The release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman by Pakistan days after his MiG 21 was shot down over Pakistan occupied Kashmir may have lowered the temperature in the subcontinent, but the events of the last three days of February mark a dramatic, and some would say dangerous, shift in India-Pakistan relations.
For one, this is the first time since the 1971 war that warplanes of the two perennially hostile neighbours have crossed the border and bombed targets in each other’s territory. And two, India has now publicly declared that if the world and Pakistan could not take out terrorists operating from Pakistani soil, India reserved the right to do so unilaterally.
As a senior Indian official put it, “We have convinced the world that we have reasonable, strong and justifiable grounds to do what we had to on February 26 and that we will not tolerate any more attacks by terrorists on our soil. They will not go unanswered.”
After the two nations went overtly nuclear in May 1998, Pakistan ramped up its terrorist activities in India in the belief that it would not dare respond militarily for fear of nuclear retaliation. And to ensure plausible deniability, it nurtured, armed and trained several terrorist outfits which carried out increasingly brazen attacks on Indian soil.
This belief was buttressed after the Kargil war of 1999 when the Indian Air Force scrupulously refrained from crossing the border. It was further reinforced when New Delhi traded three terrorists -including Masood Azhar, the current head of the Jaish-e-Mohammad — and some say a large sum of money — for the release of passengers of IC-814, an Indian Airlines plane that was hijacked and taken to Kandahar in Afghanistan, then under Taliban rule.
Then came the terrorist strikes on the Kashmir Legislative Assembly and the Parliament in October and December 2001. A massive mobilisation of troops after the Parliament attack fizzled out after reports that Pakistan was readying its nuclear weapons. The fact that all these incidents took place during the term of the supposedly hard-line BJP added to the notion that India was a soft state.
When the Narendra Modi-led government came to power in 2014, he invited all regional leaders to his swearing-in, sending out the message that India wanted peace and prosperity in its neighbourhood. On December 25, 2015, he paid a surprise visit to Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif — the first visit to Pakistan by an Indian premier in more than 10 years. But all hopes for peace were derailed when barely a week later, on January 2, 2016, the Jaish-e-Mohammad attacked an Indian Air Force Station in Pathankot, killing seven people.
Pakistan was also said to have incited the massive violence in Kashmir after the killing of Burhan Wani, a young militant leader, by security forces. When terrorists attacked an Army camp in Uri in September that year killing 19 soldiers, Modi decided to launch a cross border surgical strike, using Special Forces to take out terrorist launch pads in PoK.
National security adviser Ajit Doval has repeatedly said that the only way to check Pakistani perfidy was to make it expensive for them. In a two-pronged strategy, India clamped down hard in Kashmir to cleanse it of militants, while the army was asked to retaliate heavily to any cross border firing, intended to give cover to infiltrating terrorists.
When terrorists struck a CRPF convoy in Pulwama on February 14, killing 40 troopers and injuring scores, India decided to take the fight back to the enemy. Twelve days later, the Indian Air Force crossed the border to strike deep within Pakistan, hitting a Jaish-e-Mohammad training camp and reportedly killing scores. A day later, the Pakistani air force intruded into Indian airspace and after locking on several military targets, bombed empty plots nearby. To avoid an escalation into full-scale war, both sides publicly stressed that they had bombed “non-military” targets.
The events of February 26-27 show that India is no longer worried about Pakistan’s nuclear sabre rattling, while Pakistan has shown that it can enter Indian airspace and lock on to military targets. But the downing of the two aircraft –a Pakistani F16 and Wing Commander Abhinandan’s MiG-21—show that such muscular shows of intent come at a cost.
The Pakistan problem
The reason that every attempt at peace has been scuttled by the Pakistan Army’s terrorist lap dogs is that without India as an enemy, the military would find it hard to justify its disproportionate budget, role, and influence in Pakistan’s polity. Given India’s overwhelming conventional military superiority, the army finds it cheaper to use proxy warfare to keep needling India and use Indian retaliation to drive home the fact that only a strong army can defend the country against a hostile neighbour.
By raising the cost for any terrorist acts against India, New Delhi hopes to eventually make the civilian side question the army’s motives. But the insidious manner in which the army has appropriated civilian positions, by appointing retired brass as heads of various critical private and government sectors, has made it increasingly difficult to separate the two. Also, the military’s unholy alliance with terrorists has led to a situation where the rabid right is trying to impose its writ on the civil society.
By ensuring that the international community is now with India on Pakistan, New Delhi hopes to squeeze Pakistan financially and politically, in the hope that it will realise the folly of its ways. But unless the people of Pakistan see through the military’s motives and start a movement to slowly strip it of some of its power and pelf, things are unlikely to change.
Demons in Pak Haven
Dawood, son of a police constable, was instrumental in the 1993 Bombay serial blasts that killed 257 and leftover 800 injured. He enjoys the patronage of Pakistan’s ISI. His daughter Mahrukh is married to former Pakistan captain Javed Miandad’s son Junaid. In 2011, Dawood was named among the 10 most wanted fugitives in the world with a bounty of $25 million on his head
Anees is the brother of Dawood Ibrahim and virtually controls his D-Company from Karachi. The gang is involved in extortion, money laundering and circulating fake Indian currency in India. Anees is also an accused in the 1993 serial blasts and has been based in Karachi along with his fugitive brother Dawood
Hafiz is a Pakistan-based militant and the founder of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jamaat Ud Dawa. Both these organizations have been behind terror attacks in India. The 26/11 attack in Mumbai was organised and executed by the LeT. It is also involved in the 2001 Parliament attack, and the 2006 train serial blasts in Mumbai. In 2012, the United States announced a $10 million bounty on his head
Masood Azhar is the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed. In 2016, JeM men attacked the army camp in Uri killing 19 soldiers. It was also a part of the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai, where gunmen targeted vital landmarks and even killed ATS chief Hemant Karkare. Masood was arrested in 1994. In December 1999, terrorists hijacked an Indian Airlines flight and freed Masood in return for the hostages.