Fire Play

With patience and sagacity local commanders can often help reduce ceasefire violations

Sanjiv Krishan SoodSanjiv Krishan Sood

Cease fire violations (CFV) along the nearly 700km Line of Control (LC) with Pakistan have once again started with the ferocity matching that which existed before Balakot. An army soldier was killed in the last week of July in the Sundarbani sector. Indian Army thwarted a BAT (Border Action Team) attack by Special Service Group (SSG) of Pakistan in Keran Sector on August 3 reportedly killing five Pakistani intruders. Sudden spurt in the CFVs can be attributed to Pakistani attempts to exploit the last few weeks of summers to infiltrate militants before the passes close due to onset of winter and snowfall.

Repeated CFVs are a major problem faced by the security forces, constantly keeping them on their toes and disrupting normal life along the LC and International Border (IB) in the Jammu sector. While the troops are deployed in well-fortified bunkers along LC and the population density is much thinner, the situation along the 200km IB in Jammu is entirely different.

The villages are located very close to the border and are within the range of flat trajectory weapons like the medium machine guns and even rifles and light machine guns in some cases. CFVs cause loss of life among security forces, civilians and their cattle affecting agricultural produce. These also have severe psychological impact on young children living in the border area by disrupting their education and normal activities.

What are the causes of CFVs? There appears to be no cogent answer to this vexed question. India believes that Pakistani troops resort to unprovoked firing to facilitate infiltration of militants. This is true to a large extent. It will however be simplistic to assume that this is the only cause of violations.

Besides serving along the LC I had the opportunity of having commanded my unit at Samba — a 200km stretch of border in Jammu — which Pakistan treats as disputed border and equates its status with that of LC. Till about early 1990s, official communication called ‘Protest Notes’ by Pakistan used to refer to this stretch as ‘International Boundary’ or IB. Cleary, until then Pakistan did not regard the border in Samba sector as disputed.

They started referring to the border as ‘disputed’ when we started to construct the fence along it in mid-Nineties. Pakistan contented that Jammu being part of the J&K state was also part of the disputed territory and India had no right to construct the fence. The initial cause of firing along these borders thus appears to have a connection with our efforts to fence it and their objections to it. The intensity of firing continued to increase until 2003 when there was an informal agreement to deescalate the situation and cease fire was implemented after the talks between Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf.

Soldiers patrolling at the IB, Jammu

Couple of incidents from 1996 to 1999 during my command of a unit at Samba would be in order to establish that reasons for CFV are not restricted only to Pakistan providing cover fire to militants.

The first incident happened sometimes in May-June 1996, when a farmer, who after a lot of insistence was permitted to cultivate the area close to border pillar 55, was fired upon by the Pak Rangers. This area was claimed by the farmer as his property whereas Pakistanis claimed that it belonged to them. The firing stopped after a meeting was requisitioned with Pak Rangers in which it was decided that status quo as existing before the incident be maintained.

Another incident occurred a little later during monsoon. One border pillar of pre-Independence vintage got washed away in heavy current. Pak Rangers initially agreed to the reconstruction of the pillar when contacted but later declined and set up defences in front of the pillar to prevent us from construction. The BSF too created defences and reconstructed the pillar at night taking advantage of the dark and rain. This led to heavy exchange of fire first light onwards the next day when they saw the constructed pillar. Heavy exchange of fire continued for several weeks thereafter leading to severe disruption of normal life of the border population.

It can therefore be easily seen that one important reason for CFV is when any of the counterpart takes up a work other than the routine as the border is considered disputed by them.

On the other hand, on a couple of occasions when BSF undertook works like cleaning of the border track or erection of cattle wire fence by farmers around their field after duly informing them, there was no interference.

Therefore, it is safe to surmise that difference in interpretation of status of the border is an important cause of CFVs. They occur whenever any work other than the routine is undertaken on these borders. Anything remotely considered defence work comes under fire immediately and has perforce to be stopped. The retaliatory actions by the forces leads to spiralling effect with each force giving as good as they get.

Therefore, it is important to keep the counterpart informed of works being undertaken by us. This is a practical requirement and we should not let the ego or prestige come in the way in the interest of border population whose daily life gets severely disrupted because of the firing.

Another reason for CFVs is projection of machismo by certain commanders. In an incident in Keran sector, where I was posted as second in command of a unit, it was reported that one company commander had opened fire with 60mm mortar on a Pakistani post to celebrate victory of India over Pakistan in a World Cup cricket match in 1996! Threat of dire consequences had to be invoked to stop him from continuing with his misadventure. Junior commanders lacking in understanding of wider national objectives indulge in such acts without realising their impact on overall situation.

The informal cease fire continued to hold till about 2014 and even the most contentious work of erecting the fence close to the borders was carried out without any interference by the Pakistanis. The BSF could also create and maintain its border guarding assets during this period. This period was also extremely beneficial for the border population as they could lead a normal life and carry out agricultural activities right till the fence.

