Two were killed in the first ambush: their bodies tied with ropes, they were dragged more than a mile to the Pakistani side of the border. Four more soldiers were killed nearby, just a day later; three were shot dead soon after. To the south, Pakistani troops and irregulars raided villages, leaving in their wake burned homes, destroyed fields and refugees, each with stories that threatened to ignite communal carnage.
It was June 1951, and the gods of war had begun to gather over the bloodstained line separating Pakistan from India in Kashmir. From October 1950 to March 1951, Parliament was told, Pakistan’s police and armed forces participated in 63 raids and clashes. Even as Pakistan pushed forward an infantry division positioned to cut into Kashmir, India responded by positioning armoured forces for a counter-offensive into Pakistan’s Punjab heartland. Inside the Pakistan army, and on the streets, hawks pushed for a jihad. “I am not without fear that wild men may take charge,” the diplomat Girija Shankar Bajpai wrote in a 1951 letter to Vijayalakshmi Pandit, “and lead into dangerous adventures”.
Later this month, when the National Security Advisors of the countries meet, both will be seeking to avoid just those “dangerous adventures”. The long-forgotten 1951 crisis holds out two depressing lessons. First, little has changed. Then, as now, what we today call the Line of Control is seeing escalating violence and growing talk of war. Second, national toolkits haven’t changed either. Pakistan’s principal instrument of pressure remains covert warfare. India, in turn, has little to draw on other than threats of war.
Talking won’t fix the problem. Dialogue is a process, not an outcome — and the on-again, off-again dialogue that has become establishment theology has had precisely the wrong kind of outcome, entrenching a grim stalemate. It isn’t hard to understand why the dialogue process has led to a cul-de-sac. Pakistan’s military establishment has learned that covert war against India can be pursued with impunity, as their crisis-averse neighbour will, sooner or later, return to the negotiating table. Pakistani politicians, in turn, have come to believe India is just stalling to avoid negotiating a thoroughgoing peace.
In India, the successive crises have engendered growing cynicism about the prospect of peace. Long before Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers held out threats to Pakistan, former NSA M.K. Narayanan had reached this conclusion: “Talk-talk is better than fight-fight, but it hasn’t worked so far.”
Fighting, though, is also a process, not an outcome. In 1951, a CIA estimate concluded that, in every scenario it considered, India would be victorious. However, it noted, “its success would not be quick or easy”. In addition to economic costs, it flagged the prospect of “widespread communal rioting”. Jawaharlal Nehru concurred, noting that a “war will neither be brief nor gentlemanly”. He foresaw fighting degenerating into “a bitter conflict full of suppressed hatred”. Like Nehru, Modi also knows there’s little prospect of easy success. Walter Ladwig III, an expert on the India-Pakistan military balance, recently concluded that in “the most likely conflict scenarios, India is unlikely to achieve the strategic surprise necessary to make a limited offensive succeed”.
Islamabad’s claims that war would end in a nuclear holocaust are hyperbolic — after all, the Soviet Union and China fought along the Ussuri river in 1969, and India and Pakistan battled each other in Kargil. Yet, experience shows it’s only in movies that wars end when flags are raised in triumph. Though Nehru’s military build-up deterred Pakistan from war in 1951, it launched jihadist groups led by Bagh Ali, Muhibullah Beg and Abdullah Rahim six years later. The first terrorist bombing in Srinagar didn’t take place in 1989, but in 1957. Kargil, similarly, yielded an escalation in Pakistani violence. Pervez Musharraf ratcheted up support for the jihad in Kashmir. Fatalities of Indian security forces in J&K shot up from 558 in 1999 to 638 in 2000; civilian deaths from 799 to 842.
How, then, might New Delhi proceed? First in a new Indian toolkit for Pakistan must be the construction of a credible domestic counter-terrorism capability. Possessing the capacities to punish perpetrators of terror will give India’s leadership the capital it needs to engage Pakistan without idle war threats. India’s people will, after all, be more willing to countenance a serious political dialogue if the government is seen as a credible defender of civil society.
For all the big talk on national security after 26/11, police forces across the country remain under-trained and under-equipped — a fact graphically illustrated when Punjab’s special forces showed up in Gurdaspur wearing T-shirts, and lacking non-lethal weapons to enable the terrorists’ capture. Each year, Pakistani terrorists are repatriated home because investigators did not have the resources to bring successful convictions. Then, Delhi must develop covert capacities to eliminate key perpetrators of terrorism across the border. Just how blunt its military instruments are was demonstrated by the botched raid into Myanmar, which did not see a single target of value killed or captured. Largescale firing across the LoC, similarly, does a great deal to hurt Pakistani civilians, but inflicts little damage on well-entrenched Pakistani forces.
Fixing these deficits will require sustained work. The Intelligence Bureau remains roughly a third under-strength; the Research and Analysis Wing is crippled by shortages of technology and language experts; the modernisation of Indian special forces, years behind schedule. In the meanwhile, Delhi must persist with the security-focused dialogue agreed to in Ufa. Delhi needs to use the meetings to push for real risk-reduction outcomes: an accord that would turn the 2003 LoC ceasefire into a binding, technologically verifiable commitment, for example, and transparent presentation of evidence against terrorists operating from Pakistan.
Back in 1947, as Pakistani irregulars battled Indian troops in J&K, Nehru noted that India was dealing “with a state carrying out an informal war”. He failed to win the informal war, because he did not have the tools he needed. India still doesn’t.