WHEN THE 22-year-old Kapil Kundu’s body landed at Delhi Airport on February 5th, the Indian Army’s top brass was there to receive it, as was Defence Minister Nirmala Seetharaman. After a quiet and solemn ceremony, Captain Kundu’s remains were taken to his home near the capital. The Army officer, along with riflemen Ramavatar and Shubham Singh and havildar Roshan Lal, was killed a day earlier in the Bhimber Gali area of Rajouri district of Jammu & Kashmir.
The end of these soldiers came after a remarkably intense bout of shelling by the Pakistani army. What has alarmed many is the use of anti-tank guided missiles in this round of firing across the Line of Control (LoC). It is not unusual for Indian and Pakistani troops to fire small arms and even mortars at each other, but the use of heavy weapons marks a serious escalation.
Ceasefire violations across the LoC are commonplace too. But, unlike the past, 2018 is proving to be particularly ‘hot’ in this respect. Until February 5th, the number of such violations stood at 241, resulting in a death toll of nine soldiers already. The number of ceasefire violations in January alone is higher than what were observed in 2014, 2015 and 2016 individually. The year 2017 was also bad on that count, with 860 violations that left nine Armymen, four Border Security Force (BSF) troopers and 12 civilians dead.
What is going on and why has the LoC ‘lit up’ with such ferocity? “We have started retaliating to Pakistan much more vigorously, and that leads to a cycle of counter-retaliation and increased frequency of exchanges between the two armies,” says Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The scope and intensity of fighting between the two countries now is such that “the entire LoC has to be viewed as a single theatre instead of the individual sectors where action takes place”, in his words.
For India, there is another concern: the entire stretch of territory south of the hump of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) from Poonch to Akhnoor is heavily populated along the LoC. Heavy Pakistani shelling in this entire belt has destroyed homes and civilian infrastructure in rural areas. This is apart from the loss of life and dislocation. Schools have been shut and district administrations have activated emergency response plans, including those for evacuation, a measure of last resort for any district.
“I am not sure if responding in kind serves a purpose, as this is not sufficient to deter Pakistan,” adds Rajagopalan. He makes a distinction between India’s punitive and deterrent responses. The former, he says, have been adequate but it is on the latter that India has failed. “Both actions have different requirements. Deterrence is not served by proportional response; for that, you need to escalate,” says the professor.
This is a dilemma faced not by India alone, for Pakistan is not just an Indian problem. Even its partners like the US have been forced to think hard on how to deal with this difficult country. In a recent study, The Leverage Paradox: Pakistan and the United States, Robert M Hathaway, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, has raised some nagging questions. Why has the US, with all its might, so frequently failed in persuading, bribing or coercing Pakistan to follow policies that Washington desired and which seemed—in the view of US policymakers—to reflect Pakistani interests as well? How has Pakistan succeeded in resisting or deflecting US attempts at leverage?
One big part of the Pakistan puzzle, as Hathaway sees it, is well-known: the country’s strategic location. He takes the awareness of this advantage all the way back to the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah: ‘Jinnah, the country’s revered founder, had recognized the value of Pakistan’s geographic coordinates from the start. “America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America,” he told the photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White. “Pakistan is the pivot of the world, as we are placed… [on] the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves.”’
India knows this all too well. From its origin until very recently, Pakistan has exploited this advantage—with the US—quite effectively. Now, the US has been replaced with China. From an Indian perspective, it is another bit, one not to be found in Hathaway’s matrix, that could explain the current happenings along the LoC: Pakistan’s obduracy in trying to achieve its atavistic goal of wresting Kashmir from India; while futile, the constant barrage of fire from across the LoC has led to considerable pain for Indians living in villages near the border.
ONE EFFECT OF the shelling that began in January is the emergence of cries that India’s Government has not only failed to control the situation in Kashmir, but let relations with Pakistan deteriorate. The next logical step in this sequence is that the answer lies in renewing talks with Islamabad. It is not clear what such talks will achieve. They may, for some time, reduce tension along the LoC while the pre and post-talks atmospherics persist, but then the situation will likely revert to the original state of cross-LoC firing. What makes the case for a resumption of dialogue even more tenuous is the neighbour’s current domestic scenario.
While observers keep warning of nuclear escalation in every border conflict, India and Pakistan have not come remotely close to such an eventuality
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For one, the country is politically in a flux. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi assumed control after Nawaz Sharif was judicially disqualified from holding political office following a prolonged legal battle over corruption charges. In the absence of a ‘viable’ alternative, Abbasi—a non-controversial politician who was serving as Pakistan’s minister for petroleum and natural resources—was appointed prime minister pending a final decision within Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), on who should take the leader’s place as the head of its government. Six months have elapsed since the unseating of Sharif and the establishment is now waiting for elections before any call on talks with India can be taken at the political level.
