In a recent and relatively sober television debate, both the BJP and Congress representatives emphasised that the India-Pakistan engagement should continue despite the Pathankot attack. However, neither dwelt on the nature of such engagement. Without precision, the word “engagement” in the context of a sensitive bilateral relationship lacks value.
Bilateral engagements stretch from the maintenance of routine diplomatic contact to intense political interaction as well as the establishment of problem-solving and cooperative mechanisms. India and Pakistan have gone through all these phases: From intense engagement to routine contact. However, nothing has persuaded the Pakistani establishment to abandon the pursuit of terror — though it has always calibrated its use.
Pakistan’s acquisitions of nuclear weapons added a new dimension to the use of terrorism. All states with nuclear weapons, except Pakistan, have refrained from grave and violent provocations on others’ territories. Nuclear powers have engaged in harsh and violent contestations, including through promoting insurgencies, but in other countries. This was witnessed especially during the Cold War.
Pakistan has ignored this precaution. Indeed, it turned the conventional approach to contest among nuclear states on its head. Nuclear weapons became the licence to undertake terror through its proxies. Its object was strategic — at a minimum, to keep India continuously on the defensive.
The Indian political class and strategic community considered Pakistan’s promotion of insurgency and use of terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir as a major strategic challenge. However, as it became increasingly evident through the 1990s that the situation was contained, their thinking on the nature of the challenge changed. No longer was it thought of as strategic but as political. This, notwithstanding the continuing heavy deployment of forces.
The 1999 Kargil attack was not a terrorist operation. It was a full-scale military undertaking by the Pakistan army that was sought to be disguised as a mujah-ideen operation. It involved the capture of territory and its object was to upset the strategic calculus. India’s response was full and successful.
The Parliament attack of 2001 was designed to inflict grave damage to the political leadership of the country. It could not but be considered strategic in design and conception, and the response was so. Forces were deployed at the border. Since then, all terrorist attacks either in J&K or elsewhere in India have only led to diplomatic or political responses, confirming that they are considered as only political embarrassments. These include the 26/11 Mumbai attack, too. The Modi government’s response to the Pathankot airbase is being put in the same category even though a major military facility had been targeted.
The underlying approach is that these provocations can be taken in the nation’s stride. Political parties and the media make noises, and the bitterness towards Pakistan increases, but, in time, tempers cool sufficiently for the bilateral engagement to be intensified till the next grave
The hope that full engagement with Pakistan can withstand major terrorist attacks is misplaced. Political pressures and the need to show action inevitably lead to disruptions. The time has come to seek to break this cycle not by overlooking Pakistani terrorism because it no longer has strategic consequences but because the loss of innocent lives matters even if cynical strategic thinkers overlook this aspect.
The question to be considered by our strategic community is this: What should a nuclear-weapons state do if a nuclear neighbour uses terrorism as an essential part of its security approach? This is a unique problem faced by India. The answer surely cannot lie in engagement, for it has not worked, and nor has its opposite.
This Indian problem is unique and has not been considered seriously by Western strategic thinkers. Western governments have always advised India to be restrained. This is in their interests. But Indian strategic thinkers must articulate this issue as a conceptual problem to their Western counterparts, draw attention to it.
Countries have the right to self defence under international law. But as long as India relegates the problem of terrorism to that of political management alone, the chanting of meaningless mantras of continuing dialogue will continue and no resolution will be forthcoming.