The toll of revenge

The belief that an increase of fire power on the LoC will impact Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism is illusory. Ceasefire must be restored.

Written by Prakash Menon | Updated: March 7, 2018 12:25:58 am
pakistan, ceasefire violation, line of control, mortal firing pakistan, jammu and kashmir, pakistan ceasefire violation, indian army, kashmir news, indian express In India, cross-border firing symbolises the hard stance of the government in power. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The alarming frequency of ceasefire violations, inflicting a mounting loss of life and property on both sides of the LoC, begs the question: What is the political purpose of force application? The question is valid as without political purpose the exchange of fire and cross-border raids would be guided by an independent military logic that could be described as senseless violence trapped in a cycle of revenge. Images in the media of reciprocal devastation portray the retribution that has been inflicted, stirring nationalistic instincts with mourning the dead, accusing the other of unprovoked ceasefire violations and swearing greater revenge. Therefore, it is assumed that the leadership of both India and Pakistan has calculated that the politico-military benefits outweigh the costs of devastation and death.

The political costs are felt mainly by the civilian population straddling the LoC, as they are the victims whose lives are disrupted and large numbers have been relocated to temporary camps. If they are not relocated, they live under the perennial fear of being visited by the now-familiar sound of an artillery shell or mortar bomb. Apparently, these people have no political clout to effectively protest their plight and the state’s failure to protect their life and property. Only a re-imposition of the ceasefire agreement can restore normalcy to their lives. However, that prospect seems faint as the leaders on both sides are calling for a greater use of muscle, expressed in India as “mooh tor jawab” (strong reply).

Armed forces on both sides get a lot of shooting practice to vent their anger and despite suffering casualties periodically, celebrate the pain inflicted. They bear the physical and psychological brunt of this cycle as a challenge to their professional competence, which is laced with pride and a sense of duty derived from partaking in a national effort. The primary victims are the civilians — the sacrificial goats at the altar of an imagined national cause.

The Indian national cause is: Imposing such costs that it will thwart Pakistan’s abetment to terrorism in India. Abetment to terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir involves the provision of support for infiltration and carrying out terrorist acts. It also involves acts to subvert the minds of locals and orchestrating protests. The germane question for India is the feasibility of force application in imposing costs that will affect Pakistan’s will and, therefore, restrain it from supporting terrorism.

The answer needs an understanding of the structure of geopolitical emotions that pervade relations between the two countries. A sense of visceral hatred characterises relations between both societies. Domestic politics will not brook any loss of prestige and honour that is affected by the other. A deep-rooted desire for payback also nurtures a strong will that can bear pain, as long as both sides have a “free will” that can impose agony on the other. In the framework of cross-border violations, militaries seek to maintain a tactical equilibrium through an “eye for an eye” and also hold civilians and assets hostage, which explains the horizontal escalation of LoC violations even to the international boundary.

Even capturing territory to achieve domination that facilitates the inflicting of costs without much loss may not affect this “free will” for abetting terrorism and can, on the other hand, intensify its efforts of support. Also, the imposition of costs strengthens will as there is an escalation ceiling that is elastic and unstated, but observed, as neither side covets war. Even if force application is devastating, the effect would be temporary, for the sheltered primeval hatred absorbs costs and demands vengeance, prompting a constant cycle of retaliation that has no impact on either infiltration or terrorism. Tactically, stemming infiltration while cross-border firing continues is more difficult as it engenders an additional factor that curtails free movement, which is necessary for counter-infiltration.

The main beneficiary of LoC violations for Pakistan is its army, as they reinforce the Indian threat that sustains it in power. They also help to draw the attention of the international community to the border as the most dangerous hotspot — a narrative that helps Pakistan seek support by playing the victim card. Violations also provide an excuse to Pakistan to not take action against terrorist elements on its borders. The number of military casualties does not find much space in the Pakistan media, though civilian casualties are highlighted and deliberately exaggerated.

In India, cross-border firing symbolises the hard stance of the government in power. The toughness feeds the extant hostility and assuages, to some extent, the thirst for revenge. In the popular imagination, this is the best approach to Pakistan, the eternal enemy. The pain of flag-draped coffins of soldiers morphs to one that hardens the nationalistic instinct and reinforces the call for retribution. The ruling party benefits in terms of popular support and this could possibly explain why there have been no political efforts to restore the ceasefire agreement of 2003. The question that lingers is: Have party interests trumped national interest?

Stripped of its ability to stir jingoistic sentiments, the belief that an increase of fire power application will impact Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism is illusory. What must be accepted is that in the context of the India and Pakistan framework, the utility of force on the LoC is better confined to its use as a tactical balancer with controlled military actions carried out without fanfare, under a politically-imposed ceasefire. It is in India’s national interests to disconnect the LoC exchange from domestic politics and choke the supply of emotional fuel that traps it in a cycle of vengeance. This might seem a tall order as elections approach. However, statesmanship can transcend narrow politics and diplomacy can be enabled to restore the ceasefire without loss of face.

Kautilya would have disagreed with using force as the first and only resort. Clausewitz would have warned of delinking force from political purpose. Seeking to prevent infiltration and abetment to terrorism through LoC firing is like confining the search for lost keys on a dark night to the nearest lamp post.

The writer is director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru and former military advisor in the National Security Council Secretariat.

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