There seem to be two conflicts taking place in Jammu and Kashmir. One in the Valley, where civilian protests break out almost daily and local militancy is on the rise. Last week, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley called it a “war-like situation” and Army Chief General Bipin Rawat said it was a “dirty war”. Both the government and the Army view the ferment in increasingly militarised terms, eliding the armed struggle with civilian dissent.
The other conflict is at the Line of Control, where two large armies face each other, with non-state actors flitting in between. In many cases, India has alleged that the Pakistan Army provided “cover fire” as militants crossed over.
This week, an Army porter died in cross-border firing in North Kashmir’s Keran sector, then the Indian Army said it had killed two Pakistani troopers to stall an attack by a border action team. A few days before that, the Indian Army released footage of “punitive fire assaults” across the Line of Control. The strikes had taken place, it claimed, about a week after two Indian soldiers were allegedly killed and mutilated by the Pakistan Army.
Who can tell that the two armies are technically under a ceasefire agreement, in place since 2003? Since 2008, the ceasefire agreement has been worn threadbare by violations. This week’s violence is part of a long unravelling. Yet the agreement of 2003, achieved against the odds, had promised a reboot in relations between India and Pakistan.
A phone call
Sometime in November 2003, the directors general of military operations from India and Pakistan picked up the phone for their weekly conversations. On that week’s call, they agreed to a ceasefire along the Line of Control, the International Border and the Actual Ground Position Line in the Siachen sector of Jammu and Kashmir.
It was followed up by then Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire starting on Eid-ul-Fitr. India welcomed the announcement, though it warned that “cross-border terrorism has to stop to allow the ceasefire to hold”.
It was called the first comprehensive ceasefire agreement of its kind. The two countries had earlier talked of restraint on the frontier. In 2000-2001, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had initiated a Ramzan ceasefire, but even that had been restricted to “maximum restraint”.
The new ceasefire came into effect from midnight of November 25. Newspaper reports from that time speak of the relief it would bring to both civilians and soldiers on the frontier. How radical this ceasefire was becomes apparent when one examines all that came before.
From ceasefire line to Line of Control
Previous ceasefires had followed wars, and were brokered by the United Nations. The original ceasefire line was formalised by the Karachi Agreement of 1949, months after Pakistani fighters had withdrawn from the Valley. It charted out Indian and Pakistani positions on the map, stipulated a minimum distance of 500 yards between the forward posts of the two armies and set up a United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan to patrol the ceasefire line.
The line would be breached in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 and again during the Bangladesh War of 1971. After the ceasefire in December 1971, a number of positions had changed, but the troops gradually retreated. The ceasefire line formalised under the Simla Agreement of 1972 saw only “minor deviations” from the 1949 version.
Though the Karachi Agreement was never abrogated, India felt it had been superseded by the Simla pact. After the 1972 agreement, India also considered the Kashmir dispute a bilateral affair and rejected the authority of the United Nations.
The Simla pact also turned the ceasefire line into the Line of Control, suggesting a transition from truce to barely restrained aggression. The 740 kilometres of the Line of Control became the most militarised border in the world.
A violent decade
Till the late 1980s, said retired armyman Pavan Nair, the frontier was relatively quiet. But militancy erupted in Kashmir in 1989, thousands crossed the Line of Control for arms training, while foreign militants came in and Pakistan pledged support to the separatist movement. It ushered in a violent decade on the Line of Control.
“It is difficult to estimate the total casualties over a period of nearly 14 years till a ceasefire came into effect in November 2003, but it would be in the thousands killed and maimed on each side,” Nair wrote. Civilians, left without the shelter of army bunkers, died in much greater numbers than troops.
In Churunda village alone, 71 people were killed between 1990 and 2003. Thousands living along the Line of Control were displaced. Some moved across into Pakistani territories, some further inland, others took shelter in about 6,000 “dungeons” built by the government. And this war took place at the limits of the public imagination, barely covered by the press, tucked away in snippets in the inside pages, according to Nair.
A decade and a half of guns and mortar culminated in the “Twin Peaks crisis”, as it was christened by an American think tank, a name darkly reminiscent of David Lynch’s surreal crime drama. It referred to two peaks of tension on the frontier after the terror attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. Troops were already massed at the frontier when the first peak occurred, between December 2001 and January 2002. The second was in May-June 2002.
The spectre of war between two nuclear powers created global alarm and international pressure, particularly from the United States, prompted a detente of sorts.
The military pact of 2003 did not take place in isolation. It was accompanied by a slew of confidence-building measures such as cross-border trade, bus and train services and even a joint chamber of commerce formed by traders from Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
These were the years when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of turning the Line of Control into a “soft border”, with greater exchange between people on the two sides. Most importantly, they were accompanied by dialogue, between India and Pakistan as well as between Delhi and Kashmiri separatists. For a few years, the Valley also remained calm; the militancy of the 1990s had almost disappeared and the large-scale civilian protests were yet to come. A wire fence, completed in 2004, also curbed infiltration.
But talks on the dispute led nowhere, and on February 18, 2007, bombs ripped through the Samjhauta Express, traveling from Delhi to Lahore. The next year, the Valley saw massive anti-government protests and guns began to boom on the Line of Control once more.
The frayed truce
Now, the border has hardened. Villages on the Line of Control complain they have no assistance from the government or the Army in building bunkers and have to dig their own. Ceasefire violations have intensified since 2013, peaking in 2015.
In 2016, protests broke out once more in the Valley, militants launched a massive attack on an Army camp in Uri that left 20 soldiers dead and India retaliated with so-called surgical strikes aimed at militant launchpads across the Line of Control. These hostilities were followed by almost daily ceasefire violations at the Line of Control and the International Border in Jammu.
What’s more, this conflict no longer takes place at the edge of one’s vision. Unlike the skirmishes of the 1990s, there are videos of strikes played on news channels and war cries on prime time, heating up the frontier even more. But border villages on the Line of Control, inhabited by people struggling to survive as their homes turn into a battleground, remain largely cordoned off from public vision.
A renewed pact
No stable record of the number of violations exists, since calculations on the Indian and Pakistani sides do not match. According to the South Asian Terror Portal, there have been 824 ceasefire violations on the Line of Control and the International Border between 2009 and May 21, 2017, killing 57 security forces personnel and 54 civilians.
Analyst Julia Thompson dismisses the “spoiler” theory, that cross-border skirmishes are deliberately engineered by sub-state or non-state actors to scupper diplomatic overtures. Firing can intensify for various reasons, she points out: a skirmish over the construction of bunkers or the killing of soldiers. The frequency of violations, however, does reflect the general state of relations between India and Pakistan. Going by the figures, they have hit a new low since 2001-2002.
According to analysts, neither country will formally end the ceasefire for fear of bad press, but the accord has become a fig leaf for open hostility. Yet, if India and Pakistan came back from the brink of war in 2001 to agree on a ceasefire, they can renew it now. The new accord should be a written commitment, clearly defining what constitutes a ceasefire violation and a mechanism to address it.
A military pact will not be enough, but it could lay the ground for other confidence-building measures. Besides, raised temperatures at the Line of Control have historically been hyphenated with unrest across Kashmir. Addressing the border conflict could help defuse the situation in the Valley.