the Pakistan Army for the ambush and killing of five Indian soldiers in Poonch — and defence minister A.K. Antony’s statement in Parliament later that day in which he said some of the attackers were “dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms”. Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj attacked the defence minister for giving a “clean chit” to the Pakistan Army, and demanded that he apologise to the entire country. A breach of privilege notice against Mr Antony was also moved in the Lok Sabha — for “misleading the House” — by senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha. Both Houses faced adjournments over the issue. Speculation was rife that Mr Antony’s statement was drafted by senior officials of the defence ministry, possibly in consultation with the external affairs ministry and the national security adviser.
Speculation was also rife that Mr Antony’s statement was made after much thought at top levels of the government, including the MEA and NSA, as a direct accusation against the Pakistan Army would have made continuation of the peace dialogue with that country and any forthcoming meeting between the Indian and Pakistani PMs untenable. The Cabinet Committee on Security is expected to meet Thursday to discuss the fallout arising from the Poonch incident.
Accusing the defence minister of making a “false” statement on the Poonch killings, senior BJP leader L.K. Advani too said he should apologise as his remarks are intended to “exonerate” Pakistan as the government wanted to continue talks.
It is also being speculated that the Army may have been told by the government initially not to issue any press statement before the defence minister spoke in Parliament. The original Army statement was issued after clearance by the Northern Command based in Udhampur before Mr Antony spoke in Parliament.
Mr Antony, meanwhile,tried to defend himself in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, saying: “As a defence minister, I have to be careful about what I say. I have to investigate all the facts in detail. The Army Chief is in Jammu. He will brief me and I will pass on the details to you.” He added: “We made the statement on the basis of whatever information was available to us, We will share more information as and when we get it, and I will brief Parliament on it.” The minister said that “regarding the defence and protection of the country’s integrity, the nation is one, Parliament is one... There is no compromise on this.” The minister is also learnt to have spoken to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the matter.
Army Chief Gen. Bikram Singh visited the 16 Corps HQ at Nagrota in Kashmir to take stock of the situation, but could not reach Poonch due to bad weather. Gen. Singh landed at Akhnoor, where he met commanders in the forward areas.
The Lok Sabha witnessed turmoil on Wednesday and two adjournments over Mr Antony’s remarks on Tuesday’s killings. Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj demanded that the PM, who was present in the House, stand up and say it was the Pakistan Army that was responsible for Tuesday’s incident that left five Indian Army jawans dead. Speaker Meira Kumar told the House that the issue of a breach of privilege notice against Mr Antony, moved by the BJP’s Yashwant Sinha, was under her consideration.
The Rajya Sabha too witnessed uproar and three adjournments in the pre-lunch session. The BJP accused Mr Antony of “giving an escape route to Pakistan” with his statement. Later, dissatisfied with Mr Antony’s statement, BJP members were on their feet and trooped into the well, raising slogans against Pakistan and demanding an apology from the minister.
“The defence minister has to clarify and tender an apology to the country. The government has let down the morale of the country and demoralised the armed forces. The minister should offer an apology,” said BJP leader M. Venkaiah Naidu. Accusing the government of “putting pressure on the Army”, he said: “Why is he doing this? He should tender an apology... What compelled the government to supersede an earlier statement... The government wants to be silent. Why is Antony, a person of sincerity, honesty and integrity, doing this?” Mr Naidu even questioned why there was a change in statement by the defence minister. “Is it something to do with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s proposed visit to the United Nations and (move to) hold talks with Pakistan there?” he asked.
Late Wednesday night, the Prime Minister’s Office rubbished as “mischievous” the claim that a statement on the Poonch killings was changed at its behest. “Such allegations being made are mischievous and have no basis,” a PMO spokesman said.
The BJP’s Yashwant Sinha said: “It was a most laughable statement that the defence minister made. I have already sent my notice of breach of privilege to the Speaker.” He added: “The Army is on the ground, the Army knows better than the Prime Minister and defence minister. And the Army has been forced to change its statement, it’s a very serious issue. The defence minister and the government are speaking in a language which is more acceptable to Pakistan than to us.”
As the threat of a setback to the ongoing process of normalising relations with Pakistan loomed large, there were indications on Wednesday that the soldiers’ killings would be “factored in” by the government while deciding engagements with Pakistan. Among the immediate ones are a decision on resumption of the composite dialogue between the two countries. Islamabad has suggested August and September dates for talks on Wullar Barrage and Sir Creek respectively. New Delhi is yet to decide on the dates convenient for it.
In late September, a meeting between Dr Manmohan Singh and Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif is on the anvil on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. The soldiers’ killings could impact the peace process even as Pakistan awaits a response on the schedule it has proposed.

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