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Sunday, November 7, 1999
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Anatomy of a coup
By Manohar Malgonkar

AS the details of Pakistan’s latest military coup began to emerge, they brought home the truth of Byron’s assertion that truth was stranger than fiction.

But then what was the truth? The men behind the coup were masters of the art of deceit. How could be believe that what they were telling us was the truth? The one thing we can be sure of is that the full story of what really happened is never likely to be revealed. We have to base our findings on such evidence that is there, rejecting obvious falsehoods and red herrings.

Ever since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has been obsessed by a single fixation: Kashmir. Over the years Kashmir has come out as the single most important factor in Pakistan’s affairs.

The founder of Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah, himself began it. One of his first actions on becoming Pakistan’s first Governor General was to invite the ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Sir Hari Singh, to join Pakistan, on whatever terms he, Sir Hari Singh, chose to — the actual words of Jinnah’s offer were "a blank cheque".

At this time, Kashmir was at the mercy of Pakistan because both the roads giving access to it from Indian territory ran through Pakistan.

Hari Singh was not taken in by that "blank cheque". He kept Jinnah on hold, as it were, for a few days, and then announced that he was joining his state to the Indian Union.

Jinnah was infuriated, and reacted with virulence. He blocked off both the roads that went into Kashmir and thus, having isolated Kashmir, as it were, sent in his army to take it over, but made it out that it was a force of Pathan tribesmen.

At this time, Pakistan as a country was barely two months old...at war.

India, even if a little belatedly, reacted with energy and resolution. It had to fly in the first troops to save the valley which had already been penetrated. Then the Indian Army, pushed the Pakistani force beyond the positions it had already seized. That was when the UN intervened, and what has come to be called the Line of Control, (LoC) came into being.

That line has remained unaltered even though two more wars were fought between India and Pakistan, the second one in 1971, in which Pakistan, having lost its eastern wing, and with its entire eastern army of a hundred thousand made prisoners, accepted a ceasefire. A year or so later, in what came to be known as the Simla Pact, both countries solemnly agreed that all territorial disputes would be resolved only through discussions, and the LoC would be held inviolate.

Since then, there has been a regular trickle of Pakistani agents being sent into Kashmir to set up cells, blow up buses and bridges, plant bombs in markets and generally to spread terror. By and large the LoC had not been breached by troops. Throughout those years, Kashmir has served successive Pakistani administrations as a reliable survival kit, to douse passions inflamed by rising prices, grinding poverty, drug wars. A passionate appeal, Kashmir, only Kashmir, has always helped to unite the feuding tribes of the Frontier, the Shias and the Sunnis, the Mullas and the professors, even Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

The crucial importance of Kashmir to the men who rule Pakistan was highlighted by an admission that Nawaz Sharif made to Inder Gujral who was then our Prime Minister, at a one-to-one, cards-on-the-table, meeting in some foreign country. This was revealed by Gujral in the course of an interview broadcast by AIR. It seems that, in the relaxed atmosphere that prevailed, both Prime Ministers were unusually outspoken. So when Gujral pointed out to Sharif that there were dozens of other issues of common interest to both India and Pakistan which they could address instead of locking horns over Kashmir, Sharif said something like this: "Inder-bhai, I know very well that Icannot take Kashmir from you, and Ialso know that you cannot give it to me. But still, it is something that has to be talked about — to be kept on the boil."

Whether or not Sharif used these precise words, they describe the stark reality. Anyhow, it was nearly two years ago. Since that time, Sharif’s military think-tank seems to have been able to persuade him that there indeed was a way to force India to embark on a major military operations so close to the LoC, that Pakistan would be quite justified in rushing to the UN and complain of Indian aggression. Here was the scenario:

Over the years, whenever winter came, it had become the custom of both the Indian and Pakistani forward units along the line of control, to abandon their summer positions along the higher ridges because of their sub-zero temperatures and inaccessibility, and take up winter positions in the lower plains. As soon as summer came, towards the end of June, both armies went back to their bunkers above the snowline.

Why not, the dirty-tricks experts of Pakistan’s army suggested, send some handpicked commando troops to occupy Indian bunkers on the Indian side of the LoC, at the tail-end of winter? When the babus come back to re-occupy their bunkers, they’ll set up a howl. Their army will just have to attack those bunkers — on their own side, but still, close enough to our borders for us to cry ‘foul’! Our boys can sit tight in those bunkers for months, while we get the UN and America into the act, saying, ‘look the Indians are shelling our positions’. They’ll just have to step in and tell India to stop.

That way we’ll ‘internationalise’ the Kashmir problem.

Internationalisation. That was the mantra, the buzzword, the sales pitch. It worked. If, Sharif asked his military planners the obvious question: "But surely, won’t we have violated the LoC if we send our commandos beyond the line to occupy their bunkers?" The planners had the right answers.

"But who’s to know? Prime Minister! They’ll not be wearing uniforms or badges of rank, we’ll make them grow beards and look raggedy — like any old freelance separatists."

Except that this lot were fitted out with the latest regular-army weapons, grenades, cell-phones and, most incongruously, wore snow-boots especially made in England for wearing in sub-zero conditions and which the Pakistani army had bought in such large quantities that when, belatedly, we tried to buy some, the manufacturers just did not have any.

Ironically, they were given the go-ahead at just about the time when what was called the Lahore-bus peace initiative was in full swing.

The scheme worked beautifully — up to a point. Our bunkers along the Kargil ridge were occupied in strength, and it will be recalled that, literally every spokesman, from Pakistan, interviewed by the BBC or CNN had the stock answer: "Oh, we don’t know anything about them — they’re your usual Kashmir militants."

As expected — as planned — India reacted with virulence and began to pound the bunkers with artillery shells and from the air and that was the cue for the Pakistani Government to look outraged and rush to the super powers to get them to intervene. "Stop those aggressors!"

What happened is history. No one believed Nawaz Sharif. "But we know they’re your men — you sent them. It’s you who’re the aggressors! The Indians have every right to throw back these troops who have invaded their territory." They even knew about those special boots bought in London.

There was little that Nawaz Sharif could do but to agree to pull back his infiltrators or risk the consequences. He ordered the withdrawal. The whole exercise had misfired, indeed boomeranged. He blamed his military advisors who, in turn ganged up on him. There were dismissals and recriminations. Exiled and frustrated political leaders jumped into the fray and bared their teeth. The army, the mullahs and anyone who had reason to feel let down made thundering denunciations of Nawaz Sharif’s leadership. The Americans were watching the situation so closely that they actually predicted the military coup three weeks before it took place.

And, for the first time in the history of such convulsions, we actually saw it happen, on that evening on October 12, 1999. The BBC announcer was in a position to give a running commentary on it, as it were. For the fourth time in its brief history, Pakistan was once again under a military dictator. Back

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