Cover Story

Provoked and Patient

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India has not revealed all its options

THE AGEING DEODARS, firs and other conifers in the hills of Uri wore a weeping look, thanks to branches that droop as the trees grow taller. Insects and birds hummed loudly, their sounds breaking through the thick foliage on the autumn morning of 18 September. But the stillness was shattered by gunshots and a volley of grenade explosions that killed 18 soldiers, as a group of terrorists with well-trimmed hair and in military fatigues found their way using GPS devices into the 12th Brigade headquarters of the Army at Uri in northern Kashmir, barely 7 km from the Line of Control (LoC). Fed on chocolates and energy bars as they crossed over to India from Pakistan, these young terrorists, masquerading as Army personnel, managed to hoodwink the sentries. They threw hand grenades and opened fire, setting a few tents ablaze and locking up the cook’s room where scores of soldiers perished in the flames. Four terrorists were soon neutralised by the Army’s response, their bodies riddled with 169 bullets in all.

For all the scenic beauty of the mountains and woods around Uri, says a military officer who has worked in the area, it is a harrowing place to be posted. The Army employs many locals here, from porters to pony riders who carry supplies from its administrative base to remote locations, where soldiers hold vigil against Pakistani forces as well as militants crossing over, but amid the turbulent political climate of Kashmir—violence has gripped the Valley since the 8 July killing of 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen Commander Burhan Wani—large numbers of them have been turning hostile towards it. “Eighteen soldiers getting killed is a tragedy and an unending shame for one of the biggest armies in the world, as the terrorists breached the LoC it guarded and also its own base,” says the officer, “I am sure the Indian Army’s carelessness may have astonished even the Pakistani attackers. They would not have even remotely expected anything of this magnitude. Our boys got martyred in the fire, but no such thing should have happened there because the Uri base, measuring 400 metres in length and nearly 200 metres in width, is meant to be well guarded.” He calls the border area a ‘grave’ war zone. Another senior Army officer says he, too, like many colleagues he has been in touch with since the incident, is alarmed that militants from across the border could breach the Uri base’s security cover to wreak such devastation. “Worse, there were hard intelligence inputs,” says this officer.

The attack has brought to the fore, once again, a myriad questions in New Delhi on how best to deal with its most pernicious enemy, Pakistan, with which India has fought three major wars since it was carved out of its territory in 1947 and was engaged in a dangerous military standoff on a fourth occasion after the two neighbours turned into de jure nuclear-armed states.

Pressure has mounted on the Indian political leadership, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has placed national security at the core of his political philosophy, to probe lapses on the part of the armed forces and to punish the perpetrators of this cross-border attack. For Modi, determined to rehaul the country’s defence architecture following years of neglect under the previous regime, it has become imperative to strike back at Pakistan through a combination of diplomatic, military and political measures to tide over the embarrassment and fix the problem. The leadership also needs to address the surge of impatience among people and within the Government vis-à-vis Pakistan, as calls emerge to avenge the daring attack on the Army base and foil designs to create chaos in Kashmir. In consistency with his image as a strong leader, Modi will have to take a confrontationist approach.

Though Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was guarded in his statement, suggesting that he would rather act than talk, he made no bones that the Prime Minister’s pledge to retaliate for the Uri attack would not remain mere words. Highly places sources in the Government tell Open that the country now has a higher level of preparedness to launch not only ‘surgical raids’ that are proportionate to Indian injuries, but also asymmetric raids beyond the LoC against high-value enemy installations. Such action, however, will be taken only at the appropriate moment, to ensure least damage to India on the diplomatic and military fronts. “The country would look to act for the state and not just the Government,” says a senior official. The top priority, he adds, would be to pay the enemy back in the same coin by carrying out operations “which can be seen as Indian but still have deniability”. Such action, according to several other well-informed sources, will also allow India to deter further cross-border attacks that over the past few decades had become routine as a low-cost strategy to hurt Indian interests. “India would like to combat that Pakistani strategy from now on,” says a senior Defence Ministry official.

Meanwhile, the Indian Army has denied web reports that it crossed the LoC on 21 September and killed 20 terrorists in an aerial strike on select terrorist camps. Even so, a senior officer adds that Pakistan would soon realise that its past behaviour will not be tolerated under the new dispensation.

The National Investigation Agency has been asked to probe lapses that led to the Uri incident. “This is a serious investigation, and it has to be,” says a senior government official, without elaboration.

“When our soldier was beheaded by Pakistani soldiers, our government treated the Pakistani PM to lavish biryani. Why should it follow protocol with a nation that kills and decapitates our soldiers?” Modi had asked several times during his campaign in the run-up to the 2014 General Election. He left no room for doubt that he would not show any restraint in the face of sabre-rattling—even nuclear—by Pakistan. With him at the helm, a muscular response to terrorism sponsored by it was a foregone conclusion.

