Fifteen years ago this month, Santokh Singh was laid out on his back by the banks of the Ravi, near the village of Chhattar Rattar, his contemplation of passing clouds helped along by the shade of the monsoon bloom of elephant grass, and a bottle of home-brew cane liquor. His reverie was interrupted by two men asking for directions. Singh cordially invited them to join him for a drink, he told journalists later, only to be subjected to a fusillade of abuse. The row rapidly escalated — and when one of the men pulled out a gun, Singh attacked him with his bottle.
Inside an hour, police and BSF were trading fire with the men — who turned out to be the first known Lashkar-e-Toiba combat unit to have entered through the Punjab border. Two were killed; two held. Four Kalashnikov assault rifles, 400 rounds of ammunition and eight HE-36 grenades were recovered.
Following Monday’s terrorist attack in Gurdaspur — the first launched by a specialist cross-border fidayeen unit outside J&K — many are asking if it marks the beginning of a new wave of strikes. The shootout in Chhatar Rattar holds out valuable clues.
It’s important, though, to first understand the context: the state of play in the jihad in Kashmir. Ever since 2012, the state has seen a slow, but marked, uptick in violence — reversing a decade-long decline that began in 2001-2002, after India and Pakistan almost went to war. Killings of civilians by terrorists, government figures show, rose from 12 in 2012 to 25 last year — and, halfway through the year, stood at 12. Fifteen police and military personnel were killed in 2012; in 2014, the number was 41. Encounters rose from 39 in 2012 to 52 in 2014, with the numbers of terrorists killed going up from 64 to 101.
The numbers show that the conflict is heating up — and in India’s security community, many experts are convinced that’s part of a deliberate decision by Pakistan’s military. The idea, they suspect, is to exploit India’s strategic conundrum: punishing Pakistan’s renewed support to the jihad in Kashmir, after all, could engender a crisis, which would scare away the investors Prime Minister Narendra Modi desperately needs to realise his plans of rapid economic growth. The proposition offers a plausible explanation of why the attack in Punjab took place.
In 2000, at the time of the Chhattar Rattar encounter, General Pervez Musharraf’s regime had ratcheted up violence in Kashmir, following his army’s defeat on the Kargil heights. Persuaded by the experience that India would not, under any circumstances, risk a potential nuclear conflict, Musharraf sharply escalated support to jihadist groups.
Fatalities of Indian security forces in J&K shot up from 558 in 1999 to 638 in 2000; civilian deaths from 799 to 842. The following year, civilian killings rose even more, to 1,067 — a significant fraction of it from targeted killings of Hindus and Sikhs, aimed at sparking a pan-Indian communal conflict.
Then, in December, 2001, the General’s Kashmir plan began to fall apart, after the attack on Parliament led India to threaten war. Escalation ended up hurting Pakistan’s economy and investment prospects — a pain it could not, unlike India, bear.
Following the 2000-02 crisis, Musharraf’s advisers and the US pushed him to wind up the jihad in Kashmir. Lt Gen Moinuddin Haider, Musharraf’s interior minister, told George Perkovich he had said, “Mr President, your economic plan will not work, people will not invest, if you don’t get rid of extremists.”
In 2002, therefore, a ceasefire went into place on the LoC. The countries, Manmohan Singh has publicly said, came close to agreeing on a framework for a deal on Kashmir — until Musharraf was swept from power on the back of an Islamist-led agitation. The agitation, some analysts argue, was backed by the military, fearful that peace with India could mean an end to its own primacy.
Now, as Pakistan’s generals have taken on terrorists in the country’s north-west, their legitimacy rests on backing from Kashmir-focussed jihadists based in Punjab. Thus, army chief General Raheel Sharif last month described Kashmir as “the unfinished business of Partition”, a lietmotif that had dropped out of use in the Musharraf years. From 2013 on, Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed has also been increasingly vocal on his war plans. In February, he warned Indians that just as “America had to run away, India, you will have to leave Kashmir as well”.
From the optic of Pakistan’s generals, New Delhi has no choice but to bear more pain in Kashmir — mindful of any missteps that would undermine the big strategic goal of high growth. New Delhi has after all, backed down on its own red lines — less than a week before an India-Pakistan security dialogue was announced at Ufa, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj insisted there would be no talks if 26/11 perpetrator Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi remained free.
It isn’t hard to see what an escalation of violence in Punjab could look like. In July 2009, then again in September that year, and in January 2010, rockets arced over the India-Pakistan border in Punjab, landing around the villages of Atalgarh, More, Rattan Kalan and Attari. The firing only ended after Border Security Force DIG Mohammad Aqil warned his Pakistani counterpart, Col Mohammad Kamran, of calibre-for-calibre retaliation.
Even as he talks peace with Pakistan’s government, Prime Minister Modi has to find ways to dissuade that country’s generals waiting in the wings from breaking with the script, and starting a new war.