Cross-border clashes between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan in Kashmir have reached the highest levels in 15 years, figures from both sides show, with hundreds killed or wounded and no solution in sight.
The de facto border dividing the mountainous territory had been relatively quiet in the wake of a 2003 ceasefire between the South Asian neighbours, each of whom rule part of Kashmir but claim it in full.
But recently the number of ceasefire violations – loosely defined as shelling, gunfire or fighting – at the heavily militarised Line of Control (LOC) has been steadily increasing.
Independently confirmed data is virtually non-existent, and figures given by both sides can vary wildly. But both show the same trend – a powerful, sustained surge over the past two years that has intensified since the beginning of 2018.
According to India, the number of Pakistani violations rose from 152 in 2015 to 860 in 2017. Delhi recorded 351 incidents in January and February 2018 alone.
Meanwhile Pakistan claims even higher numbers: 168 violations in 2015, 1,970 in 2017 and 415 over the first two months of this year.
Happymon Jacob, author of a 2017 report on ceasefire violations for the United States Institute of Peace, said he has no reason to doubt the figures.
An Indian analyst based in Delhi, Jacob has been monitoring violations through reports in Indian and Pakistani media, as well as conducting field visits and interviews with military officials on both sides.
Islamabad’s figures are higher as “India is firing more than Pakistan. There is far more firepower, soldiers, posts, on the Indian side,” he said.
At least 500,000 Indian soldiers are believed to be mobilised in Kashmir, against anywhere between 50 and 100,000 Pakistani soldiers, according to analysts – with both sides refusing to confirm the size of their presence.
The escalation appears to be driven by a myriad of complex, interlinked factors. Among them, Jacob noted in his report last year that the LOC is more peaceful when Pakistan and India are holding constructive dialogue.
There were hopes of a new era when Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a surprise Christmas Day visit to Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in 2015.
But relations swiftly unravelled, derailing any attempts at dialogue and creating a fertile environment for ceasefire violations.
Meanwhile, the tit-for-tat element is also strong, and fuels hostility. “None of [the violations] go unpunished,” an Indian official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“We always respond to dissuade the other party from doing it again,” said General Muhammad Akhtar Khan, commander of the Pakistani troops in Kashmir.
Adding to the tension is the separatist insurgency, and the Indian military’s counter-insurgency, that have destabilised Indian Kashmir since the late 1980s and left tens of thousands dead, including about 20 on April 1.
New Delhi regularly accuses Pakistan of stirring up this movement, which Islamabad denies, using the counter-insurgency to fuel anger at India on its side.
The political situation in both countries similarly weighs in the balance, with legislative elections due this year in Pakistan and in 2019 in India.
Kashmir is something both can capitalise on, said Jacob. “Hatred is used by both governments, it is short-term political calculation,” he told AFP, adding “negotiating means being weak”.
The endless calculations translate to fear for Kashmiris on either side of the LOC.
“I have never seen such intensity in shelling and firing by Indian troops,” said Mohammad Siddique, a 70-year-old Pakistani. AFP visited his house in Madarpur, now nothing but a ruin after a shell landed in his hallway.
The feeling is shared across the LOC. Residents of Uri district said in February they were bombarded with a “shower of shells” from Pakistan.
“It was the worst [exchange of fire] I have seen in my life,” Mushtaq Ahmed, a 38-year-old official, told AFP by telephone.
“We are living in terror,” said Zahoor Ahmed, 26, in Silikote, Indian Kashmir. “Never have I seen such horror raining from the skies … Firing happens almost daily now.”
Both sides claim more than 100 of their citizens have been killed and hundreds more wounded in ceasefire violations since 2015.
A Pakistani labourer named Inzaman was among the recent victims, his father Muhammad Amin told AFP through tears at his son’s funeral in Tatrinote village.
While security advisers from both countries reportedly met in late December in Bangkok to reduce the pressure, official statements remain bellicose.
In Islamabad, fear of escalation is real within the foreign diplomatic community.
No country, however, dares to tackle the subject. The United Nations also remains silent, despite the presence since 1948 of an observer mission on both sides of the border.
“It is not the question of Kashmir which is at stake, it is the stability of the region,” observed one Western diplomat.
The threat of nuclear war and the reluctance of the global community to quarrel with rising giant India and its billion-plus consumers are to blame for the silence, he explained.
The calculation is that the less noise made on Kashmir, the fewer dead there will be.