The recent ceasefire violations on the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir can be interpreted in two ways: as a series of tit-for-tat responses that spiralled out of control, or as the opening shot in the next round of hostilities between India and Pakistan. The two versions have differing consequences. If the first one is correct, then tempers could cool down and the two neighbours could soon be back at the negotiating table, discussing how to open their borders to trade and tourism. But if the second version is correct, the season of peace is over and we are about to witness a replay of the nineties, when terrorist attacks sponsored by Pakistan used to claim thousands of lives every year. Which one is it, really?
The case for the first version was put across powerfully in a news report by Praveen Swami in The Hindu. Quoting military sources, Swami wrote that it all started with a 70-year-old Indian granny, Reshma Bi, who crossed over to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir to join her sons who had gone there a few years previously to escape Indian police who were after them for border trafficking. The army got agitated that a granny could cross the border so easily and responded by building observation bunkers apparently in violation of the ceasefire agreement. The Pakistanis first objected to the construction and then started shelling, resulting in the death of three Indian villagers. As tensions mounted, the Indian commander on the ground got the permission of his superiors for aggressive action. The Pakistanis say the Indians then raided their post and killed one soldier, while the Indians deny any raid. The Pakistanis soon retaliated in another sector, resulting in the death of two Indian soldiers, one of whom was reportedly beheaded. (India has since retaliated, causing the death of one more Pakistani soldier.)
Now to the second version, according to which the recent border incidents are not an accident, but part of a larger pattern. According to the Indian army, there were 117 ceasefire violations by Pakistan in 2012, nearly double the number for the previous year. Since Pakistan resorts to ceasefire violations to provide cover for terrorists infiltrating into India, the number of ceasefire violations is an advance indicator of Pak-sponsored terrorism in India. Is there any reason why Pakistan would want to ratchet up its terrorism activity against India at this point of time? Yes, and it is called Afghanistan. The US has already begun withdrawing its troops from there and both the Taliban and Pakistan are salivating at the possibility of returning to power in Kabul, like they did in the ’90s after the Soviets left in defeat.
It is instructive to look at what happened then. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly announced the Afghan withdrawal in February 8, 1988 and completed it on February 15, 1989. Even as the war was winding down, Pakistan was redeploying its terrorists from its western to its eastern front, provoking never-before-seen violence in Kashmir. The data is revealing. The number of deaths in terrorist violence in Kashmir shot up like this, in the five years starting 1988: 31, 92, 1166, 1399 and 1642. That’s a 52-fold increase in five short years. The number of deaths crossed 2,000 in 1993 and stayed above that line till 2001, when it reached its highest-ever mark: 3,552.
What has happened since 2001, when the US went to war in Afghanistan in retaliation for the September 11 attacks, is equally striking. The number of deaths due to terrorism in Kashmir started declining steadily and rapidly, from 3,552 in 2001 to 1,663 in 2005; 740 in 2007; and 164 in 2011. In other words, in 10 years, the number of deaths shrank to about 5 per cent of what it was in 2001.
These numbers help us arrive at a clear conclusion. When it has an unfriendly regime on its western border, Pakistan prefers to be at relative peace with India. But when it has a friendly regime on its western border, it would rather foment trouble in Kashmir, by redeploying its newly-unemployed terrorists. Right now, Pakistan believes a friendly regime in Afghanistan is within its reach. So if you are an Indian policy-maker or a defence strategist, it would make sense to prepare for a breakout of hostilities rather than a flowering of peace.
There are some caveats, though, because 2013 is not exactly 1989. First of all, the Americans are planning their withdrawal with greater deliberation than the Soviets did, and Pakistan may not have Afghanistan all to itself. Secondly, India now has an electrified, flood-lit fence that makes infiltration far tougher than earlier. Thirdly, mainstream political parties in Pakistan now realise that the country has paid too high an economic price for its enmity with India and that they need peace to prosper. But, in Pakistan, it’s the army that makes the final call and there is nothing to indicate that its mindset has changed. That is why it would make sense for us to get ready for renewed hostilities, even while hoping for peace.