A line without ceasefires

The Modi government’s ability to deal with Pakistan and China will be no different from what previous governments have done. The military balance with Pakistan does not permit action that amounts to a deterrent and a befitting response to ceasefire violations since India has not developed the wherewithal and political will for it

October 18, 2014 02:11 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:26 pm IST

The deadly exchange of fire at the border over 10 days this month has ended or at least is on pause till the next round of Pakistani trigger-happiness. The Line of Control (LoC) is animated by what veterans who have spent most of their salad days manning posts astride it call “its local dynamics.” On October 10, just around the time when the firing was petering out, an ebullient Prime Minister Narendra Modi thundered at an election rally: “Pakistan has got a befitting lesson. They will not dare to repeat it. Our jawans have shut their mouth.”

He may have spoken too soon as he does not understand the dynamics that activate the LoC. One more ceasefire violation is round the corner! But he got right his forecast on October 8, Air Force Day, while speaking to reporters — that “soon everything will be all right.” While this episode of firing may have ended, all will not be alright till the Pakistan Army has decided it is alright, and some day, return to observing the ceasefire agreement of November 2003.

Violations and reasons Ceasefire violations occur cyclically and are often premeditated but are invariably linked to keeping the LoC hot and alive in order to internationalise the Kashmir issue. Feuding local commanders, testing the mettle of opposing new battalions on the LoC, tit-for-tat tactical responses, aiding infiltration and maintaining moral ascendency across the Line are the usual reasons for exchanges of fire. This is frequently accompanied from the Pakistan side by Border Action Teams (BAT) laying ambushes, planting improvised explosive devices (IED) and raiding posts. In 2013 for example, the accent was on actions by border action teams; this year it is on laying IEDs. Additional reasons for the firing started by Pakistani Rangers are: derailing the peace process, fouling up the atmosphere before the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir and, last but not the least, testing Mr. Modi.

Nine times out of ten, it is the autonomous Pakistan military that initiates the firing though there is no way to ascertain this in the absence of the United Nations Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), derecognised by India after the Simla Agreement which focussed on bilateralism. Article 4(ii) of the Simla Agreement reads: “the LoC resulting from the cease fire of 17 December shall be respected without prejudice to the recognised position of either side. Neither side will alter it unilaterally irrespective of differences … and refrain from threat or use of force in violation of this line.”

Maintaining strategic parity Clearly, IEDs being laid was synchronised with scuppering Pakistan National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz’s peace overtures to India, starting October 4, when he said that Pakistan wanted peace with India. This cycle of firing was confined to small arms and heavy mortars only — no artillery — reflecting that neither side wanted to escalate the conflict. TV commentators went overboard talking about war when there was not an iota of a chance for it. When the firing had caused considerable damage to life — some killed and many wounded on both sides — and the law of diminishing returns had set in, Pakistan chose to stop/suspend the firing. It had achieved its immediate objectives of internationalising Kashmir and souring the ambience for talks. The unintended consequences of the episodic firing are that they will help the Modi government in the Assembly elections.

“Pakistan should stop ceasefire violations now and understand the reality: that times have changed in India,” said Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. This is reminiscent of the days after India’s nuclear tests in 1998 when leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) asked Pakistan to lay off Kashmir. Even before those threats could register, Islamabad carried out its tit-for-tat nuclear tests. No one should forget that Pakistan will eat grass in order to maintain strategic parity with India. It is this sacred mission for which it will sup with the devil if required. China, the United States and the Islamic world, notably Saudi Arabia, will not let Pakistan go down especially after it acquired nuclear weapons. The common refrain from BJP leaders including Mr. Modi is: “this is a new government ... we have come to power with 282 seats ... the world now recognises India.” Still, India can neither make the Pakistan Army stop violating the ceasefire agreement nor give it a befitting deterrent response.

India must get used to ceasefire violations, as the Pakistan Army will use the LoC as a punching bag to express its rage and defiance against its government as well as India.

The ground reality is that even with 404 seats, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had to seek a meeting with President Gen Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s to defuse the India-initiated “Operation Brass Tacks.” India does not possess decisive conventional military superiority to calibrate its military response to ceasefire violations in a manner that will impose unaffordable costs. This is precisely what Union Defence Minister Arun Jaitley threatened to do — and the course is fraught with the danger of escalation. Sixty-seven years after the first Kashmir war, the LoC is more or less where it was then, merely undergoing a change of nomenclature from ceasefire line to line of control and registering millions of ceasefire violations.

The stark reality on the limits on the use of force and the costs of an unsettled Line of Control and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was illustrated vividly during the historic visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Despite Mr. Modi’s event managerial, oratorial skills and personal chemistry with Mr. Xi, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) staged unprecedented border intrusions at Demchok and Chumar, coinciding with its leader’s visit. No high profile visit has ever taken place even as an intrusion is in place. What is more, it was defused only a week after President Xi had departed. Not only did President Xi brush aside Mr. Modi’s call to clarify the LAC, but even had the gall to say that “such incidents will happen as LAC is not demarcated but such incidents can be controlled due to border mechanisms to maintain peace and tranquillity.”

The Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Dalbir Singh, was right in not allowing the tactical responses to firings on the working boundary and LoC to blow up the strategic cover of political engagement. Indian politicians do not understand the games that are played on the LoC and the tit-for-tat score scratching that goes on. No one is entirely innocent but both sides blame the other for starting the firing.

Deterrence Pakistan has been restrained by the U.S. from unleashing its Punjabi Taliban like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to stage cross-border, Mumbai-like or smaller scale attacks in India. The last two big strikes were in 2001 against Parliament and Mumbai in 2008 — with a seven-year gap. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year end will give the Pakistan-aided Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis a leg up. This will also be seen as an opportunity for the third major strike in India sometime in 2015. New Delhi should not be distracted by this low-level diversion and instead focus on the next big one and how to deter it. At the same time, it must take abundant precautions to pre-empt any uprising in Kashmir.

The Modi government’s ability to deal with Pakistan and China will be no different from what previous governments have done. There maybe some cosmetic changes but essentially, the military balance with Pakistan does not permit the exercising of the kind of plausible and deniable punitive action that amounts to a deterrent and a befitting response since we have not developed the skills, wherewithal and political will for it. Instead, it is about enacting tough rhetoric: disproportionate response, no flag meetings, no talks by the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMO) and no dialogue till Pakistan stops firing.

India must get used to ceasefire violations, as the Pakistan Army will use the LoC as a punching bag to express its rage and defiance against its government as well as India. The rules of engagement were changed after the attack on Mumbai. The Modi government has only articulated its position more sharply but wants a dialogue process to restart. The National Security Committee of Pakistan met last week and has repeated its desire for peace. Kathmandu, the venue of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) next month is the ideal place to announce a resumption of the dialogue process, invoking the spirit of SAARC that Mr. Modi has infused right from day one of his inaugural.

(Gen. Ashok K. Mehta is the convener of the India-Pakistan Track 2 Dubai dialogue and Convener, Afghanistan Policy Group.)

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