Home / Politics / Policy /  The troubling rise of Indo-Pak border tensions

The number of ceasefire violations in Kashmir along the India-Pakistan Line of Control and the international border has increased tremendously over the past five years, and rather dramatically since 2017 in particular. This summer, the Indian government informed the Lok Sabha that 881 ceasefire violations (CFVs) had taken place in 2017, compared to only 449 in 2016.

On the Pakistani side, the figures given by the General Head Quarters of the Army in late October 2017 were even higher. Pakistan’s Director General Military Operations (DGMO) recorded 1,299 CFVs in 2017 and 382 in 2016. 2018 is not yet over, but the number of CFVs registered in India by this summer are already higher that the total number for 2017: in July, the Minister of Defence told Rajya Sabha that 942 CFVs had already taken place along the LoC and 490 along the international border. The number of casualties has increased too.

Searching for explanations for this alarming rise, Indian scholar Happymon Jacob suggests in a remarkable recent study, Ceasefire violations in Jammu and Kashmir: A Line on Fire, that local factors are the main variable of interest. Indeed, the construction of new bunkers, or the maintenance of old ones, offer opportunities for firing. But the use of mortars—which has been increasingly observed over the last couple of years—could not be initiated locally without a certain amount of prior political clearance.

The fact that political factors play a major role is evident from the impact of the 2003 agreement, as Jacob himself points out. CFVs dropped dramatically after this agreement because the then-Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf had made a determined political move. Responding positively to Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s conditions for talks, Musharraf had put a stop to cross-border infiltrations—which were clearly responsible for a large number of CFVs in the 1990s because cover firings were orchestrated during infiltration attempts. At the time, according to Kurshid Kasuri, who was Musharraf’s Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2002 and 2007, the Pakistani establishment thought that the Indian government was prepared for peace talks because the post-2001 military standoff between the two countries had taken them nowhere.

The November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai sealed the fate of any possible bilateral talks. But why have CFVs intensified so much since 2013?

Pressure tactic

That year was a milestone because Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister and immediately expressed a desire to relaunch the India-Pakistan rapprochement that he had earlier initiated in the late 1990s, when he had invited Vajpayee to Lahore. At that time, the army had derailed the talks by initiating the Kargil operation. In 2013, with a similar operation out of the question, the Pakistani deep state could only torpedo Nawaz Sharif’s agenda by mounting pressure on the bilateral relationship by creating a climate, through CFVs, which made peace talks unsustainable.

However, New Delhi’s interpretation varies slightly. As Jacob points out, “India asserts terrorist infiltration from Pakistan is the primary cause for CFVs" because firing is supposed to cover the entry of Islamists by diverting the attention of the Indian army. This reading of the CFVs is not contradictory with the previous one, as infiltrators may also be used for sabotaging talks through terrorist attacks. But it needs to be qualified. First, there is no systematic correlation between the infiltrations and CFVs.

Certainly, infiltrations are not over, as is evident from the testimonies of the Kashmiri women of the Neelum Valley, who have been interviewed by Anam Zakaria, a Pakistani scholar who has recently authored a path-breaking book on the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir. One of the women interviewed by Zakaria says: “...our demand from the army is to stop shelling and stop the mujahideen [who are infiltrating India]. Of course, the army has helped control the mujahideen to some extent too. They pressured them to stop after the 2003 ceasefire and that’s why the firing halted. But today, they tell us the infiltration is no longer happening and we see it as a lie. After magrib (sunset), we see their vehicles".

In the late 1990s, there were protests led by women demanding an end to infiltration in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Interestingly, similar movements have started again since 2013-14.

But recorded infiltrations are decreasing even as CFVs are increasing. Compared to what it was in the 1990s, the flow of jihadis has drastically diminished, as evident from the Indian data itself. This reduction is in part due to the building of an electric border fence (which remains incomplete) by India, as well as the attitude of the Pakistani army, which has concentrated more on the Afghan border than the Indian one for almost ten years.

If infiltration is one of the variables that has to be factored in, it cannot be seen as an independent variable. The motivation of the mujahideen—and the support they receive from their mentors in Pakistan, be they from jihadi groups or the establishment—seems to be a function of the situation on the Indian side. For instance, the killing of Burhan Wani, in July 2016, resulted in additional infiltrations, not only because more people were prepared to take revenge, but also because Indian Kashmiris seemed more likely to welcome infiltrators with open arms: in that sense, there is a correlation between state’s repression in Jammu and Kashmir, the correlative intensification of the insurgency, the additional infiltrations, and the CFVs resulting from them.

