Five years before the 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai, there was another 26/11, related to Pakistan. Its then prime minister, Zafarullah Khan Jamali, went on national TV and announced a unilateral ceasefire on the international border (IB), Line of Control (LoC) and actual ground position line (AGPL) with India. New Delhi reciprocated the gesture and barring minor violations, the ceasefire between the two neighbours has held. The future of that ceasefire seems to be in peril now.
Even though the government was very careful in phrasing it as along the LoC, as opposed to across the LoC, the surgical strike on September 29 by the army which destroyed seven terrorist launch pads has disrupted the usual pattern of interaction between the two sides. Rawalpindi has denied the cross-LoC strikes but a retaliatory action from Pakistan army against Indian posts cannot be ruled out. This has the potential to escalate to a tit-for-tat response. In such a scenario, both sides will increasingly resort to cross-LoC firing and shelling. The 2003 ceasefire, which is not part of any written agreement, would be the first casualty of these heightened tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
While an unravelling of the ceasefire may satisfy jingoistic sections of the media, it will have detrimental consequences for India in the long-run. These consequences are not limited to the administrative inconvenience to the soldiers deployed on the LoC, or to greater casualties to innocent villagers on both sides. Locals in Uri are already moving out from the border areas and the situation is sure to be replicated in other areas along the LoC. Beyond their suffering, a breakdown of the ceasefire can undo all the achievements in curbing terrorism in Kashmir in the past decade.
Before the ceasefire came into effect, it was difficult for India to subdue infiltration from PoK. The Pakistan army would provide cover of shelling and firing to infiltrating terrorists. Cases of army’s ambush spots behind the first ridge line on the Indian side being shelled by Pakistani army when they engaged an infiltrating group of terrorists were not unknown. The terrorists could then manage to escape, even when the army had tracked them down.
In contrast, after the ceasefire, the army was able to construct the fencing on the LoC and strengthen its three-tiered deployment based on the fence. With the fence in place, the army was slowly able to bring the infiltration to a trickle. Intense counterinsurgency operations by the security forces eliminated existing militants in the Kashmir Valley, and lack of influx of new militants from across the LoC brought the violence down swiftly. This is borne out by data at the South Asian Terrorism Portal. While 4,507 people were killed in terrorist violence in 2001, this number came down to 117 in 2012. By the end of the last decade, the violence levels in the state had in fact come down to the pre-1990 levels.
If the ceasefire breaks down anytime soon, it will be very difficult to maintain and repair the LoC fence. With the covering fire from Pakistani soldiers available to the infiltrating terrorists, the number of active militants crossing over to operate in the Valley will only increase. Even if the number of terrorists does not reach the pre-2003 levels, increasing level of violence will require more security forces and greater tempo of counter-terrorist operations in populated areas of the Valley. That would be turning the clock back.
By publicly declaring a termination of operation after the surgical strike, India has indicated its preference for restoring the status quo on the LoC which suggests an understanding of the consequences of the lifting of ceasefire. Having won the perception battle with the surgical strike, it must now realise that tactical moves to satisfy domestic political constituencies cannot be allowed to impose unacceptable strategic costs on New Delhi and Srinagar. Greater punishment rendered on Pakistan army posts at the LoC will be of little help, if it leads to enhanced violence and revived militancy in the Kashmir Valley. While the ceasefire on the LoC may have been unilaterally offered by Pakistan 13 years ago, it is in India’s interest to maintain it now.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Beyond the war cry’)
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