FIRING ACROSS the Line of Control (LoC) has escalated dramatically since India’s strikes on jihadist training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in September, classified data obtained by The Indian Express has revealed. The data suggests that the policy of “massive retaliation” for cross-border firing set in place in 2014 is failing to deter the Pakistan Army from harrying Indian counter-infiltration defences on the LoC.
The data, compiled by the J&K government, shows that there have been 124 exchanges of fire from January to June 21, 2017 — all but 11 along the LoC and international border in the Jammu sector, under the control of the Nagrota-based XVI Corps.
In contrast, there were only five exchanges of fire in the same period of 2016, before India’s cross-LoC strikes sparked a wave of assaults using mortar and machine guns, as well as ambushes targeting Indian patrols by so-called Pakistani Border Action Teams, or special forces units mixed with irregulars. Localised but lethal skirmishes now form the core of a grim war of attrition on the border in Jammu — a region with near-zero jihadist infiltration — as soldiers fight to avenge past attacks, or establish tactical advantage for their posts and patrol routes in anticipation of future ones.
The latest fighting, sparked by the June 23 ambush which claimed the lives of two soldiers, is reported to be continuing intermittently, with shelling at the end of the month claiming the life of Naseem Akhter, a Poonch resident, and Abdul Wahab, living across the LoC in Nakyal. Kashmir, guarded by the XV Corps, is seeing the LoC regularly probed by jihadist infiltrators, the raison d’etre for aggressive retaliation — but here, there is little fighting between the two armies.
Incidents of firing across the LoC have risen steadily since 2012, when 79 were registered, to 236 in 2013, 226 in 2014, and 279 in 2015, according to data gathered by the J&K government. The first six months of 2016 were quiet, but overall numbers rose sharply to 227 after the strikes.
The J&K government’s data, based on direct observation by intelligence units, reflects significant fire exchanges which may pose a risk to civilians, rather than all violations of the ceasefire India and Pakistan entered into in 2013, which include relatively minor incidents.
Lok Sabha replies provided by the government show that those incidents have also escalated, from 347 in 2013, to 583 in 2014, 405 in 2015 and 449 in 2016 — again showing that India’s more muscular posture has so far failed to deter the Pakistan Army.
“The enemy has realised that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated… People know my intentions,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, following the first cross-border clashes of his tenure. The government had authorised forces to use disproportionate force against Pakistani military fire, and declined to engage in dialogue while the fighting continued — a break with past patterns.
Major-General Ashok Narula, the Indian Army’s chief spokesperson, said in May that “punitive fire assaults across the Line of Control are being undertaken by the Indian army”. He released a video that showed Indian artillery destroying temporary bunkers on a tree-covered mountain, shot, military sources said, on May 9, a week after the beheading of two Indian soldiers by a Border Action Team.
In 2003, when India and Pakistan agreed on their unwritten ceasefire, 2,045 exchanges of fire were recorded, which claimed the lives of 59 Indian troops and 40 civilians.
“I believe these fire-exchanges are serving absolutely no demonstrable strategic purpose. Their only purpose is to fuel a certain nationalist posturing in both India and Pakistan,” said Ajai Sahni, director, Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi.
The data shows six Indian soldiers have been killed in the fire exchanges so far this year, and 12 injured, while 10 were killed and 56 injured in 2016.
“It is unimportant if more Pakistanis were killed or Indians. The loss of a single Indian soldier’s life without a strategic aim is a criminal waste,” said Sahni.
The firing across the LoC, interestingly, comes at a time of relatively low infiltration. Even though the Indian Army has reported multiple infiltration attempts along the LoC in Kashmir this summer, Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced that infiltration in January-June 2017 has been 45 per cent lower than in the same period of 2016.
“Largely, the firing on the Line of Control is taking place because both sides have become locked in a tit-for-tat cycle of retaliation, with neither willing to back off,” said a senior military official.
For the Pakistan Army, continuing to hit back is of critical importance in the wake of last year’s cross-LoC strikes, to demonstrate that it is willing to willing to risk escalation despite the weakness of its military position.
Estimated to deploy some 200,000-225,000 troops along the LoC, the Indian Army’s XV and XVI Corps have overwhelming numerical superiority against Pakistan.
Pakistan’s X Corps, made up of the 23 Infantry Division, 12 Infantry Division, 19 Infantry Division and Force Command Gilgit-Baltistan, only has some 100,000-125,000 troops, experts believe.
General Asim Bajwa, Pakistan’s Army chief, who came to office soon after the cross-LoC strikes, placed Kashmir high on his agenda, amid fears in his command that India could react to a future terrorist strike with a larger-scale attack in the Neelam valley.
The Pakistan Army chief, in visits to the Haji Pir sector in April, the Kel sector in March, and the shelling-hit Bhimber sector in December and February, is believed to have ordered commanders to harry Indian defences, rather than back down in the face of artillery assault.
Indian commanders, in turn, fearing that further escalation could hamper their counter-infiltration posture and render maintenance of the LoC fence difficult, have resisted the temptation to deploy heavier-calibre artillery.