We seem to have become so used to a relatively quiet Line of Control (LoC) that we are beside ourselves with anger and outrage that five civilians have been killed and 30 injured because of artillery fire from Pakistan. While the deaths of anyone in such circumstances are tragic and reprehensible, it should be recalled that before the 2003 LoC ceasefire, regular artillery exchanges and firing between India and Pakistan used to result in a death toll that would run into several hundred every year. The villages along the LoC were largely rendered uninhabitable. Perhaps, most important, the Pakistan firing was directly linked to the maintenance of the bloodier and even more dangerous insurgency inside Kashmir.
There seems to be evidence that violence along the LoC has risen over the past two years though not anywhere close to the levels of a decade ago. This is why India must ensure that its response to these and similar provocations is measured and proportionate, most obviously in the form of a similar munitions response against military targets. Stronger measures will be called for only if this becomes a pattern of behaviour whose trajectory is a return to a pre-2003 state of affairs. The Narendra Modi government should expect a certain increase in Pakistani violence after the cancellation of the foreign secretary-level talks between the two countries. There are many reasons why the heat on the LoC waxes and wanes. One of them is the state of the peace process. Another is the state of Pakistan’s internal politics. But the most important reason is how much mischief Pakistan’s military wishes to cause in Kashmir. With the elections coming in that state and international interest in the area at a low ebb, Pakistan can be expected to stir the pot as much as it can. The government has rightly not gone ballistic as used to be the case in the past. At the same time, by engaging with others in the neighbourhood, it is signalling to Pakistan that it is a major irritant but it is not going to dominate India’s foreign policy.
India has set a course of tightening the space for Pakistan to exploit during a peace process that is sound and should continue. Mr Modi can only be criticised for being too quick to schedule foreign secretary talks and too fast to cancel them. That is a problem of process rather than purpose. Pakistan will be expected to continue to prod and poke as the elections come closer. India should remain measured in its response at present, but the larger strategy of handling Pakistan should be kept in mind.