By Saikat Datta
In May 2014, on the day the Narendra Modi government was preparing to take oath after winning the general election, an attack on the Indian consulate in Afghanistan was launched in the early hours. The alertness of a Central Industrial Security Force soldier posted at the consulate saved the day. He killed a suicide bomber and broke the attack. But the attack, as investigations would later reveal, had been sanctioned by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence, in a bid to destabilise the incoming government.
Throughout the early hours of that day, security officials in India’s external intelligence agency, Research & Analysis Wing monitored the situation even as the Modi government was putting together its security team. While the current National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, was yet to be appointed, he was asked by the new prime minister to meet officials and make assessments for the new government. Those assessments clearly pointed towards a renewed effort by the Pakistani military to de-stabilise the Nawaz Sharif-government’s attempt to establish a working relationship with the Modi government.
In the last week of August 2014, Home Minister Rajnath Singh called up the Director General of the Border Security Force and asked him to start taking pre-emptive action against any firing from Pakistan. The BSF is largely deployed on the international border in Jammu & Kashmir, while the army takes over the responsibility of guarding the de-facto border where the Line of Control starts. In the Jammu region, where the border exists, the BSF is equipped with heavy weapons to respond to Pakistani firing. On the LoC, besides the artillery guns of the army, infantry units keep anti-aircraft guns that are kept in a direct firing mode and used with devastating effect on Pakistani positions.
“By September 2014, the orders were clear that India had to retaliate, and the pendulum swung from a peace that had been crafted by the ceasefire to a no-war, no-peace scenario,” a senior security official told. “But it swung so far and so wide that it is now beginning to resemble 2002.”
The end result has led to renewed hostilities on the LoC resulting in high casualties on both sides. Between September and the first week of November, India has already lost nearly 35 soldiers in cross border raids and firing. The loss of 20 soldiers in an attack on an army camp in Uri is the highest that the army has suffered in cross border raids on the LoC. The attack led to reprisal “surgical strikes” across five sectors of the LoC by Indian Special Forces in September.
For the Indian Army, used to a ceasefire that held for nearly a decade, the instructions from the political leadership to carry out reprisal strikes across the LoC has been the clearest. As several senior army officers in Delhi confirmed, the greater latitude to respond to Pakistani firing has been largely welcomed by formation commanders across the LoC. However, the concomitant rise in casualties of Indian soldiers is beginning to creep up. This was discussed in several meetings of the military operations directorate with the Vice Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Bipin Ravat, a man who known to take aggressive postures when he was a formation commander on the LoC. Senior military officials told Scroll.in that Lieutenant General Ravat, who took over on 1 September this year, has been regularly reviewing military operations along the LoC and passing instructions to all formations that any attempts to facilitate infiltration by Pakistani troops must be responded to with “overwhelming firepower.”
The couple of years after the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999 are known as the “No War, No Peace” years. The hostilities between the two armies on the LoC was so intense, that daily battles would take place, as the men would exchange small arms fire, frequently escalated to artillery exchanges. Since 1999, as a reply to a Right to Information application recently revealed, 4,567 Indian military and BSF personnel have been killed in cross-border exchanges with Pakistan.
The figures culled from Parliament and other sources bear this out. In 2002 alone, there had been over 2,600 incidents of firing on the LoC. This was also the period wen the two countries almost went to war again. Soon after the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001 by the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist group working out of Pakistan, India declared a full-scale mobilisation. As the armies moved to the border for an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, there was a spurt of violence across the LoC, daily battles ensuring that the quota of ammunition allocated to the units deployed on the LoC were exhausted before the next consignment was due.
But the ceasefire declared by India and Pakistan in November 2003 changed all that. By 2004, border incidents fell so dramatically that for two years, no firing was recorded as an “incident”. Post 2006, sporadic incidents would mar the peace between the two armies, but peace generally held till 2010. As diplomacy failed to break the decades-old stalemate on Kashmir, incidents began to escalate, with 2010 reporting 39 incidents, that went up to over 340 in 2014. By 2016, the LoC has been notching up several incidents across the LoC on a daily basis.
How the new aggression on the LoC will pan out remains to be seen. Several intelligence analysts expressed rising concerns about where this heightened aggression on both sides will eventually lead to. While there has been some worry in military circles about the rising casualties, there is a similar worry among the Indian intelligence community.
The reasons for the worry are manifold, primarily led by the impact this will have on Jammu and Kashmir. The rise in infiltration attempts from across the LoC has been significant. Official figures shared with foreign diplomats show that there were more than 35 attempts in the first nine months. Just about half of these attempts proved successful. The rise in foreign militants has also been alarming. Nearly three years ago, the number of foreign militants operating in the state had fallen to about 75 known faces. This is nearly touching 200, this year, according to estimates by intelligence officials. “This shows the kind of pressure Pakistan is under to ensure it can continue to keep the focus on Kashmir,” a senior analyst said. Another intelligence official, serving in the state said that the infiltration attempts had gone up significantly, corresponding closely with domestic compulsions in Pakistan. “With the Pakistani army chief expected to step down and the prime minister under pressure, as reports indicate, there has been a corresponding effort to increase tensions in Kashmir,” the official said.
But there is also disquiet among them about a similar strain of thought within India’s policy making circles. Some decisions, it is feared, are also being done to address a domestic constituency. The election rallies across Uttar Pradesh have seen BJP leaders bringing up the surgical strikes. At a rally in Kairana, UP, on November 7, union home minister Rajnath Singh pointed out how he had spoken about Pakistan supporting terrorism, on a visit to Islamabad to address a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meeting. The party has also been trying to address the families of soldiers, hoping to cash in on the escalations on the LoC. That, many pointed out, is clearly a worry. As intermittent firing across the LoC continues, chances are that this will only escalate in the coming months.
This article originally appeared in Scroll.in