Disquiet on the western front

Illustration: Surendra   | Photo Credit: surendra

In April this year, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs constituted a Committee to Strengthen Border Protection (CSBP) with a mandate “to study all types of gaps in fencing and all other vulnerabilities on >Indo-Pakistan Border and to suggest comprehensive approach to fix these gaps in fencing and other vulnerabilities on interim and permanent basis”. The committee, which has since made a number of field trips to various parts of India’s border with Pakistan (from Jammu and Kashmir to Gujarat), is expected to give its recommendations to the government anytime soon.

The Home Ministry’s decision is timely and laudable. >Recurrent ceasefire violations , increasing infiltration attempts by Pakistan-based terror groups, and daring attacks by such intruders thereafter necessitate a close look at the way our western border is manned and managed. The mandate of this committee, however, falls severely short of addressing key legal, physical, and personnel challenges that our forces face in guarding these difficult borders.

The India-Pakistan border is a non-uniform one in terms of terrain, threat perception, potential for terrorist infiltration, illegal activities such as smuggling, humanitarian issues, legal basis of border management, and the forces that manage the border. From Kashmir to Sir Creek, each segment of the border has a diverse set of challenges to confront. Given the backdrop of such a panoply of challenges, the very composition of the CSBP is less than satisfactory: it has no representation from the two forces that manage India’s border with Pakistan — primarily the Border Security Force (BSF), and the Indian Army to a lesser extent.

Lacking bilateral legal basis

Since the mandate of the CSBP and the expertise of its members are both severely limited, it is likely to come up with another set of >‘ad hoc’ solutions to serious challenges in managing our western border, unless it is willing to address and appreciate some of the recurrent and long-standing issues.

It is surprising that there is hardly any bilateral treaty/legal basis to guide the management of the border between India and Pakistan. The India Pakistan Border Ground Rules, 1960-61, which is ‘supposed’ to form the basis of the management of the International Border (IB) between the two sides, has not been signed by the two governments. More so, India does not officially recognise the ground rules. The two sides last met in 2005 to frame new rules, but there has been no movement thereafter. Senior BSF officials in New Delhi say that they have been reminding the Home Ministry to finalise the same. More curiously, even though the two sides have not yet signed the ground rules, they have to abide by it in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat since there is practically nothing else to go by. That, strictly speaking, is an ad hoc arrangement to manage a border that runs into thousands of kilometres.

There is also confusion when it comes to the IB in the Jammu sector. It is not even considered as a settled IB (unlike in Punjab, Rajasthan, etc.) by Pakistan. And yet, the two sides do adhere to the ground rules there even though India maintains their observance is an ad hoc arrangement and Pakistan claims the border itself is ad hoc. BSF officials in Jammu confirmed to this author during a recent field trip along India’s Pakistan border that they follow the 1960-61 ground rules. So do Pakistan Rangers, as an ad hoc arrangement, of course. Officials in Pakistan and India say that they will continue to follow the 1960-61 rules till new rules are finalised by both sides.

While the border in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat has not had any significant issues due to the non-finalisation of the 1960-61 ground rules, this poses a serious problem in the Jammu sector, especially given Pakistan’s non-recognition of the finality of this border and the recurrent ceasefire violations that happen in the region, like the one a few days ago. Unlike what is generally understood, for instance, ceasefire violations are often a result of local-level factors, many of which can be avoided if the two sides have a mutually agreed set of rules to go by.

From the archieve: >India, Pak. agree on truce in harvest season

Karachi v. Shimla Agreements

The other major treaty-related confusion is regarding the basis of border management on the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. India has generally argued that the >Shimla Agreement of 1972 (which brought the current LoC into existence) made the Karachi Agreement of 1949 (which refers to the Ceasefire Line) irrelevant, something Pakistan disagrees with.

Now comes the twist. When it comes to the management of the LoC, both the Indian and Pakistani armies do swear by the strictures of the Karachi Agreement. For instance, the Karachi Agreement stipulates that there should be no new defence construction, such as bunkers, within 500 yards of the LoC, which is adhered to by both sides — at least theoretically (both sides engage in defence construction in defiance of this rule, even while paying lipservice to it). When pointed out that the 500-yard stipulation has no validity under the Shimla Agreement, a senior Indian Army officer in Kashmir responded that they have always followed the stipulations of the Karachi Agreement. This was confirmed by every officer I met in Kashmir during my recent field trip. Clearly, this then means that we are going by ad hoc arrangements when it comes to managing the LoC, a line that is rife with multiple challenges.

The 2003 ceasefire agreement

The so-called 2003 Ceasefire Agreement is yet another example of bilateral ad hocism. India and Pakistan have so far taken no serious steps to formalise the 13-year-old agreement, the result of a telephone conversation between the two Directors General of Military Operations in November 2003. Scores of soldiers and civilians have been killed by ceasefire violations, but that hasn’t forced the two sides to formalise the agreement.

The ceasefire agreement, as it stands today, is not a written document with properly laid-down rules, norms or principles which would have enabled the two sides to better manage the border and reduce violence and casualties. Indeed, both serving and retired officers, on both sides, support this. A senior serving Army officer in the Valley says that the “2003 ceasefire should be formalised and regularised. It is important to have a written ceasefire agreement for better managing the border with Pakistan”. Pakistani officials also agree on it; indeed, Islamabad has called upon India more than once to formalise the 2003 agreement. In October last year, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in India once again asked New Delhi “to formalise the 2003 (ceasefire) agreement”. New Delhi is yet to respond to it.

Physical and personnel challenges

There are a number of physical challenges to securing the border, especially the maintenance of the fence which has successfully reduced infiltration and cross-border crime. The fence has a number of gaps across the States it runs through. While in Kashmir snowfall plays havoc with it, in Jammu and Punjab torrential rains and overflowing rivers create gaps in the fence. The fence in Rajasthan’s Thar desert gets seriously impacted by the shifting sand dunes. Infiltrations take place through these gaps in J&K, and sometimes in Punjab. Then there are the India-Pakistan smuggling rackets: the fence is hardly an obstacle for them, nor is the presence of the BSF along the fence. This task clearly reflected in the mandate of the CSBP.

Inadequate personnel and the consequent hardship faced by troops on the ground are the other major challenge facing the management of India’s western border. During my visit to a BSF post in the Thar desert on a June afternoon this year, I met a young BSF jawan guarding a post, in 55°C, watching the Indian fence almost completely covered by shifting sand dunes. “You guys do a great job. How many hours do you have to be on guard duty every day in this heat?” I asked. “Around 16 hours. But we can’t survive with goodwill alone, sir.”

This despondent response from a BSF jawan in the Thar desert is symbolic of the deep-seated anger and the sense of anguish that persists among all ranks of the force about the stepmotherly treatment meted out to them. While the BSF guards most of the Indian border with Pakistan, including taking bullets in times of ceasefire violations in J&K, they are neither treated on a par with the Army when it comes to pay and facilities — though as per rules they are supposed to fight alongside the Army should a war break out — nor are they considered equal to civilian organisations when it comes to the question of promotions. The sheer lack of boots on the ground, which results in 16-18 hour duty for the soldiers in such prohibitive conditions, needs to be addressed, as well as the issue of stagnation within the ranks of the force.

The Home Ministry’s high-level committee should therefore look beyond its narrowly defined mandate and suggest ways to rectify the ad hoc manner in which we guard our western border. To believe that “gaps in the fence” is the only challenge there is in managing the borders with Pakistan is delusional.

Happymon Jacob is an Associate Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 1:32:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Disquiet-on-the-western-front/article14574579.ece

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