At a media event on Thursday, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar spoke of taking proactive steps to prevent a 26/11-like terror strike on India. He said that “you have to neutralise terrorist through terrorist only”. While commentators have often spoken about the use of covert operations against Pakistan, this is the first time that a senior cabinet minister has made such a statement in a public forum. The phrasing of the sentence, which openly talks of using terrorists, is bound to raise hackles internationally. In today’s world, no country can afford to be seen as a supporter of terrorism. India has always opposed terrorism in all forms and solicited the international community, since the early 1990s, to declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. Moreover, during his foreign visits, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly exhorted the global community to stand united against terrorism of every colour.
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The defence minister’s statement comes at a particularly unfortunate time because, in recent weeks, the Pakistan army and foreign office have publicly alleged that Indian intelligence agencies are behind all the terror incidents in that country. This is part of a long-running Pakistani campaign to create moral equivalence between India and Pakistan. Not only does the Pakistan army differentiate between “good” terrorists and “bad”, there is ample proof that the country has historically supported and continues to support “good” terrorists who target India. While Pakistan has alleged that India supports certain groups in Balochistan — and the Pakistani Taliban — it has never been able to provide any proof. This difference has given moral force to India’s argument against Pakistan in the global community. That is why, when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to include Balochistan in the 2009 Sharm el-Sheikh joint declaration with Pakistan, it caused a furore in Parliament. The current statement by the defence minister goes even further.
However, the question of using covert operations as part of the strategic toolkit belongs in a different debate. The immediate issue is that officials and ministers must be circumspect about security matters. The defence minister has erred by making a public statement and it may now require diplomatic efforts to undo the damage. This is not the first time that he has been injudicious in his pronouncements. He had earlier stated that former prime ministers have compromised national security, and that the crew of the Pakistani boat which sank on New Year’s Day had consumed cyanide. The defence minister should follow the example of his prime minister, who is an excellent communicator but holds his peace on controversial issues.