In security issues involving Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), events move at breakneck speed and with great intensity, drawing media attention in Delhi and elsewhere. These events vanish just as soon as they come. They are, many a time, seasonal and calendar-based, making them seem predictable and therefore less significant.
The result is that public and institutional memory of them is poor, making quick meaningful assessments difficult and often ending in transactional and routine conclusions. That is how the recent spurt in activity at the LoC which commenced on November 7 with an infiltration attempt foiled in the Machil sector on the Shamshabari range, is being viewed.
In the ensuing gun fights, we lost an officer and two jawans and neutralised three terrorists. That led, a week later, to the triggering of some of the most intense exchanges of fire on the LoC all along the Kashmir frontier extending into the Poonch sector. These continue to be called cease-fire violations (CFVs), although the much spoken of cease-fire of November 2003 has remained in tatters for the last six years or so. There have been fatal casualties of soldiers and, for the first time at the Kashmir LoC segment after 2003, of civilians.
Infiltration activity is expected at this seasonal moment. It is also usual to have losses from time to time due to the very nature of operations and so we tend to relegate the significance of these events. However, the context and history are relevant.
Importantly, this calendar year has had an assessed strength of just 26-30 infiltrators confirmed to have entered into Kashmir. Compare this to the 2,000 or more that used to enter every year, 20 years ago. The infiltration this year began with a high-profile encounter in the Keran sector on April 1 in high levels of snow in which five terrorists and five Special Forces personnel were killed. Thereafter, it has been a successful year in terms of the number of terrorists neutralised in the hinterland, almost 200 of them. The number of young locals getting recruited into “tanzeems” has witnessed a decrease, especially after funerals of even local terrorists were disallowed by the police; these had been the source of inspiration to many young Kashmiris.
The leadership, too, is virtually non-existent with many areas being served by rookie local terrorists. With terrorist strength reduced due to failed infiltration and poor recruitment, networks that support terror under strain with their finances stretched, the challenge for the separatists and their sponsors is intense. It is the LoC to which the target of the Pakistani frustration and ire has shifted. The number of CFVs has gone up from 3,168 in 2019 to 4,052 in 2020, of which 394 occurred in October and 128 in November.
Four to five years ago, the international border (IB) between Jammu and Kathua came alive with heavy exchanges of firing leading to mass rearward exodus of the mainly Hindu population of the region. It was then assessed that Pakistan aimed at creating a communal schism in Jammu by targeting such villages. Now it is targeting densely populated villages in Uri knowing fully well that those being killed are Muslims who have never supported Pakistan. Uri is where I commanded the brigade and am fully aware of the patriotic nature of the Pahari community which occupies the LoC villages.
It is true that with the quantum and quality of terrorists in the Valley, the campaign by Pakistan to keep optimally high levels of turbulence in place isn’t going to last long. In 1990-91, it had faced a similar quandary when the local resistance started to peter out at the start of the campaign. Then the Afghan and other foreign mujahideen were brought in, comfortably infiltrating through the sparsely manned LoC. That phase lasted till 1996 when the pipeline of foreign terrorists ran dry.
Today, things are different. There are no foreign mujahideen available; the launch pads have only some Pakistani fighters but the vigil by the Indian Army is intense and the counter infiltration measures are not easy to get past. There is desperation across the LoC to do something to keep the proxy war alive in J&K. There is the Rashtriya Rifles deployment to contend with as also a much more vigorous CRPF, all backed by the redoubtable J&K Police.
Up in the north, China’s PLA had perceived a cakewalk in terms of military coercion of a stretched Indian Army, to rein in the galloping strategic confidence of India after 2014. With the PLA’s strategic objectives not achieved and clearly unlikely to be achieved unless it decides to deploy a far higher quantum of troops, China is seeking options for a drawdown without loss of face. Pakistan’s collusion can help if the situation in J&K is taken to a higher pitch of resistance and turbulence. What is currently manifesting at the LoC is a Pakistani strategy in disarray. It cannot cross a threshold level of activity lest an intense Indian response leads to an embarrassment of the Pakistan Army at a time when internally things aren’t looking too rosy either; the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has found its energy and is moving with focus towards its aim of removing the Pakistan Army’s hand from governance.
These are complex times, especially with the changed contours of international geopolitics, a new leadership at the helm in the US and China’s renewed ambitions. India’s role in the emerging world order is likely to be of much significance, which China would like to see diluted; Pakistan is a partner in achieving that intent. The way to achieving this lies through J&K and Ladakh.
Advantage gained by India in either of the standoffs with China or with Pakistan will go far in enhancing its international role, its worth for the US and its allies, and its future standing. India is not complacent in its pursuit of strategic affairs but the ability to wade through complexity will pose the biggest challenge. Each shot fired on the LoC and each proposal on the LAC will mean several other dots have to be joined. A larger consultative approach under these circumstances is the way forward.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 20, 2020 under the title ‘Redrawing the lines’. The writer, a former corps commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is chancellor, Central University of Kashmir.