What happened in Pathankot was an act of war against India, but almost nobody has said this so far. I listened carefully to prime time debates in which security experts held forth in ponderous sentences, and I read all the editorials on the attack in search of someone who would say clearly that Pakistan was at war with India. But nobody did. We defile the memory of the men who died defending the Air Force base when we continue to use the word ‘terrorism’ to describe the attack. And India will continue to be attacked in this way if all that our experts can do is talk about strengthening counter-terrorism. Jihadi terrorism is the biggest threat to civilization as we know it, but what we saw in Pathankot last week cannot be dismissed as just another act of jihadi terrorism.
It is clear from cell phone intercepts that the handlers in Pakistan were senior leaders of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. This organisation of violent fanatics was spawned by the Pakistani army with the specific purpose of waging an insidious, cowardly war against India. It is the sister of Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose Islamist foot soldiers were responsible for 26/11, and like that time this time too there were identifiable handlers in Pakistan. So if we want to continue talking to Pakistan, and we should, then is it not time that it was General Raheel Sharif we talked to instead of poor, hapless Nawaz Sharif? We should know by now that elected governments in Pakistan do not control foreign policy, but we continue to pretend otherwise. It is because of this pretence that Pakistan seems to be winning this ugly war.
The Pakistani army has seen India as an ‘existential threat’ ever since Pakistan came into being. It is to destroy this alleged existential threat that Pakistani Generals have devised their main military strategies. After discovering in Kargil that a conventional war was impossible to win, the strategy changed to another kind of war. Somehow in all this time, our own security agencies have continued to talk of terrorism and not war.
The result is that our defence strategy seems to fall time and again between two stools. As someone who lives in Mumbai within walking distance of the hotels, restaurant, railway station and other places that came under attack eight years ago, I can report that they are as vulnerable today as they were on 26/11. Coastal security is in even worse shape. All that has changed is that a handful of poorly trained, unarmed guards have been posted here and there. They sit around sleepily on most days, and when there is a ‘high alert’ conduct random checks. This is not how we will win a war being waged on us by an enemy who sees India as an ‘existential threat’.
What is most frightening is that we have learned almost nothing from past mistakes. The leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Maulana Masood Azhar, was among the men we released in exchange for the passengers of IC 814 more than fifteen years ago. He was in Indian custody for five years before his release because the Indian justice system works at bullock cart pace. After his release he wrote a memoir filled with contempt for India before organising the attack on our Parliament. Why is he still a free man in Pakistan? Where are the other terrorists who were released with him? Why is Hafiz Saeed still wandering about spewing hatred against India at huge public rallies? Is there any point in speaking to Pakistan’s prime minister if he continues to be incapable of answering these questions?
So is it not time for more meaningful engagement with the Islamic Republic next door? As happens in times of war, should we not be speaking to military men instead of civilians? And as would happen in wartime, should we not be going more aggressively after the groups responsible for conducting acts of war on Indian soil? Speaking as an ordinary Indian citizen, may I say that I would like very much to see more aggression in not just the manner in which we speak to Pakistan in future, but more aggression in the way we defend ourselves against a country that is increasingly becoming an ‘existential threat’ to India.
Too many men have laid down their lives trying to keep us safe from an aggressor that is too cowardly to fight a real war. So the question is not whether our foreign secretaries should meet next week or the week after. The question is when should our military secretaries meet to have a more meaningful conversation about military matters. A new kind of engagement with Pakistan is long, long overdue as is a new strategy on India’s part to deal more robustly with this ugly, undeclared war that has gone on too long.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines