A shocking incident on November 1, along the Line of Control and the International Border in Samba district of Jammu and Kashmir has come as a grim reminder of the cost of the conflict between India and Pakistan. Seven civilians including two children were killed when Pakistani Rangers opened fire, and accordingly the Border Security Force used 82mm mortar shells to “settle scores” with their counterparts from the Indian side. Pakistan officials reported that six civilians have been killed on that side as well. On October 31, Pakistani officials said a woman was killed in firing from the Indian side.
There is thus, virtually no ceasefire to speak of between India and Pakistan even though one was agreed upon in 2003 and had worked well for a long time. Both sides have displayed patience over the years and eschewed the practice of firing at each other randomly and at will. Skirmishes did routinely take place across the border. But tensions escalated after the September 18 attack on the Indian army’s Uri brigade headquarters in North Kashmir. As a result of this fresh round of hostilities, the ceasefire has been set-aside over the last few weeks. These strikes claiming civilian lives from both the sides are perhaps the worst ones so far. It has also forced thousands of people living along the Line of Control and the International Border to leave their homes.
As this was unfolding, the Narendra Modi government struggled with the compulsions presented by Kashmir and domestic pressure. In response, it claimed to have conducted surgical strikes in the Pakistani side of Kashmir on September 30 to target a militant base across the border. The claims were followed by denials but the net result was that after September 30, 80 ceasefire violations have been reported with intensified shelling and firing from both sides. On the Indian side, twelve army and Border Security Force men have been killed, in addition to four civilians. Forty-two people were injured. Even yesterday the exchange of fire was on across the LoC.
When the ceasefire was declared in 2003, hundreds of thousands of people heaved a sigh of relief and returned to their homes after a decade of a stand-off between the two countries. Now, we seem to have returned to a similar situation. People have either run to seek shelter in the hinterland or are living a life of panic in their bunkers. For India and Pakistan it may be like a game of Twenty20 cricket in which they can boast of how many losses they have inflicted on the other side, but the people on either side are suffering. They yearn for the golden period that lasted from 2003 to 2007.
The political climate on both sides is not conducive to any moves towards reconciliation. Pakistan is bracing for a transition at the top-most level in the army amid civil-military acrimony. In India, the BJP is facing a crucial election in Uttar Pradesh early next year. Campaign posters sporting images of the surgical strikes against Pakistan have already appeared, thus giving more oxygen to this hostile outlook.
The ceasefire worked well for a long time and its benefits were tangible on the ground. Tens of thousands of people living along the 725-kilometer-long LoC returned home to live in peace after a long time, with the rapprochement paving the way for a grand reconciliation. This took the shape of historic moves such as the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawlakot bus services, thus altering the status quo between the two parts of Kashmir. This not only created a space for further talks, but also instilled a feeling among the people that the divided state had a chance of being united at least at the symbolic level. These bus services were a godsend that provided the much-needed relief to the people who had been caught in the shelling and to divided families who had not seen their near and dear ones for nearly six decades.
It was during this time that the foundations were laid for a breakthrough by the then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee and former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. It was carried forward in Dr Manmohan Singh’s regime. This new phase of normalcy, if not friendship, emerged against a backdrop of a near war-like situation in the wake of the parliament attack of 2001. This goodwill was, however, derailed by the Mumbai attack in 2008, which restarted the cycle of instability in Pakistan. But with the return of Nawaz Sharif to power and his commitment to peace moves aimed at better relations with India, hopes for an end to the enmity had revived.
PM Modi did show his intent to revive the process first by inviting Sharif to his oath-taking ceremony and later by visiting Lahore on his birthday. But then Pathankot happened and the continued violence in Kashmir was attributed to Pakistan. New Delhi arbitrarily called off the foreign secretary talks in 2014. The National Security Advisors even covered some ground but the deep-rooted suspicion on both sides prevented permanent engagement.
Today, it is a challenge for New Delhi and Islamabad to deal with those who are against peace. Extremist elements on both sides are worried about becoming irrelevant if there is any success in the dialogue between India and Pakistan. Hawks in India are working overtime to ensure this and extremists in Pakistan may also have effective ways of discouraging the process. It is in the interest of the people that both New Delhi and Islamabad show grit and forge ahead to restore relations and start talking Kashmir. Only this can silence the guns on the border, as the stakes of peace lovers will automatically go up. On November 23, the ceasefire will complete 13 years and both countries must take steps to see that it is re-implemented in letter and spirit.
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