Media focus over the last month or so has brought into the open the secret brutality of the war in Kashmir. The beheadings have naturally revolted many, a few because of their very nature and most because some heads have been lost on our own side. To the former the revelations mean that there is more than meets the eye on the Line of Control. To the latter it only confirms that the other side does not merely require swift and stern response, but must be administered a disciplining time and again.
The ceasefire along the Line of Control in place since November 2003 is a tacit one, not contained in a written document. This is because there is no acknowledgement of a prior war on the LC. The LC has always had ordnance being traded across it, even prior to the outbreak of the insurgency in Kashmir. Some locations along its length have been more active than others. There was once largely a 'live-and-let-live' environment. However the onset of the insurgency made the LC an active sub-theatre.
So long as mass infiltration and exfiltration was on in the early nineties, the army would lay ambushes along its length to intercept these groups. However, with time the 'mass' aspect declined and instead more hardened elements from Pakistan, pushed through under heavy firing from Pakistani posts. Thus the Indian army had to target not only the infiltrators but also the Pakistani posts in support. With time, artillery exchanges and heavy calibre weapons in direct firing role were added to the punch.
The ceasefire along the Line of Control in place since November 2003 is a tacit one, not contained in a written document. This is because there is no acknowledgement of a prior war on the LC.
Since the army was answerable for the numbers infiltrating and fuelling the insurgency every summer, it resorted to innovative tactics to cope. These included laying mines, setting up posts in climatically hostile high altitude terrain, refining operating procedures for deployment ambushes, and bringing down firepower. The cover of the ceasefire enabled the construction of the LC fence. Higher defence budgets enabled by a rising GDP, input from the Israeli experience at their wall in the West Bank and greater literacy in the rank and file enabled the adaption of technology to the effort.
Pakistani handlers and the jihadi foot soldiers were not far behind. The inevitable contest between attack and defence involving will and wits of fighting men has played out across the wide front. The Pakistani innovation was in 'Bat' action by Border Action Teams. These groups watched the Indian routine, identified vulnerabilities and then speedily exploited these. The degeneration into inhumanity that has occurred is attributable to them. Proving their success to ISI minders required them to carry back a 'trophy'. They therefore cast the first stone in this saga of beheadings. Episodes such as the 'ketchup Colonel' and the controversial medal grab in Siachen may have prompted the Indian army to also ask for 'proof'.
The army chief has pointed out that the nature of the battlefield and battle on the LC requires commanders to be aggressive and proactive. There is the element of military morale and martial spirit at stake. He basically is echoing one of the insights of von Clausewitz, the doyen of modern military thinkers.
Clausewitz said that the first consideration of decision makers when embarking on a war is to understand its nature. Arriving at such an understanding helps in ensuring that the forces are not set on tasks beyond their capability, nor are demands made on them that they are unable to fulfil. Therefore, if there is an LC in place since 1949 that is the most heavily militarised portion of the earth, then surely it is unreasonable to expect peace to prevail along its length all the time.
While there is a case for regulating the nature of that contest, the nature of war itself - the second major insight of Clausewitz - needs also to be factored in. The nature of war is not for the faint hearted. It is, to adapt a classic phrase associated with Hobbes: 'nasty and brutal' though not necessarily 'short'. In other words, theory suggests that what passes for revelations today are actually quite unsurprising, and only to be expected.
Additionally, the LC was a site where the army could hit back hard at the Pakistani army, the bulwark behind their proxies. It could not be allowed to sit with impunity while the Indian army lost sleep and blood chasing after the designs of the ISI. Besides, an element of retribution would help with deterrence. Unwilling to pay a direct price, the Pakistani army would keep its jihadi proxies in check to an extent. This would keep a lid on the conflict and keep it manageable. In other words, the brutalisation could be worse, but for gruesome events like the beheadings.
This can indeed be taken as after-the-fact rationalisation. It is entirely plausible that hatred and a need to incite such hatred enable such decisions. There is a mirroring of religion-based distaste for the other side across the LC. There are also organisational factors. Just as along the Western front in the Great War, a 'christmas' truce cannot be allowed to prevail. This was made possible then by innovating Infantry tactics of ambush and raids across the 'no man's land' into the enemy trenchline. The army chief's statement echoes this sentiment across generations of military commanders.
A minor problem is when such negative perception influences military input into strategic decision making. The military would, based on such experience, naturally caution against any engagement with Pakistan. Institutional pushing and nudging that accompanies such decisions then results in hedging of bets, as has been the case over the past half decade. A similar consideration in Pakistan has kept the two states at odds. There cannot but be political consequences for both states.
As has been evident from India's reaching out in fits and starts to Pakistan over the past half decade, there is always an accompanying outbreak of negativity. There are forces in India who can do without a friendly neighbour. They have internal political utility for such a stance. They hope to construct a national identity in a particular way. Articulation of the 'internally abetted external threat', to paraphrase Chanakya, is a step in this process. Such forces need an enemy on the borders.
If this is the political consequence of having an LC and if this is found to be questionable, then there is a case to rethink the very existence of the LC. It is proving too costly. The costs are no longer economic and human resulting from forces along it, but more compelling. The LC is but part of a larger problem. The last paragraph suggests that the wider problem is not one of territory, resolvable through negotiations, but an identity problem requiring political attention.
Since getting troops off the trenches has proven impossible over the past half century, in the absence of political vision, outraged opinion must
regrettably reconcile to the 'new normal' and assimilate what it means for the 'idea of India'.