It is a familiar pattern. An incident takes place, it gets reported. The other side reacts. There is a counter-reaction. Allegations are made. Counter-allegations are flung. TV news studios get busy with retired diplomats and generals on either side getting their 15 seconds of fame. So what's new?
As someone who was involved from day one in not only reporting the incident but also monitoring the subsequent developments, it is important for me to recall the facts, the chain of events and the reaction of all stake-holders (a term I recently came across at a South Asia 2020 Conference) during the entire episode lest fiction as conceived by different players gets accepted as the absolute truth.
To begin at the beginning.
Sunday January 6, 9.39 am:
My colleague Zaffar Iqbal sends an email to me and the NDTV Newsdesk which reads: "Ceasefire violation in Uri sector of Kashmir. Pakistan army resorted to unprovoked firing on Indian posts near village Churunda close to LoC. Pakistan fired mortar shells and illumination shots. Many shells landed close to the village. Panic has gripped the villagers who fear casualties and damage to property. Firing started at 3.30 am and possibly to help infiltration. Alert troops retaliated and forced Pakistani troops to stop firing."
The newsdesk asks me for more details which are difficult to come by in the initial hours. But Army's Public Information setup in Delhi confirms Zaffar's inputs around 11.30.
In the overall news rundown, the incident finds a routine mention.
Monday January 7:
Zaffar sends photographs of damage to villagers' houses in Churunda village because of the cross-border firing.
Tuesday January 8, 1.15 pm or thereabouts:
On my Facebook page and twitter timeline, queries start appearing: Have you heard of beheading of one of the two soldiers killed?
By 2 pm I am bombarded by faujis, fauji wives and others with information that one soldier is indeed beheaded. They were incredulous why I and other mainstream media guys were fighting shy of mentioning the barbaric act.
3 pm: Northern Command PRO, Lt. Col Rajesh Kalia continues to maintain that 2 soldiers have been killed and he has no more information at that point.
4 pm: Zaffar calls up and sends a mail saying he is pretty sure of the beheading but no one in the Army was reachable.
I again call up the usual contacts in Northern Command, the Army HQ and whoever I can reach in the fauj but no confirmation yet.
I and Zaffar in any case go on air saying two soldiers have indeed been killed after a suspected cross-border raid, their weapons snatched.
Finally, a senior officer at the Army HQ reluctantly admits that one body is mutilated without confirming if it was beheaded. So we stick to 'mutilation,' in absence of official admission.
6.30 to 8 pm:
Classic reporter's dilemma continues to dog us: Despite being aware of what had happened, lack of official confirmation means I am only circling around the fact by saying we have heard of this but no confirmation officially!
8.05 pm: A senior officer in Northern Command finally confirms beheading. That's the time we go on air confirming beheading as fact!
Wednesday, January 9:
The Hindu's Praveen Swami reports of a grandmother's crossing the LoC and an aggressive commander on the LoC having sparked off the latest confrontation.
8 am: I call up the commander in question and ask him, half in jest: "So you have riled the Pakistanis so much." He laughs and says: "I wish I had that kind of power. In any case, I was on leave till yesterday (8th January)." We exchange further notes.
Zaffar in the meantime has reached Rajouri and is outside the Military Hospital there. The autopsy of the two killed soldiers is being carried out there.
At 11.45 am, Brigadier JK Tiwari, the No. 2 man in the 25 Infantry Division (which guards the LoC at Mendhar and Poonch among other places) goes on record, on camera to confirm the beheading.
1.58 pm: Zaffar says bodies flown out to Delhi.
2.20 pm: We are told in the Defence Ministry the bodies are going to Agra since easier to send one to Mathura (Hemraj's).
5 pm: Defence Ministry issues clarification on a couple of stories, including The Hindu's.
Prime Time: Most TV Channels discuss the incident. Some project this as an act of war.
Thursday, January 10:
5 pm: Zaffar says from Poonch cross-LoC trade halted. But trade is normal at Uri!
7.30 pm: Zaffar reprts fresh firing in Poonch, Mendhar etc.
Post-8.30 pm: Lance Naik Hemraj's cremation takes place.
Friday, January 11:
Occasional exchange of firing from both sides. Zaffar hangs on around the Poonch area. India asks for a flag meeting. Pakistan hasn't responded.
Saturday, 12 January:
Air Chief, ACM, NAK 'Charlie" Browne is visiting the NCC Cadets' camp in New Delhi. Reporters confront him there. As Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, he is forceful and candid, without sounding like a war monger.