Even this assumption is faulty. The fact is that ever since the restoration of democracy in Pakistan after Pervez Musharraf was ousted from power in 2008, the country’s army has tightened its hold on its foreign policy, especially with respect to India and Afghanistan. This is a toxic situation that is full of conflicts of interest: the army has not only to fight India in case of any aggression, but is also responsible for taking such a decision in the first place. Each time Pakistan’s army launches border raids in Kashmir, it’s a fair question to ask which ‘hat’ it wears while doing this: its role as a maker of foreign policy with respect to India or as the executor of that policy? In ‘normal’ countries, the two responsibilities are separated into two watertight compartments to prevent such conflicts of interest.
That lack of clarity can perplex any country that has to respond to an ‘abnormal’ policy approach, and that includes India. One partial reason peace talks are often pointless is precisely this: the inability of a negotiating partner across the border to deliver on commitments or even credibly spell out its position.
India’s failure lies elsewhere. Usually, the call for peace talks— from the so-called peace constituency here—begins after a short gap in time from military exchanges across the LoC. The second argument for talks, in spite of the complications highlighted above, is based on the familiar ‘South Asia is the most dangerous place on the earth’ logic. This states that India and Pakistan get dangerously close to the use of nuclear weapons when a certain threshold of conventional hostilities is crossed.
The trick, of course, is defining this threshold. Political scientists and nuclear strategists have debated the subject threadbare. If one goes by recent history, the two countries have come nowhere near this threshold despite continual hostilities since they tested nuclear weapons in 1998. From Kargil in 1999 to the heavy shelling that killed four Indian soldiers just days ago, there has been no single documented instance of India and Pakistan coming even remotely close to a nuclear war.
One reason for that eventuality remaining in the realm of speculation is Pakistan’s inability—and unwillingness as a rational actor—to escalate a conflict or take steps further up its chain of military options. “India’s weakness is that we have bought into the argument that Pakistan will escalate because they are ‘irrational’ and the firing across the LoC, if it persists beyond a certain level, will lead to a nuclear exchange,” says Rajagopalan.
The most recent example of the failure of that logic was India’s surgical strikes in late September 2016, when Indian forces crossed over into Pakistani-held territory and destroyed some terrorist facilities there. If the nuclear risk theory were to be believed, this should have led to Pakistan using its nuclear option. It did not. “At each stage of escalation, Pakistan will have to pay a heavier price until it reaches the nuclear level,” says Rajagopalan.
To be sure, this does not mean India has to be reckless in dealing with Pakistan’s aggression. But here the situation is somewhat different: that of Indian meekness. This is not just an issue of nerve— the vigorous response to cross-LoC violence since 2014 shows India is perfectly capable of responding to its enemy at a certain level. It is true, as Rajagopalan says, that India has bought into the nuclear escalation story. But a number of other factors enter the mix, making a calculation of the appropriate level of violent response more than just a military matter. India is a noisy democracy where top political authorities responsible for national security— unlike Pakistan where this function is entirely in the hands of its military—also have many other calls on their attention from day-to-day administrative management of the country and managing foreign relations to economic planning and taking care of a host of other matters. This burden limits the time available for national security issues.
This is one reason why local commanders in charge of forces along the LoC have been given greater autonomy in responding to Pakistan. But if this measure is useful in fending off localised attacks by Pakistan, it is not sufficient to end them. For that, India has to rethink its approach, paying close attention to the integration of political objectives with military means. It is here that a breakdown of sorts occurs between potential solutions and India’s ability to see them through. The resultant gap is exploited by Pakistan.
No country can live in a permanent state of aggression with its neighbours. The cost of doing so is very high for a democracy that is focused on the goal of economic growth and poverty alleviation. But not paying attention to pressing security challenges ultimately comes back to haunt the developmental questions that India is engrossed with. Pakistan’s obdurate effort to seize Kashmir and its endless fomenting of unrest there is an issue that can no longer be set aside for a future date.
Every Indian prime minister from Jawaharlal Nehru onward has spent political capital on coming to terms with Islamabad in search of a solution short of an outright ceding of India’s northern- most state to Pakistan, but to no avail. This history is known to everyone. But what is under-appreciated is India’s record of low resolve in this exercise. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first overture to our western neighbour was one of peace. From Modi’s invitation to Pakistan’s prime minister for his swearing-in to his unscheduled stopover in Lahore to meet the latter were parts of this process. These have not paid any dividends, let alone take India close to a solution. India’s next General Election is just 15 months away and Pakistan’s even closer. In these months, no substantive moves are likely or even possible. For this duration, the guns across the LoC will boom. The generals in Rawalpindi will continue their old game of trying to ‘internationalise’ the Kashmir ‘dispute’. But unlike the past, India will give a fitting response even if that’s insufficient to deter its atavistic neighbour.