Tensions on one of the world’s most fortified borders have escalated over the last two weeks. On New Year’s Eve, days of cross-border skirmishes escalated into hours of heavy cross-border fire between Indian and Pakistani forces over the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. Fighting then proliferated to the actual India-Pakistan border. One Indian soldier was killed, along with four Pakistanis. The fatalities came after India’s defense minister said his country would intensify retaliations against Pakistan for border violations. But tensions have continued and January 3 witnessed more deadly fighting. Overnight, fighting broke out in the Kathua and Samba districts in Jammu and Kashmir. Both Kathua and Samba have been the focus of recent tensions. India said thirteen of its border positions and several villages were targeted with shelling by heavy Pakistani mortars. India said one civilian was killed in the fighting, which has forced the displacement of over 1,000 people from four villages. Pakistan said one of its civilians was killed as well. Both sides, as expected, accused the other of starting the hostilities. Hours later, in the Tanghdar sector of northern Jammu and Kashmir, two Indian soldiers were killed. Fighting here points to an expansion of hostilities along the LoC.
The fighting is the most serious since October, when days of cross-border fire left thirteen dead and displaced around 32,000 people. But flare-ups on the India-Pakistan border are common. Over 500 border infractions to the years-old ceasefire have been recorded by both sides in 2014. Nonetheless, this latest escalation comes at a time of increased friction between India and Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan are on high-alert for militant attacks in major cities. In India, justification for this can be found in last week’s Bangalore bombing, which left one woman dead. For Pakistan, it would be December’s Peshawar attacks and its ongoing counter militancy campaign against certain factions in the northwest tribal regions. Moreover, India connects the ongoing cross-border fighting to the militant threat. India perceives this latest flare-up as a Pakistani attempt to infiltrate its militants into Indian territory. India has stated that Pakistan has deployed some nine militant squads along the border. They are allegedly awaiting orders to cross into Indian territory under the cover of Pakistani fire in order to carry out attacks throughout the country. It further stated that such an operation was thwarted on January 3. Concerns of such a possibility have been heightened as India perceives such attacks are aimed to coincide with the upcoming visit by US President Obama.
To make matters worse, this fear has been compounded by the widely publicized high-speed chase off the coast of India on New Year’s Eve. The Indian Coast Guard said it tracked a boat from the Karachi area of Pakistan in the Arabian Sea. As the boat approached India’s waters off the coast of Gujarat, India attempted an interception. After a few hours, the four Pakistanis on board committed suicide as they detonated their explosives. The incident has sparked assumptions that Pakistani militants were aiming to carry out another sea-borne Mumbai style attack. To that point, India has bolstered security measures along its western coast, especially in the Gujarat area.
It is this context that makes the recent escalation on the India-Pakistan border so notable. Both sides are likely to continue with statements assuring that they are committed to a ceasefire on the border, yet events on the ground and interests could complicate de-escalation efforts. This is in conjunction with an increased instability in Pakistan, which likewise serves as a destabilizing factor for India-Pakistan relations. Therefore, both sides will likely prepare for further volatility, yet any escalation between the two nuclear powers will likely remain localized to the border region or involve militancy inside India. Strategically, Pakistan has learned that it cannot gain from a full-fledged war with India.