The ongoing episode of ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC), continuous firings and the unfortunate cases of civilian deaths on both sides, points to the challenge South Asia is facing today. It is important to highlight the issues that make this event relatively different from the previous incidents along the LoC or the International Border (IB). The nature of confrontation is nuanced due to changing strategies and changing styles of interaction between the two countries.
The change in the nature of Pakistan’s ceasefire violations is worth noting. Although the ceasefire violations and cross-border firings are not an uncommon event along the LoC, Pakistan’s concentration on targeting civilians on the Indian side and also on the international border, is somewhat different. Such targeting remains unprecedented since the 2003 ceasefire. What matches Pakistan’s usual Kashmir policy are its periodic attempts to internationalise the issue. Noticing that the Kashmir issue was shifting to the backburner, with other issues (such as Afghanistan) coming to the forefront, Pakistan directed its efforts towards internationalising the issue.
Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif’s speech on the Kashmir issue at the September United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session was one such attempt. The speech also helped Sharif gain some brownie points at home. This was particularly important after the demand for Sharif’’s resignation by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri and Sharif’s decreased authority in the Pakistani decision-making structure thereafter. In India, the general perception remains that the current happenings along the LoC remain out of Sharif’s control and predictably so after he approached India with a hand of friendship. The current cross-border firings are Pakistan Army’s attempt to indicate its complete control over issues related to military and foreign policy. More importantly, many view the Pakistani Army as being the spoiler, not only destabilising democracy in its own country but also initiating obstacles for Indo-Pakistan peace.
Similarly, the mentioned incident also highlights the metamorphosis that India’s Pakistan policy is undergoing. Unlike the Congress-led government, which remained relatively passive when dealing with Pakistan, the Modi government is transforming the way it engages with Islamabad. Although scholars had predicted a more decisive foreign policy under the Modi government; many in India, Pakistan and abroad, did not anticipate the current Indian response. Also, many have failed to gauge what the Modi government is signaling.
To illustrate, let us go back to the early days of the BJP-led government. Modi’s coming to power saw an invitation being sent to Nawaz Sharif for the swearing-in ceremony. Like many new governments in India, Modi attempted to start afresh on the Indo-Pakistan front and work for better relations. Pakistan’s goodwill gesture of releasing 151 Indian fishermen was a welcome development. Modi’s invitation and shawl diplomacy was followed by the hope that a positive equation between New Delhi and Islamabad could shed Narendra Modi’s image as a hardliner and replace it with an image as being a rational statesman.
Meanwhile, Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) attacked the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan perhaps with an intention to dampen the positive mood between Sharif and Modi. It proved unsuccessful but did present a challenge to the new Indian Prime Minister, which had plagued the preceding governments. Despite periodic ceasefire violations in June and July, Modi continued to engage with Pakistan, offering limited low-level responses to Pakistan’s aggression on the LoC.
Fast forward to August. India cancelled talks at the foreign secretary level with Pakistan. New Delhi cancelled the talks expressing its displeasure over Pakistan’s high commissioner to Delhi, Abdul Basit’s meeting with the leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a Kashmiri separatist group. What particularly perplexed Islamabad was that their meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders prior to Indo-Pakistan talks was a usual practice, under previous Indian governments.
According to a statement by the Indian government, “The invitation to so-called leaders of the Hurriyat by Pakistan’s High Commissioner does indeed raise questions about Pakistan’s sincerity, and shows that its negative approaches and attempts to interfere in India’s internal affairs continue unabated.” Although previous governments had objected to the ‘usual practice’, the current Indian government has signaled that it will go beyond mere statements and take tougher stands on issues (even if some have only symbolic relevance). Evidently, the Indian government switched from its initial stance of low-level responses to graduated escalation.
Apart from the strategy, even the decision-making process has undergone a degree of change. PM Modi’s decision to undertake a forceful response did not arise out of a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) but was a decision taken in consultation with the National Security Advisor (NSA) in keeping other important government officials in the loop. The mandate given to the present Indian government obviates the need to discuss the issue with coalition parties thereby ensuring faster decisions.
Recent Indian responses call for Pakistan to understand that the Modi government is signaling a change in its Pakistan policy. The Indian government is signaling that it will match ‘friendship for friendship and aggression for aggression’. Matching ‘aggression for aggression’ need not be perceived as a proportional response. The response is likely to begin on a lower level but rise to higher levels, if need be. India’s reaction “marks a considerable toughening of its stand on border standoffs” with the intent that it would deter Pakistan from committing future ceasefire violations or targeting civilians.
Not wanting to judge the pros and cons of the change on both sides, the author urges that these nuances in India’s Pakistan strategy are worthy of being taken into account by analysts as well as the Pakistani establishment, when dealing in terms of ensuring peace or reacting militarily. Similarly, India too needs to observe the changing patterns of Pakistan Army’s actions and fathom the nature of strategy that Pakistan is currently practicing.
One cannot deny that despite sincere attempts (albeit limited) to understand the motivation of the other side, gaps remain. It is hoped that the intense firing at the Indo-Pakistan border abates soon. Following the silencing of guns, even if both the sides do not intend to talk for the moment, it is extremely important for both countries to try and understand each other’s perceptions on various issues. This is imperative in order to avoid any miscalculations or misperceptions of other’s strategy, which may perhaps have been the source of the ongoing border skirmish.