Line on Fire: Detailed account on skirmishes between India and Pakistan

Published on Mar 18 2019

The Balakot air strike by the Indian Air Force on February 26 that targeted Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror training camps in Pakistan, and the subsequent response by the Pakistan Air Force the next day that saw an Indian MiG fighter aircraft being downed, marked a significant military punctuation in the adversarial and intractable bilateral relationship between the two south Asian nuclear-armed neighbours.

Air power was used by India as a preemptive counter-terror measure to ensure that another Pulwama would not occur and that the JeM, which had claimed responsibility for the attack, would be degraded. The Indian resolve, as exuded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was also a case of testing the received wisdom that any use of such trans-border military capability (air power) would lead to a steady escalation pattern peaking in the possible use of nuclear weapons.

Predictably, Pakistan responded by using its own air power and the triumphalism of day one in some sections of India (‘where is the Jaish?’) was tempered by the sobering reality that an escalation dynamic could, indeed, unfold with costly consequences for both countries and their citizens. The fact that the Indian MiG pilot who had ejected was taken into custody by Pakistan added a very intense human element to the Pulwama-Balakot trajectory that dominated the 24×7 news cycle on Indian TV, with various exigencies being envisioned. However, in an unexpected but welcome development, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan returned the pilot and the post-Pulwama military escalation appears to be on pause—but for how long?


This escalation dynamic is the focus of a rigorously researched book by Happymon Jacob, an academic and respected columnist who has been diligently working on the troubled India-Pakistan relationship and has done extensive field work on the line of control (LoC). Jacob’s USP is that he has been accorded rare access to both sides of the ‘hot’ LoC and this is testimony to the author’s credibility as a serious and objective academic. This is a razor’s edge for anyone grappling with emotive national security issues and more so when it comes to India-Pakistan ties. The Kashmir issue is even more volatile in India, where the probability of being categorised as ‘anti-national’ for venturing to offer an objective view, alas, remains very high.

The current book—Line on Fire—is a companion to Jacob’s earlier volume The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies and both draw attention to a little studied subject—the 740-km-long LoC—that was demarcated in 1972 as part of the Simla Agreement.

The recurring phenomenon related to the LoC is ‘ceasefire violations’, what Jacob refers to as CFVs and it is instructive to note that there have been almost 2,000 such incidents since 2011. They vary in occurrence and, for instance, post-Balakot there have been more than 70 CFVs in one week. Introducing the acronym AMF—or autonomous military factor—to describe the military action along the LoC that is undertaken by local commanders (battalion and brigade commanders), this to my mind is the most valuable part of the book under review.

Jacob breaks fresh ground in amassing considerable empirical data related to CFVs and in conducting detailed interviews with a large number of officials—retired army officers in the main from both countries and arriving at certain formulations. The four core propositions are: CFVs and related crisis escalation are often locally triggered and not planned by higher political or military authorities; the ceasefire agreement of 2003 tends to hold when the two sides engage in a dialogue process; CFVs prominently caused by AMFs contribute to India-Pakistan escalation dynamics in a significant manner and the conventional view that terrorism is the primary cause is not empirically valid; and adhocism in managing the border and LoC has historically been a key factor in stoking India-Pakistan tension.

Jacob’s considerable database and his interviews with the retired fauji fraternity have resulted in some little known operational nuggets coming into the public domain—for instance, Op Kabaddi that was planned for late 2001. How this was aborted when PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was at the helm is the dramatic opening section of the current Jacob tome. There are many more such vignettes, and Jacob leavens personal reflections with academic findings while visiting the volatile LoC, where bullets and mortar fire are routine. This weave introduces an authenticity and human dimension, despite the occasional imbalance to the narrative.

CFVs need to be studied in much greater detail than has been the case and this is unexceptionable. Jacob has rendered yeoman service in illuminating this phenomenon and his AMF formulation is indeed innovative and import-laden. However, the linkage between CFVs and what is often referred to as state-sponsored terrorism in relation to J&K may warrant more nuanced scrutiny.

Linked to this is the nuclear strand and the Pakistani patent in this regard—the opaque pattern of nuclear weapon-enabled terrorism (NWET), on which is predicated the proxy war that Rawalpindi embarked upon against India in 1989-90. If such a framework is deemed valid, then the CFV-AMF linkage pre- and post-1990 could lead to a slightly modified analysis.

These are critical national security issues that both India and Pakistan need to study in an informed and dispassionate manner and Jacob is to be commended for providing the equivalent of the first cut of recent history apropos CFVs and contemporary events with Balakot as the referent.

An inherent escalation dynamic is embedded in India-Pakistan relations and this kind of scholarly illumination is to be welcomed. It enables the policymaker in national capitals and the soldier along the LoC to better comprehend the complexity of the national security compulsions that are at stake—along a 740-km line that is ‘on fire’ almost on a daily basis.

(C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi)


 Financial Express March 10, 2019