Ceasefire violations

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Border Security Force soldiers patrol a bridge built over a stream near the Line of Control at Sabjiyan in Poonch district on August 8. Photo: MUKESH GUPTA/REUTERS

THE November 2003 ceasefire agreement was a landmark in the strained bilateral relations between India and Pakistan. It came after a long cycle of violence along the 725-kilometre-long Line of Control (LoC) which divides Jammu and Kashmir into two parts. It followed a framework of military confidence-building measures (CBMs) that kept the artillery pieces at least 20 km away from the LoC, thus promising a sustained halt to heavy firing.

Not only did the ceasefire help the implementation of non-military CBMs such as a cross-LoC bus service and trade, but it also came as a huge relief to tens of thousands of people living along the LoC. However, during the past nine months, the calm has been shattered by a string of actions by both sides. The latest was the killing of five Indian soldiers in the Poonch sector on August 5. The incident opened a debate at the political level on whether engagement with Islamabad was of any use at this stage. Besides the “highly charged” television studios, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party under whose watch the 2003 peace initiative was taken, has its swords out to nail the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for what it calls its “flawed and weak” policy towards Pakistan.

The Poonch incident needs to be seen against the backdrop of a “pattern” that has evolved since October 2012, when Pakistan complained of India taking up border works in the Churunda area of the Uri sector and said that was in “violation of ceasefire agreement”. The allegation was vehemently denied by India, but it opened the gate for recurring ceasefire violations on both sides. Soldiers of both countries got killed and even civilians were targeted. A pregnant woman, Shaheena Bano, was hit by Pakistani fire in Churunda village on October 16, 2012, and died instantly. Two more civilians fell victim to firing from the other side. From 1990 to 2003, Churunda had borne the brunt of such shelling; 71 of its residents were killed during that period. Other villages near the LoC have not fared much better.

“The ceasefire in 2003 was a God-given gift for the hapless population that has been a victim of the wars between India and Pakistan since 1947,” says Mukhtar Ahmad, a resident of Garkot village. “People could sleep in peace in their homes after 15 years and that was the best thing that could have happened in their lives.”

Thousands of people were displaced from the LoC and forced to either take shelter in the 6,000 dungeons constructed by the government or move elsewhere. “The violence was traumatic,” said a resident. Hard times now seem to be returning as the armies on both sides have started locking horns again on the border. “Ultimately, we will again be the sufferers,” said Hajra Begum, who lives in Uroosa village near the Kaman Post which connects the two Kashmirs through the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service. “In case the hostilities increase, we will leave our homes forever,” said Hajra, who has been witness to two wars between India and Pakistan, besides the long spell of violence since 1989.

Intriguingly, the governments of the two countries have not gone deep into the causes of this renewed spell of attrition. A senior security officer, wishing anonymity, said that whatever was happening on the LoC was a “real mystery”. On the face of it, the political leaderships in both countries do not approve of it. The pertinent question then arises: Whose interest is served by these skirmishes?

Before the August 5 incident, four herb collectors from Pakistan were killed by Indian soldiers as part of their offensive against infiltrators, security analysts have found. Pakistan maintained that they were innocent civilians whose corpses were thrown on the LoC. The Indian side confirmed that they killed “five infiltrators” but their bodies could not be retrieved as they “were lying very far” away.

Confusion over who actually was responsible for the killing of five Indian soldiers was evident in the Indian establishment as Defence Minister A.K. Antony had to change his statement at least thrice before he could conclude that Pakistani troops were responsible. The perception was that pressure from a section of the media made him change the statements.

In January, beheadings of Lance-Naik Hem Raj and Lance-Naik Sudhakar Naik had heightened tension between the two countries. Then, too, no significant effort was made to ascertain the reasons for this spurt of violence on the LoC.

At the same time, the Manmohan Singh government has not shown any lack of interest in engaging with Pakistan in talks, apart from the usual tough talking. However, the atmosphere can get charged ahead of the general elections. In Pakistan, too, there are forces that continue to work against peace.

In Kashmir, the increase in violence has disturbed the otherwise peaceful atmosphere. With an increase in infiltration, the tensions are likely to increase.

The Army claimed to have killed at least 12 militants in the last week of July in north Kashmir’s Kupwara sector alone and in Jammu division more than 40 ceasefire violations have taken place in the recent past. On August 11, a Border Security Force (BSF) soldier was killed on the international border in Jammu in Pakistani firing.

It is difficult to guess what the motive behind this renewed tension is. In any case, it surely does not help widen the scope of political engagement on both sides.

Shujaat Bukhari