Public memory is short and fickle. That is what the government seems to be counting on as it goes about preparing a ‘calibrated’ response to the latest attack on India by Jihadi scum from Pakistan.
The good news is that some of our efforts to isolate and call out Pakistan as a terrorist state seem to be already bearing fruit. The bad news is that this alone will not stop the attacks by our perennially aggrieved neighbour.
The thing is, despite innumerable such attacks over the years, in not just Kashmir, but in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, West Bengal — the list is long — we don’t seem to have a standard template or operating procedure in place, detailing our response to such incidents.
Nor do we seem to have any clearly defined and declared set of red lines, crossing which would be treated as an act of war. Instead, we opt for predictable, knee-jerk reactions, which involve some loud chest thumping, threats and pledges to punish the pepretators and petulant attempts to stop talking, followed soon after by either cricket diplomacy or some other olive branch.
Not just Pakistan, but the world powers-even as they publicly lobbied and lauded New Delhi for its ‘restraint’ — would privately snigger knowing that when push came to shove, India would always blink first. Nothing exemplefied this better than the December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament (if that isn’t an act of war, then what is?) by the Lashkar-e-Toiba, lapdogs of the ISI. India responded by mobilising its troops along the international border with Pakistan and the Line of Control in Kashmir. But this mobilisation took months. This in turn gave Pakistan time to do the same.
After Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf made a few placatory noises in January 2002, pledging not to allow terrorists to operate from Pakistani soil, India declared that there would be no invasion of Pakistan “for now.”
On May 14, 34 people, mostly the wives and children of Indian soldiers serving in Kashmir, were gunned down in an attack on a military camp in Kalachuk, near Jammu. An outraged military and civilian population demanded immediate, forceful retaliation, including ‘surgical strikes” against terrorist camps in Pakistan. New Delhi expelled Pakistan High Commissioner, and Prime Minister Vajpayee called on the forces to prepare for action. Pakistan tested a few missiles in quick succession, and repeatedly said that it would not hesitate to use the nuclear option if attacked.
Washington and it’s allies, worried about the impact of such a war even as they engaged in the war on terror in nearby Afghanistan, quickly brought their considerable diplomatic might into play.
In October 2002, after months of tense but futile deployment along the border, New Delhi anounced that it was standing down. Pakistan did the same a day later.
On introspection, the Indian military brass concluded that four weeks was too long to deploy forces for a war. Cold Start was born, and has been honed in countless practice sessions and exercises since then.
Meanwhile, the terrorist strikes continued unabated. Akshardham Temple in Gujarat. Blasts aboard trains and buses in Mumbai, in crowded markets in Delhi and of course, the 26/11 siege of Mumbai.
Each and every time, righteous indignation and outrage were followed by warm peaceful overtures instead of a Cold Start. Things, however seemed to have changed following the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.
After his initial attempts to bridge the trust divide with Pakistan — by inviting Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in, and making a brief stopover in Lahore December last year — was met with the attack on Pathankot Airbase in January, India shifted tack. NSA Ajit Doval, who has consistently asserted that the only way to deter such strikes was to make it increasingly expensive for Pakistan, was tasked with ways and means to do this.
Among other things, this led to instructions to our forces along the border to respond with double or treble the firepower in case of any Pakistani- cross border firing.
Then came Modi’s reference to Balochistan in his I-Day speech, a push back which took Pakistan by total surprise, even though Islamabad has consistently accused India of fomenting trouble in that restive province. More importantly, the message was also going out to another neighbour, China, which has huge investments in Balochistan.
A similar message had gone out in a slightly subtler manner to Beijing earlier, when Mr Modi visited China. Immediately afterwards, he visited Mongolia — becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to do so -and signed a strategic partnership agreement with the landlocked nation which has always been worried about Chinese hegemony.
Reports soon surfaced about how Mongolia had once offered India an airbase, which New Delhi had declined keeping Chinese sensibilities in mind. Unconfirmed reports also spoke of an earlier agreement on defence cooperation with which involved Mongolia stationing Indian radar systems able to monitor Chinese missile tests.
Following the attack on Uri, there was once again that immense public uproar, demanding immediate, tangible retribution. But given that this was exactly what Pakistan wanted, in order to turn Kashmir into an international issue before the UNGA summit, India opted for international isolation and demands that Pakistan be recognised as the terrorist swamp threatening not just India, but most of the civilised world. Ergo, at the UN, you had France, Russia and the US secretary of state John Kerry demanding that Nawaz Sharif take action against terror groups and rein in its nuclear weapons, while ignoring the Pakistani premier’s plaintive pleas on human rights violations in Kashmir.
Keeping the surgical strike option open ensured that a rattled Pakistan cancelled military leave and PIA flights to Gilgit Baltistan, to allow military flights in case of a strike. The body language of Nawaz Sharif, who apparently repeatedly called his Army Chief from the UNGA, is a clear indication of his unease and worry. Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold.
The author is Senior Associate Editor, The New Indian Express