India & Pakistan

Border flare-up

Print edition : November 14, 2014

An injured youth being being brought ot a medical facility in Jammu on October 8. The border skirmishes have cost 30 civilians their lives, and 30,000 people on both sides have been forced to leave their homes. Photo: AFP

A house in Treava village in the Arnia sector, Jammu, which was damaged in the cross-border shelling on October 7. Photo: Channi Anand/AP

A resident of the Kotli sector of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir shows mortar shapnel allegedly fired across the Line of Control. Photo: SAJJAD QAYYUM/AFP

A family leaves its village in Darra Sher Khan area of POK, following shelling from the Indian side. Photo: SAJJAD QAYYUM/AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during a meeting at Hyderabad house in New Delhi on May 27 when Shairf came to India to attend Modi's swearing-in ceremony. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

India and Pakistan trade charges as ceasefire violations along the LoC take many lives and affect thousands of families on both sides of the border.

THE ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan have been continuing since October 5. The shelling from both sides has already led to the loss of at least 30 civilian lives. Around 30,000 people on both sides have been forced to leave their homes. Farms have been abandoned. These have been described as the worst incidents along the LoC in more than a decade. Both New Delhi and Islamabad have been accusing each other of “unprovoked” firing. Neither side has so far come out with a convincing rationale for the continued firing. Pakistan on previous occasions has used firing as a cover to facilitate the inflow of militants from across the border into Kashmir.

Many Pakistani officials are of the view that domestic Indian politics was the trigger for the latest round of cross-border shelling. They claim that Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana and the forthcoming one in Jammu and Kashmir are factors influencing the Indian government’s belligerent posture towards their country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did frequently refer to the Indian Army’s tough response in highly surcharged nationalistic rhetoric during the election campaign. Both Modi and his Cabinet colleagues made it a point to frequently remind Islamabad “that the rules of the game have changed” with the coming of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power.

It is also no secret that the BJP wants to capture power in Jammu and Kashmir, too. Modi’s tough stance towards Islamabad seems to have evoked a popular response in the Jammu region. As it is, the BJP swept the region in the Lok Sabha elections. It has been reported that Modi did not bother to consult with the Cabinet Committee on Security before giving the green signal to the armed forces to escalate attacks along the LoC. The decision was taken solely in consultation with the hawkish National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval.

After Modi took over, the Indian Army has been given a freer hand in conducting aggressive patrolling along the border. A minor incident along the Line of Actual Control with China was allowed to be magnified when China’s President Xi Jinping visited India in September. The Chinese side did not allow the incident to overshadow the important state visit. All the same, it was evidently not amused at the attempts of the Indian Prime Minister to politicise a routine border incident in order to promote his “tough guy” image.

Increased bellicosity

In recent weeks, as the cross-border firing continued, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister issued strong warnings to Islamabad. Arun Jaitley, who holds the Defence and Finance portfolios, has been warning of a stronger response if the firing continues from the opposite side. He said that India, being a “responsible state”, would never be “an aggressor” but reminded the Pakistani side that the conventional military strength of the Indian armed forces was much stronger. He said that if Pakistan persisted in its “unprovoked” firing, it would feel the “pain of their adventurism”.

The Indian government took its own sweet time to call for “flag talks” between front-line army commanders. Usually, when violations occur along the LoC, the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) from both sides are quick to establish contact and defuse the situation. The hotline between the DGMOs of the two countries has been in place since 1965. In December last year, a call between the Indian and Pakistani DGMOs helped curtail a brief spurt of cross-border firing.

“The message we have been given from the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] is very precise and clear. The PMO has instructed us to ensure that Pakistan suffers deep and heavy losses,” a Home Ministry official told the Reuters news agency. The agency quoted residents of the area as saying that for every shell Pakistan lobs in, the Indian armed forces retaliate with six. Director General of the Punjab Rangers Maj. Gen. Khan Tahir Javed said at a news briefing in Islamabad that the kind of arms India was using was similar to those that are used in times of war.

Pakistan’s Minister of State for Frontier Regions, Lt Gen. (Retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, raised the sceptre of a nuclear conflict, which is a great worry for the international community. While blaming India for the cross-border violence, he said that countries possessing nuclear weapons “would not keep it merely in cold storage” but would “use it in time of need”. He hastened to add that the “serious situation” along the LoC should not be an excuse for war.

Pakistan Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif warned in the third week of October that any aggression against Pakistan would get a “befitting response”. Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khawaja Mohammad Asif, also told the media that with both India and Pakistan being nuclear weapons states, both sides had a responsibility to act sensibly. In fact, military and strategic analysts have concluded that India frittered away its conventional military advantage by going publicly nuclear in 1998, allowing Pakistan to follow suit. Pakistan since then has the guarantee of assured nuclear parity. A conventional war between the two countries is no longer a rational proposition, with both countries having nuclear weapons.

