Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics
Oxford University Press
The theme of Happymon Jacob’s Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics is that both sides should be doing something to address ceasefire violations on the Line of Control (and the international border in Jammu), because these incidents have the potential to become something bigger, even if not an all out nuclear war.
“The very fact that land grabs and surgical strikes have taken place [under the ambit of CFVs] in the past leading to major standoffs between the two countries… goes to show that it is both analytically and policy-wise imprudent to leave out CFVs from the escalation ladder. The argument is not that CFVs by themselves could trigger a nuclear crisis — to argue that would be preposterous — but rather that a standoff or crisis prompted by CFVs could soon be overtaken by higher military and political factors and lead up to a major crisis…,” he writes.
It is not a popular view. In India, cross-border terrorism is seen as the main cause of escalation (this is exactly how it played out after the Pulwama attack, or after Uri) while Pakistanis skip the terrorism, and start from India’s response to it as the main escalatory trigger. As for CFVs, one popular view among policymakers on both sides is that they are a low-cost way for Pakistan and India to let off steam against each other and play their part in preventing an all out “aar-paar ki larhai”, as civilians caught in the cross fire keep demanding. Escalation itself is seen as a carefully calibrated and deliberate decision, and that too was obvious from the Balakot strike and Pakistan’s response to it.
But Jacob, who teaches in the school of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and has published another book on the LoC (The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistan Armies), is determined to prove his point, complete with references and elaborate data sets. Doggedly, he also argues that CFVs are not only a trigger for escalation, but once escalation begins, it leads to more CFVs. The escalation itself could be of several kinds: aggressive political rhetoric; a military standoff; or, a diplomatic chill, all of which could then lead to more CFVs. One kind of escalation could also lead to escalation of another kind.
Among the strongest case studies he provides to back his claim is the bilateral dip between August and October 2013. The cycle began on August 5 with the killing of five Indian soldiers in Poonch, The defence minister then said it was an ambush by “heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniform”. The author says it could have been Pakistan’s version of a “surgical strike” organised by a Border Action Team. There were resolutions in both countries’ parliaments against the other. Envoys were summoned and ticked off. Pakistan put the issue of MFN status back in the freezer. CFVs continued to dog India-Pakistan relations so much that the matter was the main theme of a summit meeting between then Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif in New York in September. Violations continued thereafter too until the end of October. At least four Pakistani soldiers were also killed in these CFVs.
Jacob, who has been collecting data on ceasefires for years and in 2018, even started an online ceasefire monitor, seeks to explain CFVs, or at least many of them, as a fallout of what he terms ‘autonomous military factors’, that is, actions in the field not controlled or determined by civilian authority, political or bureaucratic.
The extent of autonomy depends on the prevailing permissibility, he says. For instance, between 2003 and the end of 2007, there were no ceasefire violations because there was no political tolerance. Both sides were engaged in dialogue. In Pakistan, the army chief was also the political boss, so that helped. However, in a period of no talks there is more permissibility because, on the Indian side, there is no clear direction from the political masters on tactical operations at the border, plus there is mileage to be gained by giving the army a free-ish hand, as has been evident since 2016; on the Pakistani side, the Pakistan army will use CFVs to sabotage any outreach by the civilian government to India.
The ceasefire has existed since 2003. Yet, the LoC is the only place in the world where soldiers and civilians get killed in such high numbers in peacetime. These deaths do not appear to bring home the horrors of war to either side, except to those caught in the cross-fire. Perversely, they work to keep the idea of eternal war alive in both countries, fomenting on the way hyper-nationalism that lowers the incentives for political leaders to talk about peace.
Jacob’s book is full of useful information, and is an earnest effort to change the narrative — indeed, he comes across as trying too hard — but as long as there aren’t enough people calling for peace on either side, those who lead the two countries will be content to “manage” what happens at the LoC.