On January 15 this year, the Indian Army killed seven Pakistani soldiers along the Line of Control (LoC) in the Mendhar sector of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), avenging the death of Indian soldiers killed in Pakistani firing a few days earlier. The year 2017 has been the bloodiest on the LoC and the international border in the Jammu sector since the ceasefire agreement (CFA) was agreed to in 2003. According to a recent report, the Indian Army killed 138 Pakistani soldiers in 2017, and lost around 28 of its own.
While the death and destruction in and of themselves are disconcerting, an even more important consideration is whether Ceasefire Violations (CFVs) have the potential to contribute to an India-Pakistan conflict escalation. In other words, could the violence on the LoC graduate to higher levels of political and military standoff? Data on CFVs and escalation from the past 15 years show that such escalation is a real possibility.
The National Security Advisors (NSAs) of India and Pakistan, Ajit Doval and Nasir Khan Janjua, are engaged in a dialogue to get India-Pakistan relations back on track. Their meeting in Bangkok on December 25 last year did not lead to anything concrete. However, reports indicate that the two sides had discussed the possibility of scheduling a meeting between the two DGMOs to control border violations. The two DGMOs have not met since their last meeting in 2013. Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported on January 16 that the Pakistani side was indeed considering such a proposal. It is likely that such a proposal was put forward by Janjua at the Bangkok meeting. However, the fact that the Pakistani defence ministry later denied any such proposal from Pakistan strongly points to the conclusion that the Indian side did not warm up to it.
What this then means is that the Narendra Modi government is not enthusiastic about “half-measures” with Pakistan. Put differently, New Delhi thinks a meeting between the DGMOs is not useful for several reasons. One, this is unlikely to put an end to CFVs. After all, ceasefire violations resumed not too long after the last meeting between the two DGMOs in December 2013. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, taking “half measures” with Pakistan would have domestic political costs for the Modi government, especially if they fail. Prime Minister Modi is unlikely to have forgotten the brickbats he received from his support base when his impromptu visit to Lahore in 2015 achieved little. Modi would be keen to achieve “spectacular outcomes” from a rapprochement with Pakistan, not minor ones. The Modi government has neither the patience nor the time to go through the rigmarole of making peace with Pakistan. In other words, for the Modi government, ongoing CFVs despite their deadly consequences are far more preferable to a dialogue process with Pakistan that may not lead anywhere.
And yet, the meetings between the two NSAs are timely and significant, and are in fact based on a template from 2003. Consider this. The run up to the November 2003 ceasefire agreement had witnessed a great deal of firing on the LoC: There were around 6,000 firing incidents in 2002 and close to 3,000 in 2003. After the then BJP-led government in Delhi and the Musharraf administration in Pakistan agreed to stop the firing in November 2003, the number of incidents came down to just four in 2004. What is even more important to recall here is how the ceasefire agreement was achieved by the two sides. During 2003, the then RAW chief C D Sahay and his ISI counterpart General Ehsan-ul-Haq met in undisclosed European cities on several occasions to chalk out a ceasefire agreement. The two leaders agreed, and the two armies carried out the proposal. The current dialogue process between the two NSAs is a similar one and indicates that there is willingness to find a solution to the violent border. The question then is whether there is a meeting ground between the Modi government’s desire for “spectacular outcomes” and the Pakistani proposal for ending the border violations (albeit temporary). Finding such a middle ground is perhaps the only feasible solution to the recurring border violence in J&K.
The common sense wisdom about Indo-Pak border violations is that they can be managed and contained at relatively lower levels without any spiraling effect. Moreover, there is a strong tendency to view India-Pakistan escalation dynamics purely as a result of terrorist attacks on India. This skewed understanding of the escalatory potential of CFVs and the sources of escalation being limited to terrorist attacks alone have effectively prevented us from further exploring the link between CFVs and conflict escalation between the two countries. In fact, my recent research comparing the data on CFVs and (political, military and diplomatic) escalation from 2003 to 2017 shows two trends: CFVs have often led to escalation, and that serious India-Pakistan conflict escalation has occurred even in the absence of terrorist attacks. Moreover, when CFVs and terrorist violence occur simultaneously or sequentially, the potential for escalation dramatically increases.
Unless urgent steps are taken to control the violence along the border, this worrying link between escalation and CFVs would become even more precarious in the days ahead. With the upcoming elections in India and Pakistan, policies of the respective governments towards each other will be based on domestic political calculations which could sharply increase risk-taking tendencies. Second, a potentially “hot” summer in Kashmir will reduce the possibility of meaningful bilateral talks.
Finally, CFVs in times of hyper nationalism and high-stakes elections could further complicate matters. Hence, the more we wait, the less likely that the talks will achieve anything substantive.
The upside, however, is that since the elections are still many months away and the two NSAs are engaged in a discreet dialogue process, there is still time and space available should the two governments wish to reach an understanding to stop/reduce the border violence. The two NSAs should consider formalising the informal 2003 agreement and get the armed forces to implement it. But in the meantime, the two DGMOs should be asked to meet and set the stage for the formalisation of the ceasefire agreement. New Delhi should not let the best be the enemy of the good. Third, the scale of violence needs to be brought down urgently: Use of high calibre mortars, rocket launchers and heavy artillery on the border should be stopped. The free-for-all permissibility for aggression that currently exists on the border needs to end.
The government is reportedly planning to construct shell-proof underground bunkers along the border to ensure the safety of the border population. While it may be a justifiable tactical response, there is no way such bunkers can safeguard the population, their livestock and habitats in the long run. After all, unlike air raids by enemy bombers, bullets and shells aren’t preceded by civil defence siren, nor can the villagers afford to live in the bunkers forever.