War-winds? No heads-up yet

Making sense of step-up: Sharifs play their game

The ongoing exchange of fire across the 740-km Line of Control (LoC) and the 199-km International Border (IB) is understandably in the news and cause for much speculation.

Making sense of step-up: Sharifs play their game

A BSF patrol at the International Border near Jammu. Photo: Inderjeet Singh

Dinesh Kumar in Chandigarh

The ongoing exchange of fire across the 740-km Line of Control (LoC) and the 199-km International Border (IB) is understandably in the news and cause for much speculation. In reality, however, there is nothing unusual about it. Rather the intensity and scale is as yet lower than the decade preceding the unsigned ceasefire agreement reached on 25th November 2003 when Atal Behari Vajpayee was Prime Minster and General Pervez Musharraf was President. It is nevertheless among the most intense since the ceasefire agreement came into effect.

The current spate of firing needs to be viewed in the context of three factors. First, the cross-LoC/IB firing is occurring in the backdrop of the Indian Army’s retaliatory attack (termed ‘surgical strike by the government) on terrorist launch pads at five places across the LoC in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) in response to the Sept 18 terror attack on an Army camp in Uri. Unlike in the past when such retaliatory attacks were executed quietly by the Army at the tactical level, this time it was done on the explicit direction of the political executive which then publicly announced it. This has understandably riled the Pakistani Army which is seeking revenge. There is as yet no resumption of firing along the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) located ahead of the Siachen glacier reminiscent of the 1990s. Neither has the current fiery dual erupted across the entire length of the LoC or escalated to wanton artillery shelling by both sides. However, last month the Indian Army reportedly fired on Pakistani posts in the Keran Sector of north Kashmir’s Kupwara district with stealthily deployed artillery guns in straight fire position to avenge the mutilation of an Army soldier’s body. 

Second, much of the fiery exchange so far has been along the IB (termed ‘working boundary’ by Pakistan) . Indian villages located close to the IB pose soft targets. In contrast there are fewer Indian villages located close to the LoC. Even so, the current level of firing has not led to villagers being (temporarily) displaced on a scale reminiscent of September-October 2014 when about 35,000 civilians left their villages. 

The third factor is the ongoing tussle between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Army led by Gen Raheel Sharif. There is uncertainty whether Gen Sharif will retire this month-end as earlier announced or will get an extension. Listing three possibilities, former Chief of Army Staff, General VP Malik, says either Gen Sharif will get an extension or the PM will be forced to demit office. A third and unlikely possibility is that Gen Sharif retires as scheduled paving the way for tyhe PM to appoint a successor.

Irrespective of what is eventually decided, the borders between J&K and POK will continue to reflect the ‘No-War No-Peace’ environment. The names of soldiers killed in action inscribed on the imposing War Memorial at the Northern Command headquarters in Udhampur tell a sordid story. In the 12-year period starting from the inception of this Army Command in 1972 until 1983, the Army lost a total 12 soldiers along the LoC. In the following six years (1984-1989), the Army lost 480 soldiers mainly on account of the Indian Army establishing posts along the high altitude Saltoto ridge ahead of the Siachen glacier and the consequent fire fights. 

There has since been a dramatic rise in casualties. With terrorism and insurgency beginning in December 1989, an estimated 6,245 security force personnel belonging to all uniformed forces in the state have been killed between 1990 and 2016. In 2002, which was immediately after the October 2001 terror attack on the J&K state assembly in Srinagar and the December 2001 terror attack on Parliament, there were 2,644 incidents of firing across the LoC/ AGPL/ IB in that single year. 

The ‘ceasefire’, which came into effect in 2003, has not been without significant violations. It is, however, difficult to authenticate the exact number of such violations owing to differing figures officially released by India and Pakistan and also because of contradictory figures released by New Delhi. For example, on August 12, 2014 then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley informed Rajya Sabha that 62, 114 and 347 violations, respectively, had occurred across the LoC in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Seven months later on March 17, 2015, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar informed Rajya Sabha that 51, 93, 199 and 153 violations, respectively, had occurred in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Furthermore, Parrikar listed 183 violations between 2004 and 2010 with the least number recorded in 2004 (just one). 

Opinion is divided whether such firing makes any sense. “Currently the firing is normal and restricted to low calibre weapons. Artillery guns and interdiction of their lines of communication will sort them out”, suggests Lt General JS Dhillon who headed the Srinagar-based XV Corps from 1995 to mid-1997. But the issue begs the question of what cross-LoC firing serves in the long run. For, such firing has not stopped Pakistan’s ongoing proxy war in J&K. Should not New Delhi be seriously and concertedly working on an effective long-term strategy?

dkumar@tribunemail.com

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