The Line of Conflict

The ongoing shelling across the LoC and tension between Islamabad and New Delhi once again prove that the unresolved Kashmir conflict has the potential to put both the countries on collision course

They way governments of India and Pakistan reacted to exchange of fire across the Line of Control (LoC) and working boundary between the respective armies is unprecedented in recent history. The Indian leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was also dragged into the fray in a big way. Speaking to an election rally, he issued a stern warning to Pakistan: "The enemy has realised that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated." It set off alarm bells across Pakistan.

How could Pakistan lags behind? A tit-for-tat response was issued. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the members of the National Security Committee, including top military leadership, that Pakistan’s desire for peace should not be misunderstood and called upon India to immediately honour the sanctity of LoC and working boundary and halt firing for durable peace.

The first casualty of the war is truth. Both Indian and Pakistani media and politicians are spending considerable amount of time to dig out who pushed the trigger first or accusing each other of sabotaging peace. Hardly anybody mourns the loss of precious lives of innocent citizens. No one tells people that war has yielded nothing but misery and destruction.

The ongoing heavy firing is considered as the worst violation since the declaration of the 2003 ceasefire, which is termed mother of all confidence building measures between India and Pakistan. It is reported that around two dozen civilians were killed and about 66 have been injured on both sides so far. Ironically, no respite is insight and the crisis is deepening quite fast.

To avert tension and control low scale skirmishes along the LoC or international border, a dedicated Hotline was established between the Director Generals of Military Operations and sector commanders of the two countries. In 1990s, it was decided that both sides would talk to each other through Hotline at least once a week. Since 2005, monthly meetings between formation commanders have been infrequently held at four points along the LoC to sort out issues at local level such as return of civilians who mistakenly cross border. The mechanism largely worked well and brought down ceasefire violations to an acceptable level.

Besides bilateral arrangements, a neutral form called the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) is also present in the region with its offices in Srinagar and Rawalpindi since 1947 to monitor the LoC and working boundary. According to the UN, "The tasks of UNMOGIP have been to observe, to the extent possible, developments pertaining to the strict observance of the ceasefire of 17 December 1971 and to report there on to the Secretary-General."

Sadly, India has unilaterally restricted the activities of the UN observers on the Indian side of the Line of Control but it still maintains its presence in Srinagar.

It is said that foreign policy of a country is often a reflection of its domestic politics through different means. A few India watchers believe that the next week’s state elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and upcoming elections in Indian held Jammu and Kashmir have pushed Modi to take a hardline stance against Pakistan and employ coercive diplomacy through adventurism at border against Pakistan to show domestic audience that the country is being run by an iron man of India.

Premier Modi has put his personal prestige at stake and determined to win these state elections. Additionally, escalation helps in Jammu – lone Hindu majority region in Jammu and Kashmir – to provoke anti-Pakistan sentiment which can be cashed in the upcoming state elections, shortly to be held.

India has ruled out any talks until Pakistan de-escalate tension and halt cross-border firing. On the other hand, ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N has badly needed a new front to be opened to divert public and media attention from D-Chowk-Islamabad’s sit-in. The ongoing escalation and fear of war perfectly suits it.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly wherein he racked up the Kashmir issue earned him considerable domestic support particularly in the right-leaning politicians and Kashmiri parties who are opposed to the Indian rule in Kashmir. The prime minister was of the view that protests and sit-ins in Islamabad were deliberately plotted to defocus Kashmir from the global scene.

If one deconstructs the Prime Minister Sharif’s speech, it clearly indicates that Pakistan is gradually going to take a hardline stance on Kashmir. The widely-celebrated 4-point formula of former president Pervez Musharraf on Kashmir has been thrown away which entailed a compromised solution by ensuring a win-win situation for both India and Pakistan. Once Musharraf was ousted; neither Pakistan People’s Party nor Pakistan Muslim League-N governments seriously tried to build on gains which were made during the 2003-2007 peace process. It is widely acknowledged that at that time India and Pakistan were very close to seal a deal over Kashmir.

Since the tragic attacks of 9/11, Pakistan has been badly engaged either in Afghanistan or battling insurgents inside its territory. The Kashmir fatigue is visible. Kashmir was put on the backburner and trade, cultural exchanges and people-to-people contacts were given prominence.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had tried hard to resume dialogue process but to no avail. The suspension of the foreign secretary level dialogue made Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s position quite weak domestically. Another setback to his efforts was when Prime Minster Narendra Modi clearly refused to meet him on the sidelines of the UNGA session.

What a coincident, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was speaking in New York about Kashmir, Army Chief Gen. Raheel Shareef visited troops deployed along the LoC and made a rare statement. He said any provocation along the Line of Control would be effectively responded to. In May this year, Gen Raheel also talked about Kashmir in depth while addressing a ceremony to mark the Martyrs’ Day at army headquarters in Rawalpindi. He described Kashmir as the "jugular vein" of Pakistan and said that the issue should be resolved in accordance with the wishes of Kashmiris and in line with the United Nations Security Council resolutions for peace in the region. It indicates significance of the Kashmir issue in the strategic calculus.

Premier Sharif’s overtures in the UNGA and Gen Raheel’s statements show that Kashmir will be vigorously pursued at all regional and international forums in the days ahead, no matter India likes it or not. On the other hand, the drawdown of the international forces from Afghanistan may ratchet up tensions between India and Pakistan.

With the signing of the long-awaited agreement between the governments of Afghanistan and the United States, bulk of the international forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of this year. A few regional experts suspect it may pave the way for some insurgent groups to find sanctuary in Indian held Kashmir.

New Delhi seems not only ready to run counter campaigns but also flexing muscles to give Islamabad a befitting response. With its growing diplomatic, political and economic clout, the Modi government is less keen to engage Pakistan on its terms.

The absence of dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir or tension between the neighbours makes huge negative impact on the lives of the people of Kashmir across the region. 

The recent flood in the Kashmir Valley and Pakistan Administered Jammu and Kashmir devastated most of the areas. According to the government figures, about 260,000 structures have been damaged including 95,000 residential houses in Srinagar alone. Over a million people are displaced. Kashmir needs massive rehabilitation operation on both sides. Competitive politics over Kashmir not only cause harm to the rehabilitation but will also push India-Pakistan relations back to square one.

In this background, civil society actors on both sides of Line of Control need to be united to articulate people’s needs and aspirations besides constantly encouraging Islamabad and New Delhi to avoid taking confrontational course.

The upcoming SAARC Summit in November offers another opportunity to Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi to passionately take stock of the situation. If they could put people’s interest on priority it can help them make lasting peace in the region. The on-going wrangling and tension between Islamabad and New Delhi once again underscored that unresolved Kashmir conflict has the potential to flare up any time and put both the countries on collision course.

The writer is Islamabad/Rawalakot based analyst. He may be reached