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How V P Singh avoided a fourth war with Pakistan

Against the background of a weak National Front government and terrorism in Kashmir, coupled with then prime minister Benazir Bhutto's rhetoric of a 1,000-year-war, a major threat of a Pakistan attack on India was averted in 1989.

Thus, from then prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, speaking to Prakash Asbe of the Maharashtra Times.

What was instrumental in checkmating the threat, Singh explained to Asbe, was that an agreement with the Chinese government about non-interference in each other's territory meant that India could withdraw a bulk of its troops from the Chinese border and deploy them in the western border, adjoining Pakistan.

Pakistan, Singh felt, had assumed at the time that the weak NF government would not be in a strong position to counterattack. Thus, Pakistan politicians had in fact assured militant outfits in Kashmir that a full-scale war against India was imminent.

Military exercises had commenced in Pakistan almost immediately after his NF government took office, Singh said, adding that while the usual practise was for troops to return to base after exercises, the first sign of trouble came from the fact that on this occasion, Pakistan retained its troops alongside the border instead of returning them to their barracks.

Thereafter, Pakistan engineers began digging trenches along the border, while a massive stockpiling of arms and ammunitions in the area began simultaneously. This was as good a clue as any you would want, Singh told the reporter, because armaments tend to lose their effectiveness when kept in humid conditions for too long, and therefore such stockpiling in the open is almost inevitably a harbinger of war. The installation of radar equipment along the border was another indication, the former PM said.

The NF government took prompt counter measures, Singh told the reporter, adding, "Friendship is fine, but when the nation is threatened there can be no compromise, we have to take appropriate steps to face such things."

At the time, parliaments of both nations witnessed an escalation of rhetoric. Bhutto thundered in the national assembly that Pakistan would wage a 1,000-year war to "liberate" Kashmir. Singh, for his part, announced in Parliament that Pakistan did not have the resources to sustain even a 1,000-hour war and that India was prepared to counter any threat, ready to face any provocation from across the border.

Putting the situation in context, Singh said that around this period, the vice-chief of China's army had visited India and, while here, signed a treaty whereby both sides agreed to keep the troop strength along the border to the barest minimum. The treaty, Singh added, was ratified later, during P V Narasimha Rao's tenure, when that premier visited Beijing.

The Indian government was thus in a position to pull a bulk of its troops from the northern border and deploy them along the border adjoining Pakistan. Besides, the Indian Peace Keeping Force, newly returned from its mission in Sri Lanka, was also deployed in the western sector, Singh said.

Once the troops were deployed, Singh said, the NF government conveyed a warning to the Pakistan government that its armoured troops had to be pulled back from the order, warning that failure to do so could result in a major conflict.

At the same time, the Indian government was hosting an American delegation of diplomats who were trying, Singh said, to get India to softpedal, and avoid the risk of a possible nuclear conflagration. We asked them, Singh told Asbe in course of the interview, "If somebody keeps on throwing stones at us, do you expect us to collect the stones and keep on counting them? We told them that we will not hesitate to throw the same stones back at them one day, we made the message loud and clear," Singh said, adding that subsequently, the American establishment had pressured Pakistan to prevent a war.

Without going into details, Singh revealed that during those days, the government was involved in hectic discussions with counterparts in China, America and Pakistan.

Were these discussions official? "There are many channels to prime ministers," was Mr Singh's non-committal response.

Compiled by Prasanna D Zore from the Marathi media

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