In a surprising turn of events, Indian and Pakistani military officials released a joint statement on 25 February in which they announced that their countries had agreed to an immediate ceasefire along the contested border in Kashmir.
Locals have greeted the development with scepticism as similar agreements failed in the past. But if the truce succeeds, it will help calm hostilities between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in a region with some of the worst violence in recent years.
The decision came weeks after India and China also announced the disengagement of their troops along the disputed Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh. It followed their armies clashing for the first time in decades, resulting in the death of at least 20 Indian soldiers.
According to statements issued by both sides, India and Pakistan’s top military commanders brokered the ceasefire through a telephonic conversation, pledging to restore the 2003 truce deal in letter and spirit. That deal, brokered in the wake of the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, fostered several years of stability before collapsing, with cross-border conflict resuming in full force in 2013.
The two directors general of military operations, who are the highest-level military personnel and regularly communicate on a dedicated hotline, have agreed to “address each other’s core issues and concerns, which have the propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence”, said the joint statement.
It added that both sides agreed to “strict observance” of all agreements and would cease firing along the Line of Control (LOC) and all other sectors. Both sides also “reiterated that existing mechanisms of hotline contact and border flag meetings will be utilised to resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstanding”.
Relations between India and Pakistan have been at their lowest since the Hindu-nationalist and right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014. Relations worsened after August 2019 when the Indian government annulled the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and divided the disputed state into two union territories. The move drew harsh condemnation from Islamabad, with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan terming it “illegal”.
Death and destruction
Cross-border shelling is a frequent phenomenon for people residing along the 742km-long LOC – the de facto boundary separating the two sides of Kashmir – and the nearly 190km-long international border in the disputed Himalayan state. Villagers of these border areas, who face regular mortar and artillery exchanges, are breathing a sigh of relief following the announcement of the truce. But a strong sense of cynicism remains and many are doubtful that the ceasefire will last.
Civilians in these frontier areas live in thatched huts or semi-pucca structures that are often exposed to firing and shelling. Hundreds have also been displaced as a result of mortar bombing, which has resulted in the loss of life, property and livestock. Many residents, especially children, have suffered lifelong physical and psychological disabilities. Schools are unable to function, seriously impeding children’s education. The highways and tracks often come under fire, affecting commuter and transportation services.
India’s Union Home Ministry says the country registered at least 5 133 ceasefire violations by Pakistan in 2020, during which 22 civilians and 24 soldiers were killed and 197 injured. Pakistan, on the other hand, recorded at least 3 097 breaches by Indian forces in 2020, with 28 civilians killed and 257 injured.
In 2018 and 2019, the number of violations reported by India was 2 140 and 3 479, respectively, while Pakistan reported 2 350 and 3 351 for the same period. Following the 2003 ceasefire, for three years – 2004, 2005 and 2006 – there was not a single violation reported at the border.
Observers argue that decisions at the federal government level as well as the national political mood often lead to ceasefire violations. Bilateral relations have a severe and dramatic impact on ceasefire breaches along the LOC. When tensions between the two countries are high, border violations are frequent. There is also a belief that ceasefire violations may be sparked by stressed or emotionally charged soldiers who operate in harsh locations and demanding tactical environments.
There is no formal treaty or legal framework for border management between India and Pakistan. Final ratification of the Ground Rules of 1960–1961 is still pending. However, both sides tend to abide by norms contained in the ground rules, especially along the border outside of Jammu and Kashmir. In recent years, Islamabad has proposed that the 2003 agreement be formalised, but Delhi has so far declined to ratify the deal.
According to the Indo-Pak Conflict Monitor, an independent research initiative designed to monitor violations of ceasefire, conflict trends and escalation dynamics between India and Pakistan, Delhi has repeatedly accused the Pakistanis of violating the ceasefire to provide cover fire to militants infiltrating the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir. Islamabad, on the other hand, accuses India of carrying out unprovoked attacks on civilians.
“We welcome the joint statement between India and Pakistan that the two countries have agreed to maintain strict observance of a ceasefire along the LOC starting immediately,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.
United Nations General Assembly president Volkan Bozkir lauded the arrangement, which, he said, illustrated the assembly’s principles for achieving sustainable peace. UN secretary general António Guterres also called the agreement a “positive step” and expressed hope that it would provide an opportunity for further dialogue.
Pro-Indian parties in Indian-administered Kashmir said the move would go a long way towards achieving long-term peace between the two rival nations. Farooq Abdullah, a senior pro-India politician of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference and former chief minister of the state, said the people of Jammu and Kashmir have been bearing the brunt of escalating tensions along the LOC and he hoped the agreement would be enforced in “letter and spirit”.
“Dialogue is the only way forward if both countries want to stop the unending cycle of violence & bloodshed across the borders…” tweeted Mehbooba Mufti, patron of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party and former chief minister of the state.
But the prime minister of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (Pakistan-administered Kashmir), Raja Farooq Haider, urged Kashmiris to reject bilateral talks between Pakistan and India.
With the truce agreement happening in the absence of larger peace talks, many are not optimistic that it will be sustained for long. Ejaz Haider, a senior Pakistani journalist, says there is a sense that Modi was looking for a reprieve from escalating border tensions with both China and Pakistan. He argues that while the ceasefire does help civilians on both sides of the LOC to move freely without fear of being shot, it does not address the broader framework of Pakistan-India relations.
“While it provides the space for rebuilding confidence and in doing that helps the two sides take further measures, it will be somewhat naive to assign to it a value that does not belong to it,” he said.
There are some who contend that the call for a ceasefire may not have happened without the approval from the highest offices on both sides. There were reports of “back channel” talks between Modi’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, and his counterpart in Pakistan, Moeed Yusuf. However, Yusuf took to Twitter to dismiss such claims. “This is baseless. No such talks have taken place between me and Mr Doval,” he wrote.
An editorial in the Delhi-based Indian Express newspaper also underlined that although it’s possible that the deal is a military-to-military decision to reduce casualties on both sides, it is difficult to imagine the militaries, especially on the Indian side, signing off on this agreement without political guidance.
“After India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, and bifurcated it into two union territories in August 2019, Pakistan reiterated that its precondition for a dialogue was a roll-back of the decisions on Kashmir. It is unclear if the agreement to adhere to the ceasefire means that Pakistan has revised its stand. But at the very least, it may contribute to an improvement of the security situation on the ground in Kashmir,” said the editorial.
There is also a belief that the US may have played a role in pushing Delhi and Islamabad toward a deal because President Joe Biden’s new administration is looking for an end to the war in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan will now be less distracted by India and will be better placed to help Washington with the peace process in Afghanistan. And India will be better placed to focus its attention on the China threat that drives a US-India partnership. So, while Washington may not have been a factor in this story, it certainly is advantaged by the outcome,” Michael Kugelman, an analyst based in Washington DC, told Al Jazeera.