By Dr Manpreet Sethi*
For India, 14 February, a day that should have ended with rosy pictures of a romantic sunset ended with bloody images of death and gore. Even before New Delhi could point a finger towards Pakistan, a neighbour that has long sustained a policy of cross-border terrorism, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), an outfit well known to operate from Pakistani territory with the help of its military, owned up to the attack on the CRPF convoy that killed 44 Indian paramilitary forces personnel. In the wake of this massacre, analysts across TV channels, South Asia watchers across Twitter and other social media platforms, and political leaders in front of every camera have been garrulous in their advice on what India should now do in response. Opinions have been voiced non-stop on how New Delhi should respond, the kind of action that must be taken to teach Pakistan a lesson and to avenge the death of the Indian martyrs.
This column is not about what India should do in the wake of the Pulwama tragedy. It is about what India should not do. The response from India is best left to the judgement of the government of the day since it has all the intelligence inputs, resources and the complete picture on the possible effectiveness and desirability of actions. However, there are at least four things the country must refrain from doing, and thus contribute to minimising more such instances.
One, India must not be deterred from action, of whatever kind it deems fit. Diplomatic and economic measures have already been taken. A consideration of a military response should not be ruled out either only for the fear that it could automatically lead to nuclear escalation as Pakistan would have us believe. It is Pakistan’s nuclear strategy to proclaim a low threshold for the use of its nuclear weapons, including low yield weapons in the battlefield. However, this should not deter India from a military action, if it so decides to undertake one. This posturing of a low nuclear threshold is not easy to translate into action without taking the country down the path of suicide. Rawalpindi is well aware of this. Therefore, use of conventional war-fighting potential remains an option, provided India is ready to pay the price for what even such an action would entail. That is an assessment the political and military leadership must make based on available inputs on level of military preparedness, objectives to be achieved, distractions from economic growth trajectory to be tolerated, and pressures of international climate to be borne. Fortunately for India, the mood of the international community on continued acts of terrorism from Pakistan is more favourable today than ever before. Nevertheless, military action always carries a risk of further escalation and all dimensions must be thought through—away from the cacophony of noisy constituencies of all kinds.
Two, India must not shout from rooftops on the military actions that could be taken in response to the terrorist strike. The choice of the military instrument must be left to the professionals and they must be allowed to use surprise to their advantage. This is not the time to have TV discussions on the use of specific forces and expositions on the limitations of our capabilities. Such debates are best left to times of peace. In moments of crisis such as this, if military action is to be taken, it should happen quietly, with precision, and with complete preparation. Not in anger, and certainly not to satisfy rabble rousers.
Three, India must not engage in vilification of Kashmiris. India prides itself in the unity of its diversity. However, this diversity also makes it a fragile nation and it is the duty of every citizen to strengthen the fabric of the country. India has paid a heavy price in the past when communities have been branded and punished for the acts of a few individuals. Such tendencies should be especially eschewed at this moment since breaking open such fissures is precisely the agenda of the perpetrators of terrorism. They would rejoice if the killings that they carried out snowballed beyond the immediate deaths. Therefore, India must not take actions that in any way add to creating more troubled waters that make it easy for the adversary to fish in them. It is natural that the enemy would be constantly on the lookout for vulnerabilities to exploit. It is for India to deny them such opportunities by addressing such gaps.
Four, India must not expect that it is through military action alone that the problem of terrorism can be permanently resolved. The use of terrorists—from home or outside—is a low cost option for Pakistan. Till such time as the military of that state believes that its own stature can be secure only by playing up Pakistan’s insecurity vis-à-vis India, it is unlikely to give up terrorism. Pulwama was not the last of the tragedies that India will be made to suffer. However, every time India is attacked, the response should be to mete out punishment of the kind that slowly chips away at the credibility of Pakistan military in the eyes of its own populace.
A military retaliation from India may suffice to satisfy a sense of revenge, but it cannot be expected to change Pakistan’s well-entrenched strategy of use of terrorism. For that to happen, a multi-pronged, long-term effort across politico-military-economic-diplomatic fronts—overt and covert, public and secret, with carrots and sticks, individually and with others—will have to be crafted with intelligence and executed with patience. India must not defer this process nor waver in its implementation since it is likely to be a long haul.
Dr Manpreet Sethi is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.