It took only four days for the “renewed" India-Pakistan ceasefire to begin its collapse. On 29 May, the director generals of military operations (DGMOs) of the two countries had met and vowed to “fully implement" their 2003 ceasefire agreement in “letter and spirit". Less than 100 hours later, troops on both sides were shooting at each other again. In the fortnight since, there have been intermittent exchanges of fire and artillery shelling along the Line of Control and international border; seven Indian soldiers have died. The hope that the DGMOs’ announcement would put an end to the years-long border violence now seems lost. If the current trend holds, it is certain that 2018 will prove to be a bloodier year for the India-Pakistan border than 2017, just as that year was bloodier than the previous one and so on.
Unfortunately, by now, both sides have become so used to the violence that it is rarely recognized that even for a disputed border, this amount of violence is disturbingly high by global standards. In the last five years, the India-Pakistan border has seen more incidents annually than the total number of armistice violations between North and South Korea since 1953. In most other parts of the world, it is inconceivable for two nuclear powers to maintain this level of active military engagement with such frequency.
One of the key problems with understanding or predicting anything about the border violence is that the topic is shrouded in secrecy and myths. Moreover, the decades-long disputes over the boundary and the resulting claims, accusations, diplomatic stratagems and negotiating tactics have kicked up an enormous cloud of confusion. Consequently, both sides maintain and believe completely different narratives about the border. Unsurprisingly then, it is near-impossible to accurately gauge the ground-level situation. Today, it is difficult to answer even the most basic of the questions: why does border violence happen at all?
Officially, India maintains that of the approximately 4,000 military-to-military incidents on the border since 2003, all have been initiated by Pakistan except two—the much-hyped Indian surgical strike in 2016 and its smaller repeat version in December 2017. A claim of such absoluteness naturally leaves many sceptical. Of course, Pakistan maintains that India is to blame for all of the
Indian officials also claim that almost all the incidents are carried out by Pakistani forces to give cover to infiltrating militants trying to cross the border. There is some truth to this. Pakistan follows a similar policy on its western border with Afghanistan, where earlier it was reported to regularly fire at even American border posts to allow Taliban to slip by. However, blaming all of the violence on this trend may be going too far. There are plenty of years when estimated infiltration attempts went down while border incidents went up and vice versa. In 2017, the bloodiest year on the border since 2003, India estimates that there were 406 infiltration attempts and 971 border incidents, some of them lasting for days.
Some observers have suggested that there is another explanation for the border violence, one grounded in more local reasons—emotional history of a particular unit, high-profile visits to the border, defence construction, etc. As many frontline troops would attest, there is some truth to this as well. For two armies standing eyeball-to-eyeball for decades, there is bound to be some bad blood which goes beyond larger politics.
However, beyond these two factors, there has to be a larger policy at play as demonstrated by the numbers. The historical figures of ceasefire violence are neither proportionate to infiltration attempts, nor random (as the local factors explanation would suggest). Strangely, the violence trend doesn’t even seem to relate to larger India-Pakistan relations. For instance, in 2009, in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attack, when relations between the two neighbours were at their nadir, the number of incidents actually went down by 50%.
Yet, the violence does show a discernible pattern. For the first four years of the ceasefire, the number of incidents remained near zero. From 2008-2012, the figures began creeping upwards very slowly, reaching low triple digits. Finally from 2013 onwards, the violence started to escalate quickly, rapidly reaching 971 last year. This year, it is likely to cross the threshold of 1,000 given that the renewed ceasefire doesn’t seem to be holding.
This clear pattern suggests that the border violence is result of a policy decision—either in New Delhi or Islamabad or in both capitals. While infiltration or local causes may account for individual incidents, there is some kind of control being exercised by higher authorities to ensure that the cumulative trend of violence goes up or down. However, given the paucity of accurate data, it is difficult to speculate on the strategic or political reasons for such a policy. More importantly, without understanding such policies, it is near-impossible to construct a ceasefire agreement that can hold. As long as one doesn’t know what the players want, how can one broker a truce?
To overcome this problem, the Indian government must consider infusing greater transparency and honesty into the discussion surrounding the India-Pakistan border. If Pakistan is indeed principally responsible for the violence, New Delhi must start presenting credible facts and figures. Such an approach will not only help in better understanding of Pakistan’s motives but also allow India to build an effective case against it on the international stage. Conversely, if it is India which has the initiative and which is choosing to increase or decrease the level of border violence, it must step forward and explain its thinking to its people. Greater openness and transparency on border violence and on the larger issue of the India-Pakistan border will only help India in its never-ending border conflict.
Sandeep Bhardwaj is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research specializing in South-Asian geopolitics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org