Perspectives: The Month Through India’s Eyes
The conflict with Pakistan obviously dominated the new cycle in India during the past month, beginning with the terrorist attack in Pulwama which resulted in the deaths of 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel, continuing with India’s subsequent air strike on terrorist camps in Pakistani territory, and culminating with the Pakistani reprisal which saw an Indian combat plane down and its pilot captured by Pakistan.
Terrorist Attack in Pulwama District Kills 40 Central Reserve Police Force Personnel
A vehicle filled with explosives rammed into a convoy of Indian paramilitary forces on a busy highway in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir resulting in the death of 40 soldiers. Nearly every Indian media publication wrote about the implications of the attack and its impact on future relations between India and Pakistan.
A column in the Livemint detailed out how the attack has resulted Pakistan becoming internationally isolated, even with China, hereto the country’s biggest ally:. “India, at a time when the nation is seething with anger over the attack, is signalling a paradigm shift in its approach to its relations with Pakistan, which, for the most part of the last seven decades, have been testy…While China ducked the question on allowing the United Nations to identify the JeM chief as a terrorist, its calibrated response, in the wake of a groundswell of support for India globally, signalled a rethink… Countries such as the US issued forthright condemnation, calling on others to deny safe haven to terrorists, in statements that supported India and shunned Pakistan.”
The Hindustan Times highlighted the challenge for India to impose costs on Pakistan that instill some level of deterrence while at the same time not breaching nuclear red lines. “Whenever India has enjoyed a degree of military success against Pakistan, it has had to do with two common attributes: an element of surprise and a willingness to escalate… Since the Pulwama attack is bigger than Uri but much less ambitious than Kargil, one would expect an Indian military response, if any, to be between the two strata of surgical strikes and the use of air power. This is a narrow window, and then there are the low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons that Pakistan regularly flaunts. It is increasingly becoming difficult for India to impose costs on Pakistan that will instil some level of deterrence while, at the same time, not breaching any nuclear red lines. Any significant response will either breach those red lines or demolish the Pakistani nuclear bluster for good. Once the immediate needs have been taken care of, India should think of a long-term strategy. Everything from covert operations to counterforce strikes should be on the table.”
An article in The Hindu covered what it saw as the government’s limited options in response to Pakistan for the Pulwama attack. “For the BJP government, given that the elections are so close, its retaliation has to be credible, prompt and visible, thereby limiting its options. Stopping the flow of waters to Pakistan is neither practical nor possible. Withdrawing the Most Favoured Nation status would hardly hurt Pakistan, given the low trade volume involved. Isolating Pakistan internationally is easier said than done — China is closer to Pakistan today than ever before, Russia is warming up to it, and given the impending American drawdown in Afghanistan, there is a sense of triumphalism in Pakistan. This is especially so because of the geopolitical importance of the region — it won’t be long before the U.S. makes a comeback… One possible way out is perhaps to talk to China discreetly to get Pakistan to crack down on the JeM, but that will take patience, persuasion and discretion. A government caught in an election season may have too little of any of it… What about military options? One can think of four types of kinetic options. The first could be to carry out surgical strikes, like India did it 2016. However, while the Pakistani side did not respond to it then, the reaction this time could be different. If Pakistan responds, the two sides may soon find themselves in an escalating military crisis with little clarity about the outcome, something an election-bound government might fight shy of. The second option is to use strike aircraft to carry out precision strikes in locations across the Line of Control (LoC). But such air incursions are likely to be detected and intercepted by Pakistani radars and air defence systems. If an aircraft is shot down or pilots are captured, it could become a bigger headache for the government… In short, the fundamental problem with kinetic options is uncertainty with regard to what those options would lead to if Pakistan decides to respond. India would do better than Pakistan in a conventional war of attrition, but it may or may not remain conventional and there would be attrition on both side.”
Air Strike on Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) Terrorist Camp in Pakistan territory
The Indian Air Force ultimately exercised a military response to the attack, conducting airstrikes in Pakistan bombing what it described as a terrorist training camps of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the group responsible for the suicide bombing earlier this month. Media houses unanimously applauded the government for reacting sternly to the attack at Pulwama in a fashion calibrated to send clear messages to Pakistan without automatically triggering further escalation.