Regular cease fire violations once again started after 2013. Reasons can be attributed to both local factors as well as political situation in Pakistan. As brought out by Happymon Jacob in his book, the primary cause of cease fire violations by Pakistan was Pakistani Army’s effort to pre-empt any peace overtures by Nawaz Sharif who had assumed power that year.

Sabotaging peace efforts was also the reason for increased attempts to help militants infiltrate under the cover of fire. This also emanates from the desire of Pakistan to not allow the leadership of Separatist movement to pass on to the local militants.

Another reason for CFVs can be attributed to misunderstanding and improper assessment of events happening in the interiors by commanders. A recent incident where Pakistanis resorted to celebratory fire after dark on occasion of a marriage in a village located close to the border was assumed by Indian patrols deployed on the border as attack on our positions with high trajectory weapons. They reported accordingly and the commanders ordered immediate retaliatory fire leading to escalation. Improper assessment of situation by commanders based on inadequate inputs thus has potential to cause disproportionate responses leading to increased levels of exchange. Proper assessment by commanders by visiting the area or at least by asking relevant questions to the patrols could have avoided the ugly spat which lasted over a few days.

Sometimes a sense of ‘prestige’ becomes the trigger. The commanders and troops often consider that not retaliating is an act of cowardice which demeans their prestige. The commanders have to understand the importance of exercising effective fire control and ensuring peace and tranquillity for benefit of both the border guarding force as well as local population.

Often the local population too adopts a combative approach if the security forces do not retaliate. This retaliation to satisfy public ego is extremely problematic and commanders must not succumb to that pressure. They should interact more frequently with the population and explain the advantages of exercising restraint.

IB near Jammu during night

The reasons for violations of cease fire discussed above apply equally to both sides, an additional cause being Pakistan’s attempt to help militants infiltrate into India. This is not applicable to India because India doesn’t indulge in any such activity to undermine Pakistan. Both counterpart forces retaliate with equal ferocity and are unwilling to yield. Therefore, assuming that either side will be subdued by retaliation by other side is erroneous. In fact, the spiral of firing tends to go upwards with heavier weapons being brought into play.

What is important for both countries and the border guarding forces to understand is that continued firing on the border takes a heavy physical and mental toll over the civilian population. It is therefore in the interest of both countries to maintain peace at the borders to allow population to go about their daily chores unhindered.

Both the countries should therefore come to an understanding to reduce the CFVs. Some good practices can be formulated and imbibed to ensure peace. Some suggested measures are discussed below.

First and foremost is that retaliation must never be a panic reaction. The commanders must properly analyse the situation either by visiting the spot or assessing it by asking relevant questions from those on spot. This will also enable the troops deployed on nearby posts to take measures to avoid any damage or casualty to them and collateral damage to civilians working or staying in nearby areas. This will also allow commanders to fetch up reinforcements needed if any. In other words, it has to be ensured that the Unit Commanders and troops do not become trigger happy.

Motivation of troops should not be based on anti-Pak rhetoric. They should be trained to logically analyse a situation after proper assessment. Another incident from my days in Samba is worth mentioning. Intense firing was a daily routine. The commandant of the unit relieving my unit had to be taken for familiarisation. We started in our Gypsy with a white flag and went along the track located on IB. The Pakistanis did not interfere till the time we reached the destination safely. However, as soon as we reached there and flag was lowered, they opened up with LMG. The troops deployed being from the incoming unit were not familiar with the drills. The BOP commander ordered immediate retaliation. He was however prevented from doing so as the fire by Pakistanis was in air and not aimed. Retaliation would only have invited more fire and added to tension. Restraint therefore is very essential.

While carrying out normal border guarding duties one should not unnecessarily display an aggressive posture. The patrols and ambushes must always remain alert for any eventuality but should behave in a normal manner. Routine pattern of behaviour will bring temperatures down, reduce tension and lead to normalisation of the situation.

Any work being undertaken in the vicinity, especially if it can even remotely be interpreted as defence work is recommended to be undertaken after duly informing the counterpart. Such acts of confidence building will reduce tension and go a long way in enhancing trust.

The local commanders must keep the channels of communications open. They should as soon as possible try to contact the counterpart through a flag meeting and control the situation by arriving at an amicable solution to a developing situation. The company commanders and battalion commanders therefore have to be delegated adequate authority to call for such flag meetings.

More channels of communication should be opened on lines existing along Bangladesh border. Presently only one sector of the BSF is nominated as nodal point for communication with Pakistan. Incidents happening anywhere along the wide frontage can be discussed with the counterpart only through this channel. It would be much easier if unit commanders or at least all sector commanders are allowed to contact in case of exigencies. This will help deescalate situation much more quickly because the local commanders are much better aware of the developing situation. Being located close to the place of incident, respective commanders can also visit the spot in a realistic time frame and exercise their personal influence to deescalate the situation.

The measures listed above are only suggestive in nature. A lot depends on the initiative of local commanders to bring situation under control. It must be realised by commanders that maintaining peace at the borders is in the interest of the border population amongst whom the BSF is tasked to inculcate a sense of security. Repeated violations of cease fire do not achieve anything and must be avoided at all costs.

(The writer is a former additional director general, Border Security Force)


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