"We have a Line of Control, we have a ceasefire agreement, we have certain structures and mechanisms which are sacrosanct and any violation of these with impunity especially what has been happening in the last few months is totally unacceptable.
"We are monitoring the situation carefully because if these things continue to be the way they are and these violations continue to take place, then perhaps we may have to look at some other options for compliance," he says.
7 pm: Zaffar says an infiltration attempt foiled at Mendhar.
The Air Chief's statement sets off another round of heated and in many cases hysterical discussions on TV programmes.
Sunday, 13 January:
Relatively quiet day.
Monday, January 14:
Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh in the course of his annual Press Conference gives out the details and warns Pakistan. Says I expect my commanders on LoC to be aggressive and offensive.
He also admits that in July 2011 a similar incident of beheading of 2 soldiers from 20 Kumaon Battalion had taken place but denies Army had tried to suppress it.
(Technically Gen Bikram Singh was right since our own reporter in Uttarakhand, Dinesh Mansera had reported about the matter but only in an oblique manner since apparently at that time the family did not want this to come out. Whether the Army prevailed over the family not to speak about it or they did not want to let this fact come out because of some other reason is not yet clear).
At that time, some of us who came to know of the incident almost 10 days after it had happened could not pursue it since neither the Army nor the family would confirm it.
Later, there were unconfirmed and unsubstantiated reports about the Pakistani government having lodged a protest against beheading of three of their soldiers. But in my limited capacity of research, I have not come across any official report about this in 2011 in either Indian or Pakistani media.
The gossip is however persistent and continues to this day.
Last Saturday (19th January, 2013) however wife of one of the Kumaoni soldiers has told my colleague Dinesh Mansera: "hemraj ke sath jo hua wo hamare sath bhi hua per hamen sarkar ne sammaan nahi diya(what happened with Hemraj also happened with us)"
At the moment it is not clear how this seemingly new development is being tackled by the Army.
But to get back to the recent LoC incident.
The Army Chief's tough language was expected after the Air Chief had set the ball rolling.
The MEA in the meantime was trying to downplay the incident through "safe" and conciliatory statements.
Tuesday, 15 January:
Forenoon: Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen KT Parnaik holds his traditional press conference at Akhnoor after taking salute at the Army Day parade and reiterates the tough message that India reserved the right to retaliate at the place and time of its own choosing.
Later in the evening, he gives a lengthy interview to Times Now's Arnab Goswami and recounts in some details the entire incident.
Post-lunch: Annual Reception at Army House, 3 pm
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his senior Cabinet colleagues arrive 10 minutes before President Pranab Mukherjee is to arrive.
My colleague Barkha Dutt is among a handful of journalists and Editors at the reception.
Seeing the Prime Minister, she walks towards him and tosses a question: How do you read the situation at the LoC?
After a pause, he replies: "It can't be business as usual."
Barkha rushes out of the Army House, starts reporting. Other reporters too gherao the PM and get the same response.
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid holds a hurriedly convened press conference a couple of hours later and says: "It should not be felt that the brazen denial and a lack of 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'.
Indian political leadership has finally in sync with the military's stand!
That night fresh exchange of firing happens, one Pakistani soldier is apparently killed.
Wednesday, January 16:
10 am: Pakistan Army Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) calls up his Indian counterpart and protests over the killing but more importantly the Pakistani officer says orders have been passed to the troops on their side of the LoC to exercise restraint and observe the ceasefire strictly. Both reached an understanding that situation should not be allowed to escalate!
So ended the latest flashpoint between India and Pakistan, at least temporarily.
Over the weekend, many write up have appeared questioning how and why the story acquired the salience it did.
My simple take is: In today's world of easy communications, nothing remains hidden.
There are no conspiracies in the way the story unfolded. Even from two years ago, situation has changed.
Soldiers possess mobile phones. Officers and their wives are on twitter timelines and Facebook pages. They talk, they gossip and they bristle in anger at the "soft" line taken by sections of the government. Details of incidents get out in flash, as they did on 6th and 8th January. No one is able to control the information flow. Mainstream Media waits for official confirmation; the social media has no such compulsion. So the mainstream media gets abused and reviled. It comes under pressure.
The responses are conditioned by this pressure.
So decisions oscillate between one extreme and the other.
It is this challenge that governments and media outlets will have to confront now.