At 10.30 am on Monday, the hotline between the Indian and Pakistani Director Generals of Military Operations was activated at the request of the Pakistani DGMO. The DGMOs talk to each other regularly, but out-of-turn calls only occur when there are incidents along the Line of Control (LoC). On May 2, the Indian DGMO had requested the call after two Indian soldiers were killed on the LoC and their bodies mutilated by a Pakistan Army Border Action Team. Monday’s call was requested by his Pakistani counterpart because some villages on the Pakistani side of the LoC had been hit by Indian firing.
The heavy exchange of fire on the LoC in recent months has been characterised by two aspects: One, in a departure from the past, the Indian Army has officially said it is proactively targeting Pakistani posts on the LoC. Earlier, it used to assert that its firing was only in response to Pakistani violations of the ceasefire. Two, the Indian side has released a video of a Pakistani post being targeted, and the Pakistanis have responded with a couple of videos of their own — and this game seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
The LoC came into existence 45 years ago, following the Shimla Agreement. Prior to that, it was called the Ceasefire Line, which had been delineated when hostilities ceased in the 1948 Kashmir War.
The LoC was, however, not a mere replica of the Ceasefire Line. It was freshly delineated over nine rounds of talks between the armies of both countries, which led to the preparation of two sets of maps by each side. Each set consisted of 27 map sheets formed into 19 mosaics. Each side then exchanged one set of signed mosaics, as required under the joint statement by the representatives of the two countries signed in New Delhi on August 29, 1972. On December 17, 1972, a mutually agreed statement was released simultaneously in New Delhi and Islamabad, announcing the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir.
Until the 1999 Kargil War, the Pakistanis never questioned the legitimacy of the LoC. Prior to the Kashmir unrest of 1989-90, there were infrequent clashes — and rare exchanges of fire — which were invariably discussed and resolved in flag meetings between the two sides. The situation worsened after 1990, when a large number of Kashmiri youth began moving to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir for training, and Pakistani militants began infiltrating from across the LoC.
The LoC became active with heavy exchanges of fire. The Pakistan Army fired to provide cover to infiltrating groups of militants, forcing Indian soldiers to keep their heads down. The Indians responded with equal vigour, both to avenge the Pakistani firing as well as to prevent easy movement of militants. Innovations such as the use of guns of old, disused tanks as pill-boxes, and air defence guns in a direct firing role, were seen. Artillery guns were employed by both sides.
On both sides, bunkers were constructed, destroyed and reconstructed in an unending cycle. Soldiers on the frontline bore the brunt, but the situation was no better for those deployed even a few kilometres behind the LoC, but within the range of mortar and artillery fire. Civilians in villages close to the LoC had no protective bunkers, and all economic activity came to a halt — for local people, it was a multi-pronged humanitarian tragedy.
Things changed with the ceasefire on November 26, 2003 — when Eid and Diwali fell on the same day — during the previous NDA government. It brought solace to the locals but also served a larger strategic purpose: it allowed India to erect fencing on the LoC. The LoC fencing, along with the absence of cover fire from the Pakistan Army, allowed the Army to virtually turn off the spigot of infiltration. As counterinsurgency operations achieved results in the Kashmir Valley, the reduced influx of militants brought militancy to an all-time low by 2009.
The relative calm along the LoC for a dozen years — with sporadic ceasefire violations — was broken in 2015, but the quantum and intensity of firing by both sides remained low. But after last year’s Uri terror attack, and India’s surgical strikes, the frequency, intensity and volume of ceasefire violations have reached pre-2003 levels. It would not be unfair to say that the ceasefire no longer exists on the LoC.
With the internal security situation worsening in the Valley, the Pakistan Army would not be keen to have the attention shift to the LoC; it would want the focus to remain solely on what it calls “an indigenous uprising” in Kashmir. But India knows that the situation on the LoC cannot be delinked from the situation in the Kashmiri heartland. Besides infiltration of militants from PoK, the Army also sees a Pakistani hand in the trouble in the Valley. By being proactive on the LoC, the Army seeks to not only prevent infiltration, but to also claim moral ascendancy over Pakistan. Aggressive behaviour also builds in a certain unpredictability about the Army’s intentions on the LoC, keeping the Pakistani side guessing.
But does it force Pakistan to act against anti-India terrorists operating from its territory, or end its support to Kashmiri separatists?
No, although publicising India’s proactive action on the LoC does address the domestic clamour for punitive action against Pakistan. The challenge, however, is to control the aggression in a manner so that Pakistan does not escalate the conflict.
With channels of communication between India and Pakistan seemingly shut, and the situation in Kashmir showing no signs of improvement, the LoC will see a hot summer. Neither side has offered to meet to bring the temperature down; they have instead released videos and made claims which add fuel to the fire. But while chances of peace on the LoC look remote for now, so does the chance of an all-out war. The situation will continue to be what was evocatively described before 2003 as one of “No War No Peace” — the grey zone between war and peace, being measured by the number of booming guns on the LoC.s