The latest flare up of tensions along the Line of Control in Kashmir is a reminder of the accident-prone nature of Pakistan-India relations in a strategic environment unaltered by the improvement in trade and political ties. The recent border hostilities are inherent in the unresolved status of bilateral disputes. This makes the LoC susceptible to advantage seeking by one or both sides.
Despite trading accusations both countries have shown a mutual interest in defusing present tensions to keep the process of normalization on track. But questions have been raised about whether existing arrangements are adequate for escalation control. The Pakistani version of how the latest tensions began focuses on the attempt by the Indian Army around three months ago to build new observation posts around the village of Charonda in the Haji Pir sector.
Here it is important to recall the joint statement agreed between the two countries in 2005. This followed the LoC ceasefire agreed at the Prime Ministerial level in 2003. In the 8 August 2005 joint statement issued after the second round of expert-level talks, both countries agreed not to "develop any new posts and defence works along the LoC." Last autumn, when Pakistani military authorities detected new constructions being built near the LoC they asked for the customary flag meeting to address the issue. The Directors General of Military Operations from both countries spoke twice on the hotline. When Pakistan's objection to the construction work was conveyed, it was met by the Indian insistence that this was routine maintenance of old fortifications and not a ceasefire violation. During October, warnings over a loudspeaker by Pakistani troops in the area yielded no results. Thereafter the construction became the cause of exchange of fire between the two.
Mortar fire led to Indian claims of civilian casualties in Charonda village. Then followed a cross-border Indian attack on the Pakistani position at Sawan Patra from where the firing is said to have come. The raiding party was chased away but the 6 January clash claimed the life of a Pakistani soldier and left another wounded.
Pakistan's account was supported by a report in the Hindu of 10 January. According to the newspaper, the Indian Army's bunker construction sparked the spiral of cross-border violence — the worst since the ceasefire went into effect. On 8 January, Indian officials accused Pakistani troops of conducting a cross border raid in another sector allegedly killing two soldiers, one of whom was said to have been beheaded. But Pakistani spokesmen denied the incident and described it as an Indian effort to divert attention from their earlier raid. Then on 10 January at Hotspring in PoK, sniper fire from Indian troops claimed the life of a Pakistani soldier.
Border tensions are likely to subside in the days ahead. But the fragility of the LoC will persist. In the absence of any accommodation over Kashmir, the 2003 ceasefire will continue to serve as a way of maintaining a tenuous peace in a heavily militarized region. The ceasefire has by and large held since 2003, despite periodic exchanges of fire and occasional skirmishes. But complaints of ceasefire breaches have been increasing. Such mutual complaints were most recently reiterated during the expert level talks on military CBMs in Delhi on 28 December 2012.
If the ceasefire is not to become a hostage to incidents like the recent ones, it would make sense to formalise the agreement on non-construction of new posts along the LoC. The 2005 undertaking has been under discussion in expert level talks since 2006. It also figured in the last round between the two countries in December 2012. Discussion has been aimed at evolving a framework agreement to establish clear parameters for non-construction of defence posts. But progress has been glacial. No consensus has emerged on the proposed elements for such an agreement. Pakistan wants posts to be barred within 500 metres on either side of the LoC. India insists that maintenance related work on present posts should include upgradation of the LoC fence. Islamabad finds this unacceptable.
Reconciling these differences to conclude a comprehensive confidence building measure might help strengthen the ceasefire's operation. Chances of future contention can also be minimized if this incorporates an explicit mechanism for dispute resolution. This will not eliminate the incidents that become flashpoints for border clashes, but it would address an aspect of an easily inflamed situation.
Unless meaningful steps are taken to improve the security climate the normalization process will always be at risk of relapsing into tensions.