The Indian strategy

The strategy of the Indian state needs to be analysed beyond its Jammu and Kashmir policy and politics. India has also hardened its attitude vis-à-vis Pakistan, as evident from the official justification of the largely publicized “surgical strike" of September 2016 in Kashmir, a response to the Uri attack, which was supposed to dissuade the Pakistanis from continuing to send infiltrators across and, by extension, result in spiraling ceasefire violations on both sides of the border. This surgical strike has apparently failed to deter Pakistan. In fact, the number of CFVs only started to decline in May 2018, when both countries negotiated a border truce. One of the apparent reasons for this truce was that Pakistan heavily targeted Hindu-dominated districts in Jammu, resulting in anti-government protests among BJP’s support base—which convinced the ruling party to adopt a more accommodating approach.

Pakistan has also begun to adopt a more moderate attitude. It seems that the Pakistani army is more prepared for talks under the Chief of Army, General Bajwa than under General Raheel Sharif. Bajwa is apparently worried about the economic crisis affecting the country and considers the military expenditure necessary for a war on two fronts as unsustainable. A victim of rising oil prices as well as declining exports and remittances, Pakistan has paid for its deficits by borrowing more money.

The “Bajwa doctrine" is probably in tune with Imran Khan’s priorities since the new Prime Minister of Pakistan needs to find the money for the Islamic welfare state he has promised during the recent election campaign. In his victory speech, he told Indians: “If you take one step forward, we will take two steps forward".

Chinese interests

This attitude is in sync with the emerging stance of China, which is directly interested in pacifying the region where it is investing billions of dollars within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. It would be in China’s interest to see Pakistan redeploying some troops to protect Chinese workers— instead of being stuck on the LoC.

Already, the CFVs are much less in regions where 3,000 Chinese workers are developing infrastructure (like the Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project) and building roads, as if this big neighbour/all-weather friend had to be spared. China’s pressure on Pakistan may also partly explain the attitude of General Bajwa and Imran Khan. Already, in February, it has sent a message to Pakistan by allowing its ally to be placed on a terrorism-financing watchlist, possibly out of fear that there may be some jihadi connections to the Uighur movement in western China.

In his congratulatory message to Imran Khan, Narendra Modi responded constructively, calling for dialogue. Imran Khan then sought a meeting between the Indian and Pakistani ministers of foreign affairs, Sushma Swaraj and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, respectively. They were supposed to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. India had agreed to a meeting on September 26, but called it off less than twenty-four hours after confirming. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs cited two reasons: the “brutal killings" of Indian security personnel at the hands of “Pakistan-based entities" and the release of twenty postage stamps “glorifying a terrorist," Burhan Wani—two things that had happened before the ministry had confirmed the talks.

Analysts have explained this U-turn by suggesting that New Delhi belatedly realized that the government would be celebrating the second anniversary of the surgical strike only three days after the meeting. Contradictory signals would be sent if peace talks were followed, that closely, by a grand commemoration of a trans-border attack against Pakistan. This explanation is quite convincing but needs to be seen in a larger perspective: the BJP is now in election mode, and it is difficult to talk to Pakistani officials in this context because their country has played a major role in the party’s recent election campaigns.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, since his years as Gujarat’s chief minister, has probably referred to the “Pakistani threat" during his election campaigns more than any other Indian politician.

Till the 2019 election, Modi will probably not move ahead, in order to cultivate his image of a tough leader. But 2019 may open a new chapter if, like in 2003, the hawks are in charge on both sides of the border —since, paradoxically, doves will never be allowed to make peace in the region.

However, the proximity of Prime Minister Imran Khan with Islamic forces may complicate a Pakistan-India rapprochement. Last month, one of his ministers had shared a platform with Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization that India holds responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack.

This article draws from a Carnegie brief . It relies mostly on interviews that the author conducted in the framework of the King’s College–based “Mapping Borders: Ceasefire Violations Across the India-Pakistan Line of Control".

Christophe Jaffrelot is a Senior Research Scholar at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS and Professor at the King’s India Institute in London.

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