The Hindustan Times similarly wrote about how India’s air strike on the terrorist camp in Balakot has made its intentions clear – hereafter, a strike by Pakistan through unconventional means will not go without a response on Pakistani territory, and will not be restricted to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). “The target was “non-military,” a smart euphemism for a non-state entity. This served two ends. First, the world at large is fed up of these non- state actors and would side with India – in fact, the Australians have outright supported India and the statement from France too sides with New Delhi. Secondly, and more importantly, it puts the Pakistan establishment in a quandary about whom to strike back against; India does not have any terrorist camps (unless Islamabad invents one) so a riposte would have to be against a military or government target… The call that Pakistan has to make is tougher for another reason. In the Indian democratic system, when the 26/11 Mumbai attacks went without a response, the government took the blame and not the Indian military. In Pakistan’s case, if a response does not come, while (Prime Minister) Imran Khan would be criticised, it would be the standing of the Pakistan Army that would take a fatal hit – its standing as the “saviour” of Pakistan would be called into question. Would this force them to take the intemperate step of escalating to war? Do they have a face-saving device? It’s here where the danger of further terrorist strikes ordered by Islamabad comes in; one would be naïve to believe that one Balakot would dissuade Pakistan and India would be rid of the scourge of terrorism inspired from across the border. In the short term, we may hope for an extended period of a peace dividend. For the long term, New Delhi’s guard needs to stay up.”
An article in the The Hindu commented on the robust but calibrated message delivered by the Indian Air Force’s strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammad terror training camp. “While the strikes followed the Pulwama attack by a couple of weeks, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale referred to the action as a “non-military pre-emptive strike”. The phrase indicates the action was based on an assessment of an imminent threat, and had ensured that Pakistan’s military personnel and infrastructure were not targeted, and civilian casualties were actively avoided. In effect, New Delhi’s line is that the operation was an intelligence-driven counter-terror strike rather than escalatory military aggression. The government said all other options had been exhausted in making Islamabad keep its commitments since 2004 on curbing the activities of groups like the JeM… In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for a joint session of Parliament and for its diplomats to raise the matter at international fora. He has convened a meeting of the National Command Authority that oversees Pakistan’s nuclear policy. However, Pakistan’s options are limited. It could continue to deny that the Indian strike caused any damage on the ground, and obviate the need for retaliatory strikes; or it could escalate the situation with a military response. It could also make a break from its past, and begin to shut down the terror camps on its soil, which would win friends internationally and ensure peace in the region. The Modi government would do well to continue the restrained approach it has adopted after the latest operation, and avoid the triumphalism that clouded the ‘surgical strikes’ of September 2016.”
The Livemint highlighted that India’s response to the Pulwama attack has given Pakistan two choices now: to shut its terror factories and stop its low-intensity warfare or make the bigger mistake of escalation. “The IAF air strike assumes significance in many ways. It was the first time since 1971 that the IAF had entered Pakistani airspace for a pre-emptive strike. That the planes could enter Pakistani territory and return without any casualties of their own, and without harming civilians, speaks volumes about the planning. It also shows that the Pakistani side was caught unawares by the timing of the Indian operation… The stakes for either side haven’t been this high for long. The Pulwama attack pushed Prime Minister Narendra Modi into a corner. That it came in the heat of a pre-election campaign was only incidental. Yes, he was facing a tired voter base disappointed over the lack of jobs and a distressed farmer community. But this time, the damage to the Indian psyche was more than palpable. A terror attack of Pulwama’s magnitude could only be ignored at Modi’s own peril and, knowing his instincts, he wasn’t going to—notwithstanding that an escalation in hostilities would hurt the economy. … That the IAF air strike reportedly killed no civilian should go to India’s credit. The government’s terminology, calling it a “non-military, pre-emptive action”, is a smart one and should assuage any international misgivings. It has pointedly mentioned JeM as being its target and calls upon Pakistan to honour its 2004 commitment to not allow home-grown terrorism to target India.”
