January 13, 2019


A Pakistani soldier watches Indian soldiers at the Tattapani-Mendhar crossing point on the Line of Control, in Jammu and Kashmir | AFP
A Pakistani soldier watches Indian soldiers at the Tattapani-Mendhar crossing point on the Line of Control, in Jammu and Kashmir | AFP

The incompatibility between moral principles and the goal to protect national interests is the defining feature of the turbulent Pakistan-India relationship. In advancing this goal, foreign policy on both sides is determined by what is best for each side individually and not by what is the right thing to do. While the former is the result of the emergence of the national security state, the latter has to do with the civilians — the social order — on the two sides of the Line of Control (LoC). Happymon Jacob’s book, The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies, is an account of this tense relationship between the two nuclear-armed states that have fought four wars since Partition in August 1947. It is also about the questions of nationality and identity for the people living by the LoC and the predicament of those living close to the Zero Line.

Jacob, an academic teaching Disarmament and Diplomacy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, travelled with Pakistani and Indian armies on both sides of the LoC to write this book. Through his travels, he effectively studied ground zero and brought out a nuanced observation. Jacob is a columnist and commentator with expertise on Pakistan-India relations, the Kashmir conflict and nuclear disarmament and has written extensively on related issues. An authoritative voice on Pakistan-India, Jacob’s unprecedented opportunity to access the border from both sides is a result of his perseverance and consistency in getting “into their world — the world of the men in uniform” to chronicle the lives of both soldiers and civilians.

What is interesting in this account is the author’s disclosure about the ambiguity and lack of clarity associated with the LoC, which often leads to jostling over territory or the inadvertent crossing of civilians and soldiers to the other sides. Giving the history of the creation of the LoC, which is a “notional line and not a real one”, Jacob writes that the LoC was not a result of prior, mutually-agreed-upon plans. The locations of the army posts were not chosen according to a predetermined plan. Historically, the Kashmir border is the result of the first Pakistan-India war over Kashmir in 1947-48. The location of the troops in 1947 became the Ceasefire Line, which later became the LoC in 1972. While there was a change of name in this period, there was no substantial alteration of the line.

A nuanced detailing of the tragedies and ordinariness of daily life on the Line of Control is also political commentary on concepts such as identity, nationality, sovereignty and borders

As a line not demarcated on the ground and delineated only on the map, the LoC in strongly held areas such as Tanghdar is well understood; in lightly held areas such as Gurez and Machil, it is more of a perception. During his visit on the Indian side of the LoC, a retired Indian brigadier identified as Gurmeet Kanwal tells Jacob that when he constructed a bunker where he thought was his territory, the Pakistani troops fired because to them, the area was on their side of the line. Torrential rains, snowfall and sometimes soil erosion also cause a blurring of the LoC; as a serving general in Kupwara says, “on the ground, the LoC is an assumed line.”

No matter how assumed or blurred it may be, life on the line can be scary, driven by constant fear of firing. Jacob invokes the moral conscience of the reader by asking if the firing side — India or Pakistan — realises the consequences of their bullets on the habitat and human life 800 metres below their posts. The human and material loss incurred because of firing is collectively called collateral damage — “a sophisticated phrase in modern military technology.” In hard-hitting words, Jacob writes, “Collateral damage is a phrase you invoke when you have to wash off the sins of having killed innocents, and be able to sleep at night.”

Apart from the military and political factors of opening fire across the border, several other causes led to ceasefire violations (CFV). Though devoid of moral principles, firing on the LoC is to establish one’s moral ascendancy — the idea that ‘I am the better army and I dominate you by my morale, training and capability’. From “pure boredom” to assuring “moral ascendancy” on the border, the two sides engage in “at will” firing. Retired Pakistani general Sikandar Afzal tells the author that sometimes, in order to break monotony, the armies shoot at clothes hung out to dry by troops on the opposite side. There are times when soldiers fire for fun with no intention to harm the other side. Given the few avenues for entertainment on the line, “firing in the 1980s” — in the words of Pakistani general Tariq Waseem Ghazi — was “often a result of gamesmanship and mirth” caused by silly occasions such as visitors coming in. When one side engaged in mirth firing, the other would just tuck themselves in and wait for it to get over.

In the blurring of the border and the recurrent CFV, the political class in both countries draws the body politic of the nation by manufacturing consent: the creation of and fomenting emotion against a common enemy. All this for domestic electoral gains. However, this enmity, which is a product of modern nationalism, is “spatio-temporally contingent.” This means that when Pakistanis and Indians meet one another beyond South Asian borders, the need for economic coexistence trumps enmity exhibited at home.

Undertaking a journey on both sides of the LoC, Jacob’s narrative and his interactions with high-ranking military personnel reveal that, in pursuing the desire for power and statecraft, interests precede values. The lives of people in the Behroti village of Poonch district in the Jammu region are the worst manifestation of the creation of modern states and the issues of territorial sovereignty, identity and nationalism that come with its creation. For residents of this village, there are three entities: Pakistan on one side, India on the other and themselves caught in the middle. “Living in the village is like walking on broken glass every time you step out of your house,” writes Jacob with compassion and empathy.

While at one point the book appears to be a nuanced detailing of the tragedies and ordinariness of daily life on the LoC amidst the CFV, on the other, it is clearly a long-form political commentary on concepts such as identity, nationality, sovereignty and borders through a narrative built around the pursuing of national interest by both Pakistan and India. “An empty phrase,” scathingly writes Jacob, “national interest has no content in it and is subject to a variety of factors and invoked by interested parties depending on what they need to justify.”

The book is compelling and layered, giving insight into the making of the modern nation-states. However, while I agree with most issues raised by the author, a certain discomfort comes with his limited understanding of the term ‘Hindustan’, which he does not clearly spell out. One can infer that Jacob prefers using ‘India’ over the word ‘Hindustan’. His conscious distancing from using the latter term is evident when he calls it, “a term I intensely dislike.” This could be a result of his misunderstanding of the term, which, to my understanding, has territorial significance, implying a well-defined geographical area and not a religious identity.

For convenience of executing their nasty divisive policy, the British constructed a homogenous Hindu identity as opposed to a homogenous Muslim identity, emphasising political and religious overtones. As an academic, Jacob can deconstruct and historicise the term instead of exhibiting staunch dislike and pedalling the Indian right-wing narrative that equates Hindustan with the Hindus as a religious group.

The anecdotes running through the book offer a humanistic approach towards understanding the predicament of the ‘Other’ across the LoC that “marks the failure of both the nations”, while at the same time it is critical of the bellicose political narrative that fuels war and keeps the civilian masses on tenterhooks.

The reviewer is a Delhi-based journalist specialising in Pakistan-India relations and Kashmir

The Line of Control:
Travelling with the Indian
and Pakistani Armies
By Happymon Jacob
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0670091270

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 13th, 2019