Speaking at his annual press conference in January, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat said that India had for too long kept its focus on the western borders and militarily, it had to shift to the northern borders. It would be natural for the Chinese strategists, listening to the General, to try tying his forces down even more on the western borders with the help of their short-sighted Pakistani friends. But what about our own policy on the western front? Is it promoting the General’s goal?
The India-Pakistan relationship has seen successive cycles of taking a few steps forward followed by several steps backward.
It has been in free fall during the ongoing cycle, which commenced in 2013. The 2003 ceasefire has collapsed. The recent silver lining of the willingness of both the sides to exchange prisoners of certain categories was followed on its heels by the squabble over the revived preposterous practice of ill-treating diplomats and Pakistan pulling out of the WTO meeting in New Delhi.
The relationship had stabilised somewhat by the end of 2012 after the turmoil caused by the Mumbai terror attack. In 2012, terror violence in Jammu and Kashmir claimed the lives of 16 civilians and 17 security personnel — the lowest in years. The loss of life in ceasefire violations along the LoC/IB was three civilians and four security personnel. Our policy then was to manage the relationship by combining dialogue with discreetly-exercised deterrence, when necessary, and attempt to move Pakistan, even if incrementally, in a constructive direction on issues such as trade and cross-LoC CBMs. However, a section of opinion advocated a “muscular” approach which, to the extent discernible from their angry outbursts, comprised two elements: No dialogue in the presence of terror and visible retribution against Pakistani provocations.
On January 8, 2013, two Indian soldiers fell to the bullets of Pakistani assailants, who had crossed over to the Indian side and mutilated their bodies. The then Army Chief General Bikram Singh stated that India reserved the right to respond at a time and place of its choice and I am sure his forces would have made good on his assurance. However, the incident became a rallying point for the supporters of the “muscular” approach and the clamour for it grew. Facing a tough election a year later, the then government yielded ground by suspending the structured dialogue that had resumed in 2011. The killing of five Indian soldiers by Pakistani forces in August 2013 in the Poonch sector put paid to the prospect of the resumption of dialogue with the Nawaz Sharif government. Ceasefire violations rose sharply in 2013.
The NDA government did rise above its election rhetoric in attempting, albeit in fits and starts, a stabilisation of the relationship. However, faced with an unsatisfactory response from the dysfunctional Pakistani state, our policy shifted decisively to the “muscular” mode after the Pathankot attack. Denied a dialogue on Kashmir, Pakistan reverted to its default position of stirring up trouble in the Valley, compelling us to use force to quell it. Terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir claimed the lives of 14 civilians and 88 security personnel in 2016; the numbers were 57 and 83 respectively, in 2017. Ceasefire violations claimed the lives of 28 security personnel and 14 civilians in 2017. The trend so far in 2018 portends worsening of the situation, with field artillery used in the Uri sector for the first time in 15 years.
The life of each soldier and citizen is precious and the country cannot afford to lose it except in the cause of the promotion of its long-term interests. Retaliatory action and heavier casualties on the other side cannot explain away such loss. What has our “muscular” policy achieved? Pakistan has not abnegated the instrument of terror or stopped meddling in Jammu and Kashmir. Ceasefire violations have mounted steeply and infiltration has not stopped. The collapse of the ceasefire has made it harder for our security forces to check infiltration. However, the sacrifices of our security personnel pulled the Valley back from the brink at which it was poised in 2016, though the situation continues to be far from satisfactory. The ability of our security forces to control the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and defeat Pakistan’s designs has never been in doubt. They have done so in the past. But the gains so made cannot become durable unless supplemented by the political steps necessary to end the widespread sense of alienation in the Valley and deny Pakistan a fertile ground for repeated intervention. However, the ability of our political class, cutting across party lines, to build consensus around such steps remains in serious doubt. The absence of such steps will repeatedly confront our security forces with a situation which can be controlled only at the cost of loss of lives in their ranks and amongst civilians.
Periodic loss of life no longer causes the kind of outrage that was seen in January 2013, perhaps because we have got used to it or are satisfied with heavier casualties suffered by Pakistan. Proponents of “muscularity” recommend further escalation which, combined with the lack of a genuine political initiative in Kashmir, will mire us deeper on the western front.
No Indian would oppose muscularity in dealing with Pakistan. However, it has to be a means to an end. We could surely not be aiming for what has increasingly looked like a stalemate of tit-for-tat killings on the LoC/IB. Our “muscular” policy has neither allowed us to manage the relationship — while containing the level of violence — nor coerced Pakistan into changing its behaviour meaningfully. It is clearly due for a re-look. So is our policy on Kashmir.