Thirteen years after it came into effect, the India-Pakistan ceasefire agreement is in serious trouble. Shelling and firing across the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has increased sharply over the past 40 days and is showing no signs of abating.
This is “the most intense” ceasefire violation over the past 13 years, a senior Border Security Force (BSF) official based at the headquarters in New Delhi told The Diplomat, adding that only along the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) (the India-Pakistan frontier in the Siachen Glacier region) are “the guns silent now.” Elsewhere, the 2003 ceasefire agreement appears to be “in tatters.”
The ongoing ceasefire violations have come amidst a significant deterioration in India-Pakistan relations, with the immediate trigger for the latest downturn being the September 18 attack on an Indian army camp at Uri in J&K. The attack, which was carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist group with close ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was the deadliest on an Indian military facility in over a decade. It resulted in the death of around 18 Indian soldiers, prompting India to carry out a military assault on terrorist “launch pads” in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) on the night of September 28-29.
Following the Uri attack, India stepped up its diplomatic efforts to isolate Pakistan at the regional and global level for Islamabad’s support of anti-India terrorist groups. Delhi was successful in getting other South Asian countries to boycott a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit that Islamabad was to host. More recently, India and Pakistan have been locked in a tit-for-tat contest to identify and expel each other’s High Commission staffers for alleged involvement in espionage activities.
But more worrying than the growing diplomatic chill is the India-Pakistan military face-off along the LoC and the IB in J&K. Following the Indian assault on terrorist launch pads in POK, Pakistan struck back by firing into and shelling Indian territory. Since then, the mountains amidst which the LoC and the IB run in J&K have been reverberating to the sound of daily firing and shelling by Indian and Pakistani security forces.
India and Pakistan accuse each other of violating the ceasefire agreement. While blaming the other for “unprovoked firing” they describe their own actions as mere “retaliation.” Both boast that they are responding “befittingly” to the other’s aggression and inflicting “heavy casualties.” And both allege that it is domestic considerations that are driving the other’s cross-LoC aggression.
While the Pakistani media attributes India’s “warmongering” to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s domestic electoral considerations, Indian analysts argue that the power struggle between Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Raheel Sharif, and the Pakistan military’s need to regain the prestige it lost when India conducted “surgical strikes” on POK terrorist launch pads, drives Pakistan’s heightened muscle-flexing.
Importantly, the militaries of the two countries claim to be targeting only each other’s border posts. The reality is different. They are hitting villages too, sometimes deliberately. As an editorial in Indian Express points out, “they are willfully endangering the lives of civilian communities on both sides of the border, and destabilizing the entire region.”
On November 26, 2003 the ceasefire took effect along the entire stretch of the India-Pakistan frontier i.e. the IB, the LoC and the AGPL. For the first time in several decades, the guns along this frontier went silent, bringing much needed respite to the shelling-scarred lives of people in hamlets along the LoC and to soldiers guarding the border posts. It facilitated the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalkot routes, paving the way for bus and truck services linking the two Kashmirs for the first time in six decades and encouraging cross-LoC contacts, exchanges, travel, and trade. The ceasefire also enabled India to complete the construction of a fence near the LoC to prevent Pakistan’s infiltration of terrorists into Kashmir, a project that it had begun a couple of decades earlier but had to suspend due to Pakistan’s artillery fire.
The ceasefire has been successful in holding a peace of sorts along the India-Pakistan frontier. However, it has been violated off and on and with growing frequency since 2008. According to Indian official figures, there were 114, 347, and 583 ceasefire violation along the LoC and IB in J&K in 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively and in the January-November period last year the figure was 400.
Between January and September 29 this year, there were 58 ceasefire violations. This figure soared thereafter; in the 40 days since, Pakistan has violated the ceasefire 99 times, India alleges.
The current ceasefire violations show no signs of abating, raising concern for the future of the ceasefire agreement. Would India and/or Pakistan pull out of the ceasefire? That is unlikely, as “it would make bad press internationally,” Happymon Jacob, associate professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi told The Diplomat. Instead, they can be expected to continue to act as they have in recent years: continuing to “disregard the ceasefire agreement and engage in anger-venting on the LoC and IB.”
A breakdown of the ceasefire is in the interest of neither country. In addition to the human toll and the economic costs, it would have negative long term consequences for the security of India and Pakistan.
In the case of India, for instance, a breakdown of the ceasefire or continued shelling and firing would undo its many achievements in curbing infiltration and terrorism in Kashmir in the past decade. Pakistan is known to provide cover via shelling and firing to infiltrate terrorists into India. Continued shelling would provide Pakistan with space and opportunity to resort more frequently to this tactic. Additionally, Pakistan could use artillery fire to destroy the LoC fence, which India built at enormous cost and which has helped India curb infiltration.
As for Pakistan, the breakdown or unraveling of the ceasefire along its frontier with India would require it to deploy more troops to its eastern front. This would mean shifting troops from the western front to the east, in essence forcing Islamabad to shift attention away from eliminating terrorism from its soil at a crucial stage.
Keeping the ceasefire alive is therefore in the interest of both India and Pakistan.
If they are keen to revive the ceasefire, they need to shift away from the current ad hoc manner in which they are managing their border in J&K as this slapdash arrangement contributes to the “recurrent ceasefire violations” along the LoC and IB in J&K, Jacob observes.
Drawing attention to the fact that the ceasefire emerged from a telephone conversation in November 2003 between the directors-general of military operations (DGMOs) of the two countries, Jacob pointed out that the agreement is “not a written agreement.” There are “no rules, norms or principles governing the ceasefire agreement,” he said, observing that “a ceasefire agreement without the attendant dos and don’ts is not useful to the security forces on the ground.”
Adding to the confusion in managing the border are two other agreements, the 1949 Karachi Agreement and the 1960 Ground Rules Agreement. Jacob points out that although India maintains that the 1972 Shimla Agreement superseded the 1949 Karachi agreement, its security forces managing the LoC “follow some of [the] Karachi agreement’s stipulations, especially regarding bunker construction (although in reality both sides violate them at will), as they have no other agreement to go by.” And along the IB, the forces follow the 1960 Ground Rules, although neither India nor Pakistan has signed this agreement.
Given the “abundant confusion on what constitutes a ceasefire violation,” India and Pakistan should formalize the 2003 ceasefire agreement, the BSF official said, underscoring the need for “a written document that clarifies the rules.” Such a document would “ease the management of the LoC and the IB for the forces on the ground,” he noted. This would benefit immensely civilian populations living along the border, Jacob said.
In addition to putting in place a “proper agreement to govern the ceasefire,” Jacob underscored the need for the two DGMOs and the chiefs of the BSF and Pakistan Rangers to hold regular meetings. More flag meeting points are needed, he said, as are hotlines between the two sides. Additionally, local commanders should be empowered “to meet periodically to discuss and resolve local disputes that could escalate, and both sides should be made to withdraw heavy weapons from close to the border.”
But first both sides need to summon the political will to safeguard the ceasefire. So far in the current phase of conflict escalation, neither side has displayed signs of such will.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.