Capture and Release of Downed Indian Airforce Pilot
In the event, despite Indian press predictions to the contrary, Pakistan did escalate in response to the air-strikes, sending in planes of its own into India to attack military installations. During these actions, one or two Indian planes were shot down and one Indian aviator, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, taken captive and paraded on Pakistani television before being released a day later. This incident was covered extensively by the Indian media, with publications and columnists weighing in the its implications for both countries.
An op-ed in Live Mint deemed the return of the Wing Commander a major diplomatic victory. “For India, it will be a major diplomatic win, being able to create enough pressure to bring back their pilot unharmed from Pakistan’s captivity. Pakistan’s record of how it treats enemy soldiers in captivity is poor and any harm to the Indian pilot would have caused already-aggravated domestic tempers to flare more and make conciliation difficult. Besides, through the Indian Air Force’s precision strikes on Jaish-e-Mohammed’s (JeM) terror camps deep inside Pakistan earlier this week, India has already sent an emphatic message that it won’t anymore tolerate Pakistan’s continued support to terror groups. Further military action at this point would only push Khan into a corner domestically where he is under pressure from hardliners, in the army and outside, to present a brave image of a country ready to take on any kind of Indian aggression. But now, Pakistan too will be satisfied, having been able to show that it has taken the moral high ground by releasing the Indian pilot and offering to engage in peace talks. India should allow the Pakistani prime minister that space to pander to his domestic audience. That, however, shouldn’t mean easing diplomatic pressure on it to stop harbouring terrorists or giving up the right to carry out more military strikes on terrorist camps if Pakistan still doesn’t act.”
The Indian Express adopted a contrarian view in its editorial, arguing that there was no need for triumphalism by India’s political leadership or its media in the aftermath of the wing commander’s release. “With Wing Commander Abhinandan’s return home, hopefully, the de-escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan will gather pace. The next few days and weeks will be a test for the governments of both countries — of how they keep steady as they ease back from the brink. The Narendra Modi government will need a lot of room for manoeuvre as it steers towards business as usual with a difference — it has made its point that there will be no more impunity for terror. At this delicate juncture, however, there may be at least two reasons to worry that that space could be constricted and constrained. There are two cautionary notes to be struck. One, with Pulwama and Balakot taking place almost within touching distance of a critical parliamentary election, politicians of the ruling party and in the Opposition, and especially the former, must resist the temptation to use it to draw harder lines within. And two, crucial discursive space must not be abdicated by the political leadership for studio warriors on television and in social media spaces to rush into… The war-mongering on vast sections of the electronic media is part of the noise of a vibrant and talkative democracy. It becomes a matter of concern, however, if and when it assumes the ring of authority. Post-Pulwama, it needs to be said again: TV anchors may delude themselves into thinking they are leaders but if the reverse should happen it would be a terrible thing.”
The Hindu also weighed in on the matter, but rather than comment on which side emerged “victorious”, an editorial in the newspaper (correctly, as it turned out) commented that the release of Wing Commander Varthaman gives India and Pakistan a chance to de-escalate tensions. “It is time for New Delhi and Islamabad to use the pause afforded by the relief over the release to decide on the rules of engagement. Pakistan must realise that the time for denial and obfuscation is over. Unless it begins to act on India’s and the world community’s concerns about Pakistan-based terror safe havens in a time-bound manner, the two nations could be back on the brink of war if there is another trigger. If it does act, it could herald a paradigm shift in India-Pakistan engagement and help fix its own fragile economy. This has a precedent: the period that followed then-Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s 2003 announcement on shutting down terror groups, when Pakistan’s military actually showed some results in the matter, was the most productive phase of engagement between the two countries in recent decades. Significantly, it was a time of economic growth and stability too for Pakistan. New Delhi must be ready to show both flexibility and a determined focus on Pakistan’s action against terror groups, including the Jaish-e-Mohammad. This is the best way to build constructively on the international consensus built post-Pulwama in India’s favour.”