Fear of escalation at the LOC

More than 65 years after partition, a mediated resolution to the Kashmir conflict remains illusory. Fear of escalation between nuclear rivals has prevented all-out war - but what will finally lead to peace?

Haifa Peerzada
9 April 2013

The January skirmishes on the Kashmir border between India and Pakistan have raised certain pertinent questions, which need a better understanding beyond that of the media and its anonymous sources. Who are the perpetrators and the stakeholders of peace? Will this military crisis derail the peace process between India and Pakistan to the extent of escalation to the level of an all out conventional or nuclear war? What implications will it have in the event of further escalation? 

Allegations and statements between India and Pakistan are raising tensions between the two, proving to be yet another a roadblock in the peace process between India and Pakistan that resumed in 2012 after stalling following the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai. These exchanges, with brutal killings on both sides of the border, throws us back to the grim historical past of the ethnic, religious and territorial character of the Kashmir dispute. In this context, any form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), be it negotiation or mediation, has not yet led to any significant breakthrough, and the intractability of this conflict continues to haunt the two major nuclear rivals. At this point it is essential for India and Pakistan to keep their egos under check and continue with the peace process, which is significant not only for the two states but also for the South Asian region. Therefore to sift reality from rhetoric, it is important to refer to history so that we learn important lessons from past mistakes and view it in a holistic manner. 

A history of brinkmanship

With the January crisis at the border, speculation of the possibility of another war between India and Pakistan was rife, so much so that India warned Kashmiris of a nuclear attack and suggested certain precautions. While the possibility of war between the two cannot be ruled out completely, it is essential to identify behavioural patterns and trends of past military crises to find a way out of the escalating rhetoric. Military crises between the two have become a common ground; there have been four major military crises between India and Pakistan: Brasstacks from 1986-87, the Compound crisis of 1990, the 1999 Kargil War and the 2001-02 crisis following the Indian parliament bombing, all of which remained on the brink of all-out war. 

Referencing these crises crucially demonstrates that neither India nor Pakistan are interested in a war. Any aggressive stance by India, even through means of coercive diplomacy, has proved to be a complete disaster and has failed to prevent any pre-emptive attacks from across the border. One pertinent example would be Operation Parakram following the 2001 parliamentary attack, the first full-scale military mobilisation by the Indian army at the Pakistani border. Though considered to be a successful attempt at coercive diplomacy, it almost brought the two countries to nuclear war. In 2003, India and Pakistan entered into a ceasefire.  Before India could even sit on its laurels, ceasefire violations became a common occurrence and ultimately led to the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, which again shook the very foundation of the relative peace and trust that had been established.

After these attacks, India was on the verge of retaliation before Pakistan acquired tactical weapons, prompting India to exercise strategic restraint. Most importantly, international pressure on Pakistan to abstain from launching such heinous acts of violence coupled with India's insistence on engaging in a peace process to live up to its image of being a responsible democracy – and the largest in the world - contained the situation. So, despite rhetoric indicating otherwise, any significant escalation of any of these crises was largely avoided. Significantly, it was ultimately the policymakers who took charge of the situation and prevented the escalation of the conflict on both sides of the border, not giving chance to ‘spoilers’ - those would seek to take advantage of the situation and further their own agenda, whatever it may be. 

Pakistan has invested a huge portion of its national budget to enhance its military capabilities and develop tactical weapons to bargain from a position of strength. However, as India is focused on economic development, the significant rise of the middle class who most likely would not support war, and urbanisation, it seems highly unlikely that the government would risk another misadventure with its nuclear rival, especially with preparations underway for general elections next year. Equally, Pakistan is fraught with its own internal challenges of sectarian clashes, insurgency from its western frontiers, internal terrorism and crises in its leadership. The last thing Pakistan would want is another crisis on its eastern frontier with India. Though the strategic and security communities on both sides of the border may still be embroiled in fear and therefore may support an aggressive stance towards one another, the people in India, Pakistan, and Kashmir want peace.

Future war or future peace?

Peace assuredly acts as a defence for both countries on which the stability of the entire South Asian region depends. Despite the sabre-rattling in these strategic and security communities, policymakers have shown an unwillingness to become increasingly belligerent and rightly so. But relations between India and Pakistan remain fragile, and the parlous domestic situation in Pakistan may spiral the other way round in the event of further escalation. At this point in time however, any escalation of the crisis is not only uncalled for both India and Pakistan, but also unlikely to happen. 

The unaccounted variable in this situation remains those ‘spoilers’ and perpetrators, who seek to provoke the situation through ceasefire violations and the brutal killings of soldiers on the border. India's unwillingness to allow the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to investigate these incidents as an unbiased third party seems misguided, as a neutral, unbiased approach to addressing the issue is the need of the hour. Without the consent of the conflicting parties, mediation cannot come to fruition. But India considers UNMOGIP redundant, clearly expressed in its request to scrap it from Kashmir, and the utility of ADR has been further undermined throughout years of UN failure to mediate a goal oriented settlement of the conflict. However, this may prove pivotal not just in easing the tensions between the two but more importantly rendering justice for the bereaved families. Bilateral negotiations are the ideal method but when relations between the two are so hostile and distrustful, it is wise to investigate objectively with the help from an outside party.

However India's unwillingness to internationalise the issue is not completely misguided, as the fundamental views of the conflict still remain vivid in South Asia’s dark history. The partition of India and the subsequent Kashmir dispute still remains at the forefront as Pakistan still supports a plebiscite solution, which, given the current context, is neither feasible nor desirable. The political symbolism attached to the territorial fixation of Kashmir has rooted conflict for both India and Pakistan, of which the recent border skirmishes are but one consequence. Pakistan has still been unable to give any leads to India to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice. That frustration, coupled with the Pakistani army's refusal to handover known perpetrators to India, has added fuel to the fire. In fact the Indian army believes cross border shellings are a tactic by Pakistan to bring more insurgents into the Indian territory, at a time when reportedly number of rebels crossing the borders has considerably come down. The only way forward for India and Pakistan is to engage constructively with each other beyond security imperatives, distrust and floating conspiracy theories to build trust, stem violence at the borders and finally facilitate the resolution of the Kashmir conflict. 

The resolution of the Kashmir conflict is as complex to comprehend as it is to resolve. It remains the main bone of contention between India and Pakistan even after 65 years of partition. Though the dimensions of the conflict continue to change, the situation remains intractable, with too many missed opportunities for resolution. Amid the belligerent rhetoric any resolution to the Kashmir conflict remains illusory. Especially at this time, as the US is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, it becomes all the more significant for both India and Pakistan to settle the conflict and not merely manage it, as the stability of the South Asian region depends on this. Or else as they say, history repeats itself. 

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