December 21, 2000



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Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Cease-fire does not mean letting one's guard down

The Ramzan cease-fire in J&K has entered its third week. Although the two sides are not exchanging fire across the Line of Control, there is no let-up in acts of terrorism by the Mujahideen, nor has there been any noticeable reduction in casualties.

The unilateral ceasefire has set the cat among the pigeons on both sides of LoC and visibly restrained the largest indigenous militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

While there are positive gains from a bold initiative, the security forces fighting a proxy war already with one hand tied at the back, have been further disadvantaged.

That is why Rifleman Tejbir Singh is in a quandary. When Havaldar Manzoor Khan told Tejbir that our forces were going to observe a cease-fire, he was a bit puzzled. He had seen how the earlier cease-fire in July in Kupwara had been broken day in and day out. Even the latest offer had been broken within 48 hours by a Fedayeen attack on his post in which several comrades had been killed and many wounded. For Tejbir, who is fighting a war, the on and off declarations of cease-fire are baffling.

Tejbir smiled cynically when Manzoor tried to explain the rationale for the suspension of offensive military operations -- giving peace another chance, winning hearts and minds, engaging the Hurriyat and dividing the Mujahideen. He wondered why games were being played with the lives of soldiers. But he was even more perplexed when he was told that Pakistan had, this time around, reciprocated with a cease-fire along the Line of Control -- that is they would exercise maximum restraint in engaging targets on his side of the LoC. Yet to this day, there was no let-up in militant attacks in Kupwara.

Tejbir's briefing on the cease-fire continued the next day at the Commanding Officer's Sainik Sammelan. Colonel Kapoor reminded his battalion of the army tradition of employing minimum force and that too only in good faith as enshrined in the Soldier's Ten Commandments, the ninth being about insaniyat. He exhorted his men to be vigilant, resorting to defensive action only.

But trained in shoot-to-kill, all this is very confusing for soldiers out on patrol, road-opening and other routine duties for self-preservation. Tejbir has the difficult task of ensuring that while he is not the first to shoot, he is also not the second to do so. Opening fire during a cease-fire is like opening a can of worms.

A cease-fire works best when both sides observe it and umpires and human rights activists monitor it. The present cease-fire is a declaration by India of good intent -- insaniyat -- though it is no incentive for those determined to wreck the peace, nor for Pakistan to rein in militants. It is also a sign of the confidence among the security forces.

But while the cease-fire may impress the international community of India's good faith and high thinking, the decreasing concern for loss of lives, especially of soldiers, is very worrying when it is clear that this initiative is doomed to failure.

It is also clear that there are as severe limitations to a cease-fire as there are to the use of military force. The military threshold has been reached in the proxy war. Higher levels of intervention are incompatible with human rights and will only increase alienation.

Equally, the cease-fire will impose severe strain on Tejbir, whose life is no more expendable at Kupwara than his brother's is, in the State Bank of Patiala. The sooner the government realises that such gestures would not be left open-ended but part of a political game plan.

A cease-fire does not mean letting one's guard down. The army gave its consent to the plan. But on the ground it means stopping cordon-and-search and seek-and-destroy operations which keep the Mujahideen on the run.

The snow has set, passes have closed and Mujahideen hideouts, because these cannot survive in the higher reaches of mountain ranges, have been dismantled.

During winter, terrorist groups abandon the heights and merge with the habitation operating from towns and villages. Allowing them safe haven, instead of separating fish from water, is invitation to bloodshed, given the outright rejection of the cease-fire by Mujahideen loyal to Pakistan. Further, it will let them regroup and rebuild their capability for terror.

In the past, we have experimented with cease-fires in the north-east but these were not one-sided. Even the temporary suspension of IPKF operations in Sri Lanka was for a short duration, no more than 72 hours to test the LTTE waters. The Sri Lankans are now loath to accept a cease-fire before any future peace talks.

It is therefore, unwise to compare the J&K proxy war with any other counterinsurgency campaign or an associated cease-fire. The cease-fire is, therefore, at best self gratifying and dangerous. Tejbir is required not to shoot at an unarmed Mujahideen even when he recognises him as being one. The Israelis are laughing at our strategy of putting at risk the lives of soldiers and undermining their morale. But the tolerance level of the Indian soldier is so high it is sometimes worrying.

Apart from this immediate negative military fall-out of the cease-fire, some aspects are of archival value. This is the first time the guns have fallen silent along the entire length of the LoC, including across Siachen. Not since the cease-fire in 1949 have both sides muzzled their guns. But this has neither curtailed infiltration nor curbed cross-border terrorism. For 50 years, regardless of the change of the name of the imaginary line separating the two forces -- from the cease-fire line to Line of Actual Control to Line of Control following the 1947, 1965 and 1971 wars -- both sides have crossed this line ad lib, raiding posts, shelling pickets and carrying out multiple stealth operations on the other side. It is a case of the ritual tit for tat.

Following the Ramzan cease-fire, there has been what a psychiatrist will call a mood elevation in the depression prone, conflict-fatigued Srinagar valley. This is bound to be a shortlived palliative as the ordinary Kashmiris are being made targets of random bomb blasts and hand grenade attacks and military posts are being subjected to suicide attacks. Civilians will inevitably be trapped in the crossfire. Under conditions of unequal combat, military casualties are bound to increase.

Regardless of what senior military commanders might say, this is too high a price for a vacuous political initiative which may score brownie points among the international community and human rights activists.

Even after Kargil, the government has not been sensitised to the increasing toll of operational casualties. That is why Tejbir will never understand the language of a universal cease-fire no matter how meticulously Manzoor and Kapoor try explaining it. Because they don't understand it either.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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