Junk the defensive mindset

THE continuing firing on the Indo-Pak border is giving rise to an insistent and uneasy question in a section of Indian public opinion: is the Modi government deliberately or inadvertently moving towards war with Pakistan? Raksha Mantri Nirmala Sitharaman’s warning to Pakistan, after the Sunjuwan Army camp terrorist attack, that it should expect punishment has also fed apprehensions.

Junk the defensive mindset

Mind game: Pakistani terrorism should be treated as a strategic challenge.

Vivek Katju   

THE continuing firing on the Indo-Pak border is giving rise to an insistent and uneasy question in a section of Indian public opinion: is the Modi government deliberately or inadvertently moving towards war with Pakistan? Raksha Mantri Nirmala Sitharaman’s warning to Pakistan, after the Sunjuwan Army camp terrorist attack, that it should expect punishment has also fed apprehensions. Implicit in these comments, queries and anxieties is a criticism of the Modi government’s current Pakistan policy and a desire to revert to the earlier and more predictable ways of doing business with India’s hostile western neighbour. In these contentious times — and as the country moves closer to the next Lok Sabha election, contentions will only increase — there is more than a hint of pro-and-anti Modi politics in many comments. This is unfortunate, for strategic issues should ideally be based on consensus.

In any consideration of the government’s current Pakistan posture the following factors are relevant: 

That Pakistan has engaged in cross-border terrorism against India for almost three decades is beyond controversy. The Pakistani strategic community, at least in closed-door interactions with their Indian counterparts, accepts that Pakistan has engaged in “non-state actor” action against India. However, it asserts that Pakistan is no longer involved in such activity. It is clear that this is not true. Not only India knows so, almost all members of the international community accept it as so.

That for almost three decades, successive Indian governments have failed to find an effective response to Pakistan’s promotion of terror. The paths of bilateral diplomacy and dialogue, of coercive diplomacy such as after the Parliament attack, of raising international opinion against Pakistani terrorism and periodic non-engagement have not yielded results.

That Pakistan has since the 1998 nuclear tests openly sought to paralyse Indian conventional defence superiority while going ahead with the promotion of terrorism. It has strongly, and at every opportunity, emphasised that an Indian conventional reaction to an act of terror from its soil has the danger of escalating into nuclear conflict. In advancing this “nuclear overhang” view it has overlooked the basic lesson of the cold war: that nuclear states do not engage in conflict on the territories of other nuclear states as it is much too dangerous. During the cold war their contestation took place in other countries. Vietnam and Afghanistan were two of its many deadly theatres but acts of sabotage on the territory of a nuclear state were never undertaken.

That ironically, as India has acted responsibly in not responding in kind to Pakistani action, the international community’s pressure has been on India to refrain from taking armed action against Pakistan.

That some influential Indian strategic thinkers, including those who have held responsible positions in government, have implied that Pakistani terrorism does not constitute a strategic challenge for India. They point to the high rates of growth the country has achieved precisely during the years Pakistan has engaged in terrorism; hence, the implication that it has imposed no real costs on India. And, they obviously feel that the country can absorb the cost in military and civilian lives. The Indian political class also obviously subscribes to these views. Thus, the response to Pakistani terrorism has become a question of political management. 

That having adopted the political path, all governments have succumbed to the dialogue trap. Since 1998 when the structured dialogue process formally commenced, India-Pakistan relations have gone through cycles: dialogue-terrorist attack-inflamed Indian passions-cooling down of public feelings-resumption of dialogue. Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Modi, till the 2016 terrorist attacks, kept to this framework. Indeed, Modi accommodated the Pakistani generals by abandoning the stipulations of the Ufa joint statement. This has led the Pakistan army to the complacent belief that India’s response is predictable. It is unable to impose any costs while Pakistan has succeeded in tying down a large part of the Indian Army in J&K and has preserved its ability to intervene in that state at will. 

If the propositions stated above are accepted, Pakistani terrorism should be treated as a strategic challenge. As India’s traditional approaches have not worked, others have to be considered. While hardening defences against terrorist attacks and ensuring that security lapses do not occur, it has to be recognised that a purely defensive approach can never succeed. It does not work in maintaining law and order in the domestic context; it cannot do so in inter-state relations. It only whets the appetite of the aggressor. Costs — diplomatic, economic, political and social — have to be imposed. Also, there cannot be quick fixes.

India has refrained from developing options that would enable it to undertake sustained, offensive and low-intensity warfare actions in Pakistan. India has also not taken sustained action to exploit its numerous social and ethnic fault-lines out of a belief that Pakistan’s stability is in its own interest. The most India has done is to hint that Pakistan has vulnerabilities which it should be aware of. Modi’s references to Balochistan and PoK in his Red Fort address in 2016 were nothing more than that. Pakistan’s accusations of India using Afghan territory and disaffected Pakistani elements to sponsor anti-state activity are routine. They have not carried any weight with the international community.

As India has refrained from imposing costs through low-intensity actions on Pakistani soil, some Indian strategic thinkers have sought to examine the viability of a response by limited conventional action. The strategic strike of 2016 has to be considered in this light. Its importance lay in eroding Pakistan’s “nuclear overhang” doctrine. Clearly, one strike cannot be a panacea. But a doctrine that India will not hesitate to undertake such actions on Pakistani territory may erode Rawalpindi’s complacency. It will also increase international pressure on that country to act more responsibly. The international community’s interest is in preventing escalation of an India-Pakistan conflict. If a “responsible” India serves its purpose it only makes proforma appeals to Pakistan. Till now, this has largely been the case.

Recent developments in Sino-Pakistan relations will have to be taken into account while crafting fresh approaches. China will have far greater stakes in its great friend’s stability than it did in the past. Indian actions need to make it clear that it is incumbent on China to seek to eliminate Pakistani terrorism against India. Hopes that its army will realise that a cooperative relationship with India is in Pakistan’s interest have proven futile. Equally futile have been hope for saner elements taking over the country’s security policies. A shift to calibrated offensive postures and actions, including along the LoC and the IB in J&K, is warranted but without fanfare. After all, Tulsidas taught us, Bhay bin hoye na preet.

The writer is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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