Limits of Escalation
When the Bharatiya Janata Party is engaged in a fierce political battle to capture power in Kolkata, the resumption of the ceasefire on the LoC in the north-west of India has acquired an importance of its own.
A joint announcement by the militaries of India and Pakistan to strictly observe the 2003 ceasefire decision on Line of Control comes out of the blue. It is as important as the India-China disengagement at Pangong Tso, if not more. The announcement helps in addressing the criticism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held India-Pakistan relations hostage to his party’s domestic political needs. When the Bharatiya Janata Party is engaged in a fierce political battle to capture power in Kolkata, the resumption of the ceasefire on the LoC in the north-west of India has acquired an importance of its own.
There has been no articulation from the opposition for the restoration of normalcy in relations with Pakistan. Nor is it desired by supporters of the ruling party. It is left to three key stakeholders to influence this particular decision. First, the Kashmiri people. The warmth with which the ceasefire has been welcomed in the valley says it all. The valley has been awaiting concrete gestures of peace from the government, which it finally received in the form of the ceasefire. Second, the Indian Army, which led the discussion and announced the decision. Third, the Prime Minister and his office. Such an important decision certainly had to have the prior approval of the PMO. Whose voice has the PMO heard? Is it that of the Kashmiri people, or of the Indian army, or both? Or is it a serious attempt to delink Indo-Pak tensions from their electoral benefits? If so, it is a heartening surprise strike by the Modi government.
Before we arrive at the issue of strategy and tactics, two interlinked questions need deliberation.
One, what were the gains and losses for India and Pakistan due to conflicts along the LoC over and above the human casualties and economic costs? Two, what led both the countries to agree to a ceasefire? Conventional wisdom says that India can better prevent infiltrations with a ceasefire in place. When a ceasefire was followed by both the countries from 2003 to 2009-10, there was a significant decline in infiltration, and relative peace obtained in the valley. This time the Indian government has to deploy an unprecedented blanket of security forces across the Kashmir valley to project the peace.
A flared-up LoC and a tense valley are not congenial for gains for India by any reckoning. On the other hand, the Pakistani agencies need a firing shield to ensure that terrorists sneak into the Indian side and slip away. Yet, Pakistan has agreed to a ceasefire. However, it cannot be a change of heart, but simply a change in tactics by its government’s Kashmir hands.
Pakistan is feeling the heat of India’s diplomatic offensive to seek accountability in terms of the actions taken against terror leaders and their networks. Under such circumstances, it doesn’t want to risk training the terrorists and sending them across the LoC. Except for the purpose of facilitating the entry of terrorists into India, a volatile LoC doesn’t really serve any interest of Pakistan. Thus, it has been a no-win situation for both countries, only resulting in loss of soldiers, destruction of the lives of the people residing near the LoC and the economic cost of ammunition as well as additional deployment. It makes the return to ceasefire a rational decision. The de-escalation incentives for Pakistan are at least three. One, it can hope that the ceasefire decision would have a favourable impact on FATF ( Financial Action Task Force) and help remove its name from the grey list. It will expect that India will be less aggressive in its campaign against Pakistan in international fora. Two, it can use the ceasefire with India to reset its relations with the US administration. Many in Islamabad are expecting a bonhomie between the two countries due to Biden’s past involvement in Indo-Pak relations. Three, Pakistani agencies can concentrate more on consolidating the Taliban’s power in Afghanistan.
India too has at least three incentives to restore peace on the LoC. One, it can concentrate more on tackling the local-grown insurgency in the valley. In the last few years, the armed youth indulging in attacks on the security forces and creating disturbances in the valley have been more the locals and less the foreign infiltrators. Calm along the LoC will provide an opportunity to the security forces to keep tabs on the network of armed youth in the valley. Two, New Delhi can leverage the ceasefire with the Biden presidency to impress upon it that India has never been more aggressive than required for its defence and that the onus of maintaining peace is on Pakistan. Three, a defused Indo-Pak LoC is certainly an addition to New Delhi’s strength on the Line of Actual Control with China. With uncertainty persisting on disengagement in the rest of the areas in Ladakh, India now is in a relatively comfortable position to stretch the stand-off if required. Most importantly, there seems to be the realization that India would not be able to pursue its global interests with two hostile neighbours constantly creating hurdles. Take the case of India’s application to be a member of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). India cannot be an NSG member without Chinese consent, which partly depends on Pakistan not being disgruntled about it. All of these factors indicate that the ceasefire announcement is more a matter of a tactic than a strategy.
Any assumption that the ceasefire decision is strategic would lead leads to the loaded question, which may be cynical but necessary. Is it a tacit realization that the use of force on the ground is not going to be decisive for any side? Since 1949, the status quo on India’s western and northern frontier with Pakistan has remained the same irrespective of the party in power and Prime Ministers of different calibres. As a result, Pak-occupied-Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan remained completely out of bounds for Indian authorities. On the other hand, all of Pakistan’s covert and overt attempts to win over the state of Jammu and Kashmir that India is administering since 1947 had been effectively foiled by the Indian security forces. On top of it, Pakistan’s inability to receive support against India from the big powers, except China, makes the military options limited for it. Thus, if military solutions are not in sight, both countries have only two options - either to maintain the status quo of conflict and tension or to explore non-military means to resolve the conflict over Jammu and Kashmir. Do we have the strategy to address the bilateral conflict with Pakistan for its resolution through non-military methods?