As the events set in motion by the Pulwama attack wind down, one point, always present in India-Pakistan relations, bears reiteration. The relationship relates not only to India’s external interests and foreign policy but also, in almost equal measure, to the country’s politics and social equations. That explains, perhaps, the absence of serious discussion on the Pakistani reality, the prevalence of entrenched reflexes of the political and security classes and the media projection of the complex relationship as a mixture of a high decibel gladiatorial contest and a raucous tamasha.
All this was on display in the weeks after the Pulwama attack and distracted attention from what in the aftermath of the attack should have been the national focus — how to end Pakistan’s terrorism, which has continued for almost three decades. Instead, popular attention by itself, and intensified by the media, was on the politics over the entire sequence — Pulwama, the Balakot response and the Pakistani counter. It was also on the grieving families of the victims of Pulwama and the capture and return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. It was right for the nation to share the grief of the families and rejoice in Abhinandan’s return and for the media to report but not at the cost of the root of the problem.
The post-Uri attack surgical strikes had marked a major shift in India’s response to Pakistani terror. India had then announced that it had taken the military action in Pakistan-controlled territory but had emphasised that it had targeted only terrorist launch pads. The surgical strikes were undertaken in a manner that provided Pakistan an opportunity to deny them and therefore, foreclose the possibility of escalation though at the cost of an erosion of its nuclear overhang doctrine.
The Balakot action was designed to send a much stronger signal of the Indian resolve to not refrain from acting militarily on Pakistani sovereign territory in the wake of an unacceptable terrorist attack. At the same time, as after the surgical strikes, India went to great lengths to stress that it had only targeted a terrorist facility. Have the surgical strikes and the Balakot action set a new criterion which no government will be able to avoid notwithstanding the Pakistani counter? How will these impact India’s anti-terror approach?
In the past, the preferred Indian approach was defensive; it absorbed terror and relied on diplomacy and political management to cool outraged Indian sentiment. It took solace in the assessment that Pakistani terror did not constitute a strategic challenge. There is now a break from the past but there is no clarity if the new approach is fixed. There is need to look at its full contours and implications. What is certain is that Pakistan and the international community will have to factor in their calculations India’s willingness to bring its conventional forces into play in the wake of an unacceptable terrorist attack.
Till now Pakistan had sought to paralyse the possibility of an Indian conventional military force reaction after a terrorist incident through its nuclear overhang threat. Now it will have to think anew especially as the international community knows that Pakistan does harbour terrorist groups that act against India with or without state involvement. It is unlikely though that Pakistan will give up the use of terror. Hence, if India wants its end, it will have to consider it as a strategic challenge and use all elements of national power in a sustained manner over a long period.
Isolated steps such as the withdrawal of the MFN status, denial of visas to sports teams and the decision to use all the waters of the eastern rivers under the Indus Waters Treaty — even if feasible — are toothless. They may contribute to bringing down Indian anger but will be ineffective in moderating Pakistani thinking or action. Will the resumption of a comprehensive dialogue as Pakistan wants and emphasised again and again by Prime Minister Imran Khan influence Pakistan to abandon terror?
The Composite Dialogue to promote cooperation, address outstanding issues and handle humanitarian concerns was begun in 1998. Soon after this author told a prominent Pakistani politician, who has always professed a commitment to India-Pakistan peace, that as the two countries had embarked on a serious and comprehensive engagement, Pakistan should give up its support of terrorist groups acting against India. His reply “Agar hum yeh band kar dein toh aap hamse baat kyon karenge”? (If we were to stop this why would you talk to us?)
Has this Pakistani premise changed during the course of the last two decades? Every time India resumed talks after a terror strike, though after a hiatus, the view expressed by the Pakistani politician has been reinforced.
India has to insist that unless terror ends, the resumption of the dialogue will be pointless. This is an entirely reasonable proposition and should be projected to the international community. It is noteworthy that except for a muted Chinese statement that sovereignty should be respected, no country has criticised the Balakot action. There is therefore a recognition that India’s strategic patience is over and that Pakistani terrorist adventurism should cease. India should emphasise this point. The international desire that hostilities should end is on a different footing as is the US’s intervention for this purpose. The question is if all this erodes India’s policy of no involvement of third parties in India-Pakistan relations. The fact is major powers take an interest in issues of war and peace — as does India in areas where its interests get involved.
Pulwama, Balakot, the Pakistani counter, Abhinandan’s quick return will undoubtedly become election issues. The BJP will seek to cash in on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decisiveness and how Pakistan was taught a lesson. The Opposition will try to deny him this advantage. In the shrillness that will ensue, a serious consideration of India’s Pakistan policy will have to await another day. But will that day ever dawn?