India’s government faced mounting pressure on Wednesday to put proposed peace talks with Pakistan back in deep freeze after a deadly cross-border attack on its troops in disputed Kashmir.
The opposition accused the government of letting Pakistan off the hook over the killing of five soldiers in Kashmir, as the attack overnight on Monday triggered an uproar in the parliament.
Defence Minister AK Antony told parliament on Tuesday that “20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistani Army uniforms” had staged the ambush.
India’s army had initially blamed the attack on regular Pakistan troops but later withdrew the statement.
“Our defence minister has given a clean chit to Pakistan,” Sushma Swaraj, Lower House leader of the opposition from Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told parliament.
The defence minister “has let the country down. He must apologise to the nation”, she said as the uproar forced parliament’s adjournment.
Analysts said the killings had jeopardised efforts to arrange a meeting between India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his new Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in New York in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Senior BJP leader LK Advani told lawmakers “this is no time for talks” between the nuclear-armed rivals as news channels ran footage of the arrival of the soldiers’ flag-draped coffins in New Delhi.
With elections due by May 2014, analysts said the government cannot afford to look soft on Pakistan – with which India has fought three wars, two over the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.
The Congress-led government has been keen to engage with Pakistan, with Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid saying, “We don’t want to create a situation that is detrimental and destructive for India’s security and peace”.
But Khurshid added it was “too early” to say now whether the meeting between Singh and Sharif would take place.
He insisted Islamabad must take responsibility for the attack, one of the deadliest against Indian soldiers since a 2003 truce pact.
“Pakistan is accountable whatever happens, the distinction between state and non-state actors is not a distinction that we accept,” he told India’s NDTV network.
New Delhi has long accused Pakistan of failing to crack down on militant groups on its territory that stage attacks on Indian targets.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan by a Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border, but is claimed in full by both countries.
Rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989, demanding independence for Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan.
Pakistan has denied involvement in the attack and Indian and Pakistani commanders spoke by hotline and discussed the incident on Wednesday.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said Islamabad wanted a strengthening of existing channels to stop “such ill-founded reports” in the future.
Indian Army spokesman Rajesh Kalia said the two sides exchanged fire late on Tuesday but only “small arms” were used.
Singh called an all-party meeting for Wednesday night to seek the opposition’s support for the meeting with Sharif, who made rapprochement a key theme of his election campaign.
Former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh said “a high-level dialogue between two prime ministers right now is unlikely to yield any breakthrough”.
Mansingh said India’s establishment remained “conflicted” over its Pakistan strategy.
“We have leaders at the highest level who are very anxious to embrace Sharif’s government but our security establishment remains justifiably suspicious because of the facts on the ground,” he said.
Analyst Brahma Chellaney said the attack had “deepened India’s security dilemma”.
“India would like to see a stronger civilian government in Pakistan but Sharif’s government has taken no steps to assert control of crucial areas of foreign policy,” he said.
“At the moment, India’s policy seems to be built on hope, not grounded in hard realities.”
A flare-up along the LoC in January, in which two Indian soldiers were killed, brought stop-start peace talks to a halt.
The low-level talks had only just resumed following a three-year hiatus sparked by the 2008 Mumbai attacks that claimed 166 lives.
Although there had been a lull in violence, this year has seen a resurgence of militant attacks on Indian security forces. India’s army has also carried out a number of operations in Kashmir in recent months.
Antony told parliament soldiers had killed “19 hardcore terrorists” since the beginning of July.