It was around 11 am when I reached Dhamal, a small village smack on the Working Boundary between Pakistan and India in Charva sector, a 20-minute drive from Sialkot Cantonment. As our vehicles pulled into the main, dusty road of the village, there were almost no signs of life. To the left of the road, across the green fields, I spotted a Chenab Rangers watch tower. North of the tower, in the middle distance, there was another observation post, almost identical, except that it flew the Indian tri-color.
I asked a Rangers officer if I could film the area from atop the tower. He said that was not advisable. Since the two sides began trading mortar shells and small and light weapons fire, they have stopped manning some of the towers for fear that a sniper on the ground could take out the sentry. The best time to do that would be when shifts are changing. “That hasn’t happened yet but there are safety drills that we have to resort to,” he said.
The situation, at the moment, is very different from normal days of joint Rangers-BSF (Border Security Force) patrolling. That standard practice allows the two sides at the lowest, directly-on-the-ground level to talk to each other and coordinate. There are other levels too, steadily rising until matters reach the Directors-General level. The mechanism is there, fully detailed for all eventualities.
But as happens between Pakistan and India, the mechanisms under military CBMs (confidence-building measures) work the least when needed the most. This is one of those situations.
Information is hard to come by even when one goes to the ground. Who started the current round is a question that depends on which side of the border one resides. For the Indians it’s the Pakistanis. For Pakistan, it’s India. However, it is interesting to note the pattern this time. Reports emerging from India, citing unnamed official sources, gloat over BSF’s aggressive response and the “sheer volume of fire” the BSF has been delivering on ‘hard targets’. Other reports talk about a deliberate policy to target Pakistani villages to kill civilians. We are also told that the BSF firing has resulted in high Rangers casualties while the BSF itself has sustained no losses in men and material.
Still other reports mention instructions from the new government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to act tough and aggressive towards Pakistan. In a bid to further authenticate this new policy, we are informed that India refused to blink in the Chumar sector while China’s president Xi Jingping was visiting India and forced PLA troops to back off. It’s almost like Captain India is here and the countries around India must take heed.
The problem with this Captain India narrative, however, is this: it begins to answer our question of who the aggressor might be. But let’s suppose that Punjab Rangers, for some bizarre reason, decided to start firing at Indian posts at a time when Pakistan’s western front is hot and the army is stretched thin. Furthermore, that there is relative disparity between the size and firepower of Rangers and BSF in favor of the latter. Despite this, it was the Rangers that started it. In that case, going by our hypothetical reasoning, BSF’s aggressive stance, its firepower and its supposedly accurate mortar shelling, which we are told has forced the other side to duck, should also compel the side ‘ducking for cover’ to go quiet. But either the Pakistani side sustaining reportedly heavy damage and “ducking for cover” is still capable of firing back at BSF or it is the BSF that is the aggressor and hasn’t been able to tame the Pakistani side.
The fact is that reports emerging from India are low on critical appraisal of the situation and swallow the official version hook, line and sinker without asking the tough questions. This is a dangerous trend. Although not new, this trend – there are exceptions to it – under Modi’s government could reach higher levels of jingoism.
There is no way that it can be determined who fired first or, even if one side fired, whether the firing was speculative or targeted. Anyone who knows the border understands this. Even when a local situation threatens to get out of control, the provisions within the sector-level CBMs mechanism and also at the DGs level are meant primarily to resolve and defuse the situation. It is very clear that India has decided to ignore the mechanism because if it hadn’t, the situation would have long been resolved.
This is also clear from reports talking about India refusing a flag meeting with Pakistan supposedly until Pakistan stopped firing. This in itself is a lie because Pakistan has not asked for a DGs-level meeting since this round started. But the lie in a way tells the truth about India’s intentions and by doing so gives the lie to the Pakistan-started-it mantra.
Perhaps it is important also to put on record that Rangers have suffered no casualties. The civilians, on the other hand, have not been so lucky. As I roamed the dusty lanes of the village, I found that the village wasn’t entirely empty. Even as the majority of the population has moved out to safer locations, people do come back during day to perform the daily chores. The village is vulnerable, as are villages on the Indian side. While Rangers and BSF can take protective cover in the bunkers and pill-boxes, houses, many adobe ones, offer no protection against anti-material rounds or mortar shells that burst upon impact, killing either with direct hits or killing and injuring through metal shards of the bursting shells, often mistakenly called shrapnel.
The current round, like most such fire exchange in the area, has ended up killing, injuring and displacing the civilian population. The DG Rangers, Maj.-Gen Khan Tahir, told me that Rangers are responding caliber for caliber: “If they fire 12.7mm, we respond with the same caliber. If they use 14.5, we reply with 14.5,” he said.
The problem with this strategy is that if India is in an escalation dominance mood, it won’t work. Also, it gives the initiative to India. The ideal way would be to make the CBMs work. But while it takes one to make a row, it takes two to make peace. Quite often, especially when the adversary is in no mood to climb down on the escalation ladder, the only strategy that works is to climb up the ladder. If the Modi government is in an aggressive mood and thinks it has made the diplomatic space for itself to do so, Islamabad’s policy should be to raise the cost for Delhi. One way of doing that would be to force Delhi to calculate the ‘benefit’ of this brinkmanship with Pakistan with the cost of what Modi wants to do on the economic front.
Pakistan might also need to signal to the world that this escalation will force it to thin deployment to the west and beef up the eastern front. Islamabad cannot afford a two-front war and if it has to make a choice between the two fronts, it must give priority to the eastern one. That should help get the world to convince Modi that Captain India cannot ignore the world while trying to woo it. If India considers itself a shining new BMW, it would be sensible for it to avoid playing chicken with a jalopy.
The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs, at Capital TV and a Visiting Fellow at SDPI. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.