According to some reports, the Indian Army, angered by the improvised explosive devices (IED)-related deaths of some of its personnel on patrol duty last month, responded by targeting Pakistani posts across the LoC. According to these reports, the IEDs were planted on the Indian side of the LoC by Pakistan-based infiltrators. The Pakistani side alleged that the Indian side starting firing on the occasion of Eid-ul-Zuha, when people were in a celebratory mood. It also said that the Indian military actions were taking place at a time when the Pakistan Army was busy trying to quell the insurgency in Waziristan and other tribal areas. To add to Pakistan’s discomfiture, there was a brief military skirmish on its shared border with Iran on October 17. A Pakistani Army officer was among those killed. An Al Qaeda-linked militant group, Jundullah, has been staging terror attacks inside Iran from Pakistani territory for some years now. Another militant group, Jaish al-Adl, also based in Pakistan, had kidnapped five Iranian soldiers in February.

Taking it to the U.N.

Islamabad has been quick to complain to the international community about the continued intense shelling from the Indian side. In comparison, the Indian side is not complaining too much about the ongoing violations. Sartaj Aziz, Adviser to the Pakistan Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs, has been communicating with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon regularly these days. During his conversation on October 19, Aziz told the U.N. chief that Pakistan was exercising the “utmost restraint” but remained determined “to thwart any aggression”. The Secretary-General has been calling on both sides to de-escalate and has expressed concerns about the recent escalation in violence. On October 11, Aziz sent a letter to the U.N. chief detailing what he termed as India’s ceasefire violations along the LoC.

Pakistan has used the rising tensions along the LoC to try and once again bring the Kashmir dispute into the international spotlight. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in his September 26 speech at the U.N. General Assembly, dwelt on the Kashmir issue at length, pointing out that it was one of the oldest unresolved conflicts since the formation of the U.N. Aziz, in his letter, said that the international community had a responsibility to implement its own resolutions on Kashmir, including that of allowing Kashmiris the freedom to chart out their own future. Pakistan wants the U.N. Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to be further strengthened. India, on the other hand, has virtually suspended cooperation with UNMOGIP, which was set up by a U.N. Security Council Resolution in 1951. India has not approached the U.N. body to visit its side of the disputed border.

Aziz also drew the attention of the Secretary-General to India’s decision to abruptly call off the Foreign Secretary-level talks that were scheduled to be held on August 25. The sudden cancellation was a signal of the resolve of the new government in New Delhi to act tough. Pakistani diplomats claim that they have shown the maximum flexibility in dealing with the Modi government. Prime Minister Sharif, who has made improvement of relations with India a key aspect of his foreign policy, accepted Modi’s invitation to his swearing-in ceremony despite misgivings among influential sections of the Pakistani establishment. Pakistani officials say that when Sharif was meeting with Modi, the Indian Foreign Secretary, in her interaction with the media, was busy disparaging Pakistan. The Pakistani side wanted to respond to the allegations in New Delhi itself but was told by Prime Minister Sharif to desist from doing so in the interests of fostering good relations.

The Pakistanis also claim that the Indian government did not give them any prior warning on the cancellation of the Foreign Secretary-level talks. The Pakistan High Commissioner was waiting to receive the separatist leader Yasin Malik when he got an ultimatum from the External Affairs Ministry. Malik was released from house arrest only the previous day by the Indian authorities in Srinagar. The Pakistani side was under the mistaken belief that he was released to facilitate his meeting with the High Commissioner before the start of the Foreign Secretary-level talks. The Pakistani side has called for a speedy renewal of the dialogue process but at the same time it insists that there should not be any preconditions. Islamabad, according to senior diplomats, will keep on talking with all the stakeholders in the Kashmir conflict, including the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. They say that they are waiting for the Indian Prime Minister’s reaction when he will meet his South Asian counterparts, including his Pakistani counterpart, at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Kathmandu, next month.

And even as the firing across the LoC was continuing unabated, the international community sent a message of sorts to the two nations by the granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to an Indian and a Pakistani. The honour bestowed upon Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, according to the Nobel Committee’s chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland, was a modest effort to nudge the two countries a little closer. Poverty, illiteracy and extremism are among the main challenges the two countries face. Instead of tackling these, the governments are more focussed on beefing up their military preparedness. Malala has said that she wants the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers to be present in Oslo during the prize-giving ceremony. Satyarthi has said that he would like Malala to join hands with him to fight for “peace in our region”. He hailed the Nobel Committee’s decision as “a great statement” in the context of “the present scenario between India and Pakistan”.