To a considerable extent, Modi’s response to the attack on the Pathankot Air Force base was a departure from the traditional Indian position. This January, security forces gunned down terrorists of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed in that border region after a four-day gun battle in which seven Indian soldiers lost their lives. There, too, Parrikar had admitted ‘gaps’ in the security system. Modi, who visited the base and went on an aerial survey of border areas then, would later taunt Pakistan in his Independence Day speech from the Red Fort, bidding goodbye to erstwhile Indian diplomatic formulations and dwelling at length on Pakistan’s human rights violations in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. This was seen by global military historians as a move to take advantage of fissures within the hostile neighbour’s territory. Effectively, the Prime Minister’s statement proved to be a counterweight to Pakistan’s accusations against India on Kashmir, and also a shrewd way to fuel further discontent in trouble-torn parts of that country.

While the BJP has always taken an aggressive approach in matters of national security as a political plank, in government, its response to terrorist strikes has been measured

Voices in favour of a tough response to Uri are loudest within Modi’s own party. Within 25 hours of the event, BJP leader Ram Madhav—a key interlocutor of the party on J&K affairs—had said that “the Prime Minister has promised that those behind the Uri terror attack will not go unpunished”. That, he said, should be the response: “For one tooth, the complete jaw.”

While the BJP has always taken an aggressive approach in matters of national security as a political plank, in government, its response to terrorist strikes has been measured. The military option, for example, has not been exercised so far, leading to a gap between the earlier pronouncements of the party and the behaviour of the Government it runs. This is not unexpected, as India—being a responsible power—has to calculate the probable effects of an armed confrontation with a reckless, nuclear- armed neighbour.

Globally, denunciation of the Uri attack was swift. Within hours, the US State Department condemned it with the following statement: ‘The United States strongly condemns the terrorist attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir during the early morning of September 18. We extend our condolences to the victims and their families. The United States is committed to our strong partnership with the Indian government to combat terrorism.’ Britain, too, was not far behind, with its Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson saying: “The UK strongly condemns this morning’s terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir. I offer my deepest condolences to the victims and their families and friends. The UK condemns all forms of terrorism, and stands shoulder to shoulder with India in the fight against terrorism, and in bringing the perpetrators to justice.”

While the wording of both statements is boilerplate, observers were quick to point out an important change in the formulation. Unlike the past, when such statements were almost always accompanied with advice asking India to talk to Pakistan on Jammu & Kashmir, nothing of the sort has been said this time. Myra MacDonald, an international writer on South Asian affairs, noted as much after the initial US and British responses.

Even more spectacular, perhaps, was the response from West Asian countries. Perhaps the clearest example came from Saudi Arabia, which was unequivocal in its condemnation of the attack. Other countries that joined this chorus include Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain. Among these, India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE have visibly deepened over the past two years. Modi paid them visits, which by all accounts were highly successful. But more than anything else, it is a shared assessment of the threat posed by terrorism that appears to have prompted their sensitivity to Indian concerns.

Closer home, most members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation—a forum held hostage by Pakistan’s bilateral fighting with India—have flayed the attack. This neighbourhood support, most crucially from Afghanistan— whose President Ashraf Ghani rang Modi after news of Uri broke—and Bangladesh, matters a lot to India. Incidentally, both countries have been victims of Pakistan’s machinations in one way or another.

The clearest sign of a changed situation was visible soon after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gave his speech at the current session of United Nations General Assembly. He went ballistic on Indian “atrocities” in Kashmir. The world’s leaders did not bother. Western news outlets took little if any notice and even the pro-forma statement issued after Sharif’s meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry had only the briefest mention of the K word. The term used in this context was ‘concern’. Anyone familiar with diplomatese knows that if there is a homeopathic expression in that lexicon, it is ‘concern’.

For now, the diplomatic ledger seems to be in India’s favour.

DIPLOMACY, HOWEVER, IS a weak stick to beat a ‘rogue state’ with. India’s diplomatic efforts, while they are bearing fruit now, do not solve the problem of what India should do with Pakistan. The big question that has been debated in the past days, if not months and years, is whether India has any ‘hard’— that is, military—options against its recalcitrant neighbour. On this, opinion is sharply divided among experts and scholars. One group argues that in recent years India has lost much of its conventional armed superiority over Pakistan even as the ‘threshold’ for the use of nuclear weapons by the two countries has reduced dramatically. This is the stuff of a nightmare: that India is boxed into a corner, unable to respond in militarily adequate fashion to Pakistan. The other group argues that these fears are overblown and India has sufficient armed options without provoking nuclear retaliation.

This debate has sharpened in the days since the Uri attack. But both sets of scholars agree on one thing: if India has to have a quiverful of responses to Pakistan, it needs to change the way it organises itself for exactly this. India must equip, arm and prepare its armed forces better. More controversially, it is time that India revisits its nuclear doctrine from a ‘no-first use’ (NFU) posture to something that is more suitable to South Asian realities.

