On India-Pakistan ‘line of fire’, local military factors often provide spark

According to the study, “local military factors” at the LoC/IB are the most frequent cause of ceasefire violations.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Chandigarh | Updated: September 25, 2017 9:19 am
ceasefire violation, india pakistan loc, loc firing, indo pak border, international border villages, indian express news Bullet marks on a house in R S Pura Sector, 40 km from Jammu. Cross-border firing started around September 10. (Source: PTI Photo)

The last couple of weeks have seen the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) between India and Pakistan light up with more than usual frequency. Starting around September 10, incidents of firing were reported almost every night. On the night of September 14, a few hours after security forces killed two top Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists, Abu Ismail and Chhota Qasim on the outskirts of Srinagar, a BSF constable was killed along the IB in Jammu.

In following days, Pakistani fire killed an Indian civilian and injured many. Some 700 civilians were evacuated last Friday from villages near the IB at Arnia, R S Pura, and Ramgarh, all in the Jammu region. Meanwhile, Pakistan said six of its civilians were killed in Charwa sector, and 26 were injured. Could the appointment of a new Indian Defence Minister, Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to J&K, the start of the UN General Assembly have had something to do with the action at the LoC and IB?

It is hard to tell — as it is to pinpoint which side began a particular incident of ceasefire violation (CFV). The numbers, too, vary — the latest Pakistani statement says India “violated the ceasefire more than 870 times” in 2017, “as compared to 382 ceasefire violations in 2016”. Last week, numbers attributed to the Indian Army put the number of Pakistani violations at 285 until August 1, compared to 228 for all of 2016. The common wisdom on the Indian side is that most of the firing takes place in order to give crossborder infiltrators cover.

An ambitious new study by Prof Happymon Jacob, who teaches Disarmament Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of International Studies, seeks to order publicly available information about incidents of CFV in search of patterns, and of what could be done to better manage the situation. A poor understanding of why these incidents are taking place, says Jacob, is preventing solutions to end them. Each incident is a potential trigger for an escalation of bilateral diplomatic, military and political tensions, aside from the immediate threat they pose to the lives of soldiers and civilians.

The study, the first of its kind on the ceasefire that came into effect in 2003, was published last week by the United States Institute of Peace, an independent institution established by the US Congress in 1984. Besides official data and media reports on CFVs, the study relied on field trips to the Indian side of the LoC, and interviews with serving and retired officers of the two armies, defence analysts and commentators.

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According to the study, “local military factors” at the LoC/IB are the most frequent cause of CFVs. “That is, CFVs are not planned, directed, or cleared by higher military commands or political establishments, but are instead driven by the dynamics on the frontlines.”

One local factors is what military personnel call “testing the new boys” — an attempt by one side to assess the resolve of a new battalion posted on the opposite side. Serving and retired military officers interviewed for the study affirmed that this was routine. The study quotes serving BSF officers at Jammu’s Pittal post as attributing CFVs by the Pakistan Rangers that lasted 45 days beginning July 2014, to the arrival of a new BSF battalion.

Sometimes, new units want to establish themselves with firepower. Each side tries to establish “morale ascendency” — signaling that it has the better morale, and is, therefore, the better fighting unit, and capable of dominating the other side. Personalities of local commanders have a direct impact on CFVs, the study finds. On the weakly defined LoC, “land grabs”, or attempts to do so, could lead to CFVs. The emotional state of soldiers — such as after its national cricket side wins a match — also lead to CFVs.

At least two major violations were linked to defence constructions, which neither side is supposed to undertake within 500 yards of the LoC and 150 yards on the IB, the study found. However, constructions take place anyway, to enhance observational capability, and the capacity to hold ground in case of a standoff. Construction by one side elicits aggressive responses from the other.

Do CFVs facilitate terrorist infiltrations? While this does indeed happen, data on infiltration and CFVs show no correlation, Jacob says. Between 2004 and 2007, when the least CFVs happened, more than 500 infiltrations attempts were made each year. After 2011, when CFVs were on the rise, infiltrations declined. Officers on the ground interviewed for the study said while infiltrations do take place with CFV support, they happen less frequently since the LoC was fenced.

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Based on the data, Jacob argues that the best way to prevent CFVs would be to formalise the 2003 ceasefire to “itemise the attendant do’s and don’ts, rules, guidelines, and principles”, reducing current ad hoc arrangements. While Pakistan has pushed for formalisation, India has been wary of giving up the right of military response to terrorist infiltration, should it continue even after the CF is formalised.

At present, the arrangements on the IB/LoC are mired in confusion and different sets of expediently deployed rules. On the IB (which Pakistan still calls a “working boundary”) in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, manned by BSF and the Pakistan Rangers, both sides tend to informally follow the Ground Rules of 1961-62 (although India does not formally accept the Rules). On the LoC, India believes the 1972 Simla Agreement overtakes the 1949 Karachi ceasefire agreement. On defence constructions, both sides are keen on the restrictions that are stipulated only in the Karachi agreement (and not in the Simla Agreement), and which were subsequently redefined in the Ground Rules.

Jacob argues that short of formalising, the two sides could agree on a set of joint SoPs on issues such as managing villages close to the Zero Line, return of inadvertent crossers, night movements, and accidental firing, and on a more structured and more frequent communication between the two forces.

All this suggests conflict management over resolution. If the two sides were engaged in a dialogue towards resolution, would there be as many CFVs as there are now? The study finds a positive correlation between the two. But India will not talk unless it’s about terrorism, and Pakistan unless it’s about Kashmir. The scope for bilateral diplomatic engagement has narrowed, at least for now.

This makes the ceasefire all the more important. Could formalising it help the two sides re-engage, and perhaps even lead to a “no-war” pact that was once considered? Jacob does not address these questions. He also does not say how the ceasefire, or at least the understanding that underpins it, has survived all these years, despite the increasing number of violations. After all, no one has yet pronounced the ceasefire officially dead; it even survived last September’s surgical strikes. That shows it means something even to those who heap scorn on it.

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