By Amina Afzal
Conflict along the line of control (LoC) — the dividing mark between Indian and Pakistani-controlled portions of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir — has become a permanent feature of India-Pakistan relations. Even as India and Pakistan accuse each other of violating the ceasefire agreement and of unprovoked firing, both also continue to boast that they are responding appropriately to the other’s aggression and inflicting heavy casualties. The number of ceasefire violations (CFV) topped 400 in the first two months of 2018. If this trend continues then 2018 will likely record the highest number of CFVs along the LoC since November 2003, when the ceasefire first came into force. Meanwhile, efforts to promote dialogue or confidence-building have given way to greater mistrust.
In just one recent example, on April 10, two Indian soldiers were allegedly killed in firing by Pakistani troops along the LoC. Twenty-four hours later Pakistan reported that five civilians had been injured in unprovoked firing by Indian forces across the LoC.
Tensions along the LoC are an outcome of the overall political relationship between India and Pakistan, and it would take serious efforts on both sides to help ease the political environment and end LoC violations.
Both countries believe they have compelling reasons for not trusting each other. Terrorism, ceasefire violations, and Kashmir are only some of the outstanding issues between them. Among the numerous other grievances are the Jadhav case and India’s opposition to foreign secretary-level talks following the Pathankot attack in January 2016. Dialogue between India and Pakistan remains suspended since then.
Ties between the two countries deteriorated even further following skirmishes along the LoC, including the alleged beheading of two Indian soldiers by Pakistan in May 2017. Some two dozen beheadings or mutilations of soldiers on the Pakistani and Indian sides have been reported since 1998. Each incident was usually followed by denials of involvement by the other side. The situation remains complicated because it is difficult to ascertain whether an act was actually carried out by the adversary’s military or by elements that would gain from derailing the peace process.
Increasing tensions between the two countries don’t augur well for the fragile South Asian peace.
There are numerous reasons for improving relations. Both countries only stand to gain from better relations. For one, it would lessen the pressure to constantly increase military budgets. The Indian Army vice chief recently informed the Indian Parliament that 68 percent of the army’s military equipment was vintage and also that its capital budget does not cover the committed payments of 125 ongoing procurement deals. There is no budget allocation for emergency procurements and not enough funds exist to procure material for 10 days of warfighting. Additionally a bill of 50 billion Indian rupees (about $765.9 million) would be levied in the form of increased taxes. The Indian Air Force and Navy are also facing a similar situation. The Air Force has a depleting fleet of aircraft, with 31 fighter squadrons instead of 42, and the Indian Navy also needs modern submarines but has the means to neither replace nor upgrade the equipment.
Despite these negative trends, Pakistan will not be able to match India conventionally and efforts to do so would undoubtedly exhaust its already weak economy.
Increased defense spending would intensify the unnecessary arms race, in both nuclear and conventional weaponry, which neither Islamabad nor New Delhi can afford. Even more worrisome is the fact that Pakistan’s response to Indian defense spending would be an increased dependence on nuclear weapons. Given the presence of nuclear weapons in South Asia, a conflict between India and Pakistan has the potential to cross the threshold to become a nuclear war. Numerous arms control analysts have long identified South Asia as a potential nuclear flashpoint.
A thaw in this relationship is therefore necessary for South Asian stability. This obviously does not mean that either India or Pakistan would give up their position on the Kashmir issue. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s stance involving the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people, and India’s insistence that Kashmir is an internal matter, quid pro quos are still possible and doable. Any improvement in bilateral relations would require both countries to identify other areas of mutual interest. Small steps would go a long way in improving ties. For starters, both countries should stop harassing the other’s diplomats. On its part, Pakistan should consider expediting Islamabad Club Membership for the Indian High Commissioner.
Pakistan’s decision to invite Indian officials to the March 23 parade was a step in the right direction and shows a softening of the Pakistani attitude. That Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s invitation to the Indian officials was aimed at sending a peace message to India is even better news. In another attempt to de-escalate tensions, the two countries are currently discussing an Indian proposal to allow a team of some 20 Indian doctors to visit Pakistan to examine mentally unsound prisoners. Both countries would benefit through a bilateral agreement on the exchange of prisoners, including women, the mentally challenged or those with special needs, and those above 70 years of age. A revival of the Judicial Committee mechanism, facilitating the visit of medical experts from both sides to meet and examine mentally challenged prisoners for their repatriation would be beneficial for prisoners on both sides of the LoC.
Such steps become even more important when tense relations between the two countries begin affecting the people on either side. Between January 2013 and February 2018, 66 Pakistani civilians were killed and some 228 were injured as a result of firing along the LoC. Similarly, the diplomatic standoff resulted in India’s refusal to issue visas to 503 Pakistani pilgrims intending to participate in the Urs of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer Sharif in March 2018 and prevented some 120 Pakistani pilgrims from participating in the Urs of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in January. In November 2017 Pakistan welcomed 2,600 Sikh pilgrims to celebrate Guru Nanak’s birthday and 104 Hindu pilgrims to participate in the 309th birth anniversary of Sant Shada Ram in Mirpur Mathelo, Sindh. But in February 2018 India stopped 200 Hindu pilgrims from coming to Pakistan, violating the 1974 Pakistan-India Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines. Not only does this hinder the progress of bilateral relations, it also negates the idea of people-to-people contacts as a way to normalize relations.
It is time for the Indian leadership to embrace people-to-people contacts through trade and tourism to normalize everyday life, especially in areas along the LoC. Doing so would help increase economic activity in the short run, benefiting people on both sides of the LoC. In the longer run it would also help facilitate other formal and informal conflict resolution strategies.
The chances of achieving peace increase considerably when both sides are willing to make compromises. By inviting Indian officials to the March 23 parade, Pakistan put the ball New Delhi’s court. India’s proposal to send doctors has put the ball right back in Pakistan’s court. The prisoner exchange is an opportunity that came about because both India and Pakistan were willing to keep aside their differences for achieving a common goal. Sustaining the process would now require creative diplomacy, continued efforts, and a willingness to talk in both India and Pakistan.
Peace in South Asia would be better than war, albeit more difficult to achieve.