For the moment, the Modi Government is under tremendous pressure to act against the enemy. Even peaceniks have stepped in to endorse the logic that only a display of strength deters such rampant provocation

“India’s retaliatory options are limited,” observes Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “The fundamental dilemma India faces is that any retaliation severe enough to punish Pakistan for these state-sponsored atrocities, and thereby attempt to deter future attacks, risks conventional and thus possibly nuclear escalation. To hit Pakistan where it hurts—the source of the sponsorship—India would have to degrade Pakistan’s military or Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) assets. But to do so in a severe- enough manner to really punish and thereby deter Pakistan, risks breaching some of the red lines above. Retaliatory shelling across the LoC, and even potentially deeper airstrikes limited to Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, are expected courses of actions by both sides, but all the valuable assets in that theatre would have been vacated by now. So, other than forcing Pakistan to rebuild its posts along the LoC, it is largely symbolic. Airstrikes or standoff missile strikes into urban Pakistan risks retaliation in kind. Is India really willing to absorb retaliatory missile strikes on, for example, Amritsar?” Professor Narang, a keen observer of power dynamics in South Asia, has argued that unlike Europe during the Cold War, nuclear weapons in South Asia—in the so-called Second Nuclear Age—pose dilemmas and threats of a very different kind.

True, there are challenges galore. Trans-LoC infiltration into India has gone up in the past few months, making it tough to carry out surgical strikes against terrorists, many of whom have taken refuge within Kashmir. Besides, security forces have been preoccupied with tackling the crisis in the Valley. It is also true that the timing of any covert operation has to be carefully planned. It cannot be done the way India acted in Myanmar. New Delhi has to be prepared for potential retaliation from a country that is showing increasingly signs of abiding by no rules.

Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Centre in Washington DC believes that there is indeed room for India to exercise military options without provoking a nuclear strike from Pakistan. “I think we need to separate the bluster from the policy,” he says, “Pakistan has certainly indicated its willingness to deploy tactical nukes, given how many it has been producing in recent years. That said, my sense is that it would still take a whole lot to justify their actual use. Indian covert operations, for example, would fall far below the nuclear threshold. It gets a bit harder to figure when you talk about modified military action, such as targeted airstrikes on Pakistani terror facilities. The ambiguity works in Pakistan’s favour; it wants to do everything possible to make India hesitate before using any form of military force, and particularly military force that goes beyond covert activities.”

Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor of International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, concurs. “Within PoK, there are few [nuclear] threshold issues,” he says, “Terrorist camps in PoK can be taken out and we can certainly go there and nibble away at the territory which is rightfully ours. PoK is not Punjab or Sind where we have to worry about these issues. Take the Haji Pir Pass for example, why can’t we go after that? We have claimed it and we should take it. Now that will be punishment.” India had captured that pass—which connects Uri and Poonch—in the 1965 war with Pakistan but handed it back after the Tashkent peace negotiations a year later.

THESE DIFFERENCES ON strategic matters often boil down to specifics. For example, whether a nuclear attack is more likely if India were to attack Pakistan in highly-populated Punjab or sparely-inhabited Sindh, or whether PoK is a suitable area to ‘punish’ Pakistan. But all experts point to India being underprepared in one way or the other to meet Pakistan’s military challenge. “Pakistan is not going to stop attacking India,” says Professor Rajagopalan, “After an event, you have to think of contingencies. You have to prepare and train your armed forces for such situations. You need to select targets. You cannot call the senior leaders of the armed forces at the height of the crisis and ask, ‘What are our options?’ This is not done.”

It is a cliché that Pakistan is inflicting a strategy of ‘a thousand cuts’ on India. Take the Uri incident as an example. Most of the 18 dead soldiers hailed from some of the country’s most impoverished areas. Each such death leaves behind a trail of familial destruction. Summed up, the cost to India is immense. If only for this reason—and not for the public uproar that follows every attack—India finds itself asking the same question again and again: is it possible to reduce, if not escape, the nuclear dilemma that India finds itself in?

Says Professor Narang: “I have long argued that India should shift from massive to assured retaliation: the fact of retaliation is certain, but the form and intensity is left to India’s choosing. As the nuclear balance evolves, so must the Indian nuclear doctrine. These are living things, they cannot be set in stone. And those in India who say ‘This is the doctrine, we cannot change it’ fundamentally misunderstand the present nuclear balance.”

For the moment, the Modi Government is under tremendous stress to act against the enemy. Even peaceniks have stepped in to endorse the logic that only a display of strength deters such rampant provocation. Malayalee actor Mohanlal sums up this sentiment rather cogently on his blog. He, an Indian Territorial Army officer, argues that at the most trying of times, action speaks louder than inaction. ‘Recognise the enemy as the enemy,’ he writes. The fact that terrorists killed our soldiers in their sleep, he adds, only means that we need to wake up and act. And peace will only have rhetorical use in the Subcontinent as long as the enemy is awake across the border.