As inevitably as night follows day, when India and Pakistan begin to speak the language of peace, the Line of Control and the International Border hot up. Mostly, it has taken the form of ceasefire violations. But on Monday, a group of terrorists sneaked into Dina Nagar, less than 20 km from the India-Pakistan border in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district, and in a manner reminiscent of Mumbai 2008, hijacked a car, shot at a bus and passers-by before holing up inside a police station for a long standoff. Nine people, including a senior police official, have been killed.
What is different from 26/11 is that Dina Nagar, a small border town with less than 25,000 people, is not a place that anyone outside Punjab would have heard of before this. Monday’s attack was of a kind with the attacks in Jammu’s Hiranagar in 2013 and 2014. Welcome to the new terrorism, and the new soft targets. Since 2012, it is at the LoC/ IB that every attempt to restart an India-Pakistan dialogue has been shafted. There have been countless other attacks on border villages, notably in September 2013 leading up to a meeting between Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif. Those attacks ensured that the efforts by the two countries to get the peace process back on track would fail.
It would be no surprise if Monday’s attack has the same effect. The political will for dialogue as agreed on at Ufa by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif was already wearing thin over the repeated violations of the ceasefire at the LoC and the IB. And as the weeks since the Ufa meeting have shown, it is the IB more than the LoC, and the people living in the villages along it, which are the new soft targets. Before the Dina Nagar attack, the IB had already flared up. The terror that visited a quiet little town in Punjab is bound to test severely what remains of that will, even though it is yet not clear where the terrorists came from.
Once again, India and Pakistan are treading the thin ground of an old problem, a hot border. But the Indian political class must not fall into the trap that it has fallen into again and again since 2013. Pausing the Ufa process will be to play into the hands of the perpetrators of the attacks, because this is precisely what they desire.
Instead, the national security advisors must meet sooner than planned, this week if possible, and India must push for a return to peace on the LoC and IB that includes the ceasefire, but should go beyond it by seeking a reaffirmation of the January 2004 India-Pakistan joint declaration, in which Pakistan affirmed it would not allow its territory to be used for terrorist activities. Additionally, India must ask for formalising the ceasefire, with conditions written in on infiltration attempts.
The November 2003 ceasefire is not a structured or written agreement. It came into existence as an organic extension of backchannel moves to start a dialogue post the December 2001 Parliament attack. Pakistan began by declaring a unilateral truce, which India reciprocated on Eid in 2003. Other than holding monthly flag meetings between local commanders in designated sectors, and an agreement not to develop new posts or carry out defence works along the LoC, which were specified in a 2005 agreement, there are no other procedures or safeguards to this 12-year-old ceasefire.
Those sketchy terms are no longer sufficient. Much has changed between the two countries, including the leadership on both sides, and, as Monday’s attack showed, the nature of incidents along not just the ceasefire, but also the IB. A structured truce on the LoC and the IB would ensure that what was informally but well understood by the leadership on both sides in 2003, and what was contained in the January 2004 Musharraf-Vajpayee joint statement, is understood in the same way now. Written agreements have more legitimacy, offer more clarity and are better implemented.
Indeed, India should make diplomatic efforts for layered confidence-building mechanisms and procedures on the LoC similar to the ones that Delhi and Beijing have successfully put in place for the LAC — for all the noise about that border, it remains well managed. Such an agreement could also set up, as in India-China border treaties, a layered interaction across the table between the two militaries at senior levels, instead of the single DGMO channel available at present. The India-China Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, for instance, provides for periodic meetings between officers of the regional military headquarters, aside from higher-level meetings between the two ministries of defence. Achieving the same degree of conflict management on the LoC/ IB, including the clause that there will no cross-border infiltrations, would need political backing in both countries at the highest level, and military backing in Pakistan at the level of the army chief.
India stands to lose nothing by asking for a jointly developed mechanism. Also, a formalised agreement in which the Pakistan army has a vital role to play would be one way by which to test where Pakistan’s all-powerful institution really stands on the attempts to restart the India-Pakistan dialogue. While some reports suggested a division between Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif and Nawaz Sharif on the Ufa meeting, others indicated that the two Sharifs are on the same page. Since the Pakistan army has always rebutted accusations by the Indian side that it enables infiltration under the cover of artillery firing along the LoC/ IB, it should have no objection to an agreement on the LoC that would address the concerns of both sides.
India is in a situation where turning its back on Pakistan is a seemingly easier option but one that has proved to be of limited value, as both sides must return to talks at some time in the future. What might be of more lasting value is to stick to the Ufa process and focus on finding ways to insulate the dialogue from precisely the kind of attack that took place on Monday.