OPINION | Pulwama Attack: India Must Play its Cards Right Before Landing Pakistan a Knockout Blow
The terrorists attacking India have so far only faced proportionate response. They attack. Then they are hunted down and killed. Next day, new attackers replace them. This cycle has not been broken for 30 years now. At some point, a new strategy will have to be adopted.
People attend a candle light vigil to pay tribute to CRPF personnel who were killed in the Pulwama attack on Thursday. (Reuters)
Pakistan is once again in focus in the wake of the Pulwama terrorist attack that killed 40 CRPF personnel on February 14. Some questions that have plagued us since the formation of Pakistan, and many became pertinent in the last 30 years are again in the public discourse. What we need is a fresh approach, and more importantly, a fresh perspective to play our cards right.
As I child, I grew up in Prayagraj (then Allahabad). However, each summer vacation was spent in our ancestral village in Gorakhpur, the place we originally belong to. My maternal grandfather is a sugarcane farmer. Since sugarcane is a water intensive crop, we had installed our own tube-well station and built an extensive network of irrigation ditches to irrigate the fields. These were my playground in almost every summer vacation, during my growing up years, and it is here that I learnt an early lesson.
Very frequently, breaches would develop along the irrigation course, especially where the water carrying ditch was on a higher ground as compared to adjoining fields. Plugging these breaches proved to be challenge. An easy solution was to plug the breach from the outside. But it at best always proved to be a temporary solution. There would be buildup of water pressure and the band-aid would rarely hold for long.
The solution was always to get in the running ditch and plug the breach from inside. But it was messy to do it from inside. There was constant flow of water, hence even before you could take enough soil to plug the breach, it was likely to be washed away by the current. Your clothes would not just get wet but dirty as well. Before getting in, you would be all spick and span but while coming out you would be covered in mud with soiled clothes and mess all around. But everyone knew that this was the only way. You had to be willing to get inside to get the job done.
Choose the Moment to Attack
One strategy that boxers follow is to tire up the opponent in initial rounds by playing defensive, while allowing the opponent to attack wildly. But the opponent knows this strategy as well, for he, too, has war-game trainers. So how does the opponent overcome your strategy?
Say, you have developed a really good technique and can ward-off any attack around your head. Since the opponent can war-game these battles like you can, he will quickly find out that your defense is perfect in protecting your head. He will then attack you at a new area — perhaps your chest. If you have prepared for that as well, then maybe your neck would be the target. You can defend that too — how about your stomach… and so on. This is why pure defense strategy never works. The attacking opponent has to just move on to the next target after you have perfected the defense in the existing weak points. The coaches who adopt the defense theory know this. No matter how well you prepare to defend any and every weak point, something or the other can always be attacked. The attacker has to succeed just once.
The defense has to foresee everything and succeed every time — never really possible. So, what does the player with the defense strategy do? His game is to survive the initial rounds without too much damage and then go for the knock-out in the final rounds, when the opponent is tired up and spent. Who knows whether the opponent, who has been all bluster till now, attacking without the fear of being attacked, will be able to survive even one properly landed blow? Land the blow at the right time and it is a knock-out.
Terrorism Has no Religion
This theory would be eminently believable if not for one glaring inconsistency. Terror may have no religion but human beings do follow it. That is why, after the death of a terrorist, his last rites are performed as per his religion. I am yet to see a terrorist buried as an atheist. If the terrorist has a religion even in death, then surely, he must have had one in life as well. You may disagree with his interpretation of his religion, but how can you post-facto make him in an atheist?
He had a religion when his passport was flagged for frisking (like countless others from that region). He had a religion when he was denied a bachelor’s accommodation (like countless others denied for some reason or the other). He had a religion when people requested him to sing the national song, like all fellow countrymen, but he did not? He had a religion when he said I cannot live with you in the land of our ancestors because now I follow a different god. How can he suddenly not have a religion when he explodes the bomb? If only this discourse was a little more honest in assessing the real motivation of the terrorists, the well-wishers of those who are unfairly tarred because of the actions of a few, would serve their cause better.
War is Never the Solution
This phrase is used almost as a universal truth by the commentariat. What does the history teach us when it comes to usefulness or otherwise of war?
Essentially, conflicts that are about a proportionate distribution of resources or power can be resolved through a dialogue. But war becomes inevitable when either one or both the sides threaten each other’s very basic existence. It is not necessary for both the sides to be obstinate. One side hell-bent upon erasing the way of life of someone else invariably invites war.
There is one more case in which war becomes inevitable. When one side thinks it has developed an undefeatable strategy or has an unbeatable advantage. History shows us that no amount of reasonableness or good behaviour or winning hearts and minds has ever worked in such situations. It has always been military solutions that have resolved such conflicts. Indeed, if we learn from history we will see that long decades of peace have always been born in the womb of military solutions.
In the current situation, Pakistan thinks it has an unbeatable advantage. Low-cost warfare through religiously indoctrinated terrorists under a nuclear umbrella, thus preventing a full-scale conventional warfare. For thirty years, Pakistan’s calculation that this is an unbeatable strategy has turned out to be true. Why on earth will it change its behaviour just because we pretend to be woke and uber cute?
Military Solution Threatens Escalation
What is escalation? When you disturb the status quo through violent means leading to the loss of lives of hundreds. Who initially breaks this status quo? Indeed, who broke this status quo by ethnically cleansing Kashmiri Hindus in 1990 and by financing mass murder in Mumbai in 1993? By funding, training and organising mass murder in 2000 (Delhi), 2001 (Jammu & Kashmir), 2001 (Delhi), 2002 (Ahmedabad), 2003 (Mumbai), 2005 (Delhi), 2006 (Varanasi), 2006 (Mumbai), 2008 (Ahmedabad), 2008 (Jaipur), 2008 (Delhi), 2008 (Mumbai), 2016 (Uri) and 2019 (Pulwama), and countless times in between?
Why should the wanton killing of Indians not be an escalation but India stepping up to say please do not kill us be an escalation? Also, why should the burden of avoiding escalation always be on India? Stop the escalation ladder at the source itself, right? And what is the source? Murder of Indians. If the source (Pakistan) is not bothered about the escalation ladder, surely it cannot be the sole responsibility of the victim (India) to prevent escalation.
Proportionate Use of Force
If the aim of any armed conflict is to end armed conflict, then it is difficult to see how proportionate use of force can be a reasonable strategy. If both sides in a conflict only use proportionate force then the only outcome can be a stalemate of low intensity, simmering conflict. Only when one side has and uses disproportionate force does conflict end and lead to lasting peace.
When the USA dropped the nuclear bomb on Japan, the World War was more or less already won. And yet, a message needed to be sent — that the allied forces not only had the capability but the willingness to use any force necessary to keep peace. The message went home. And that one moment of overwhelming use of force has kept the world largely peaceful for the past 70 years.
The terrorists attacking India have so far only faced proportionate response. They attack. Then they are hunted down and killed. Next day, new attackers replace them. That is why this cycle has not been broken for 30 years now, since terrorism started in Kashmir. At some point, a new strategy would have to be adopted and the terrorists and their masterminds must meet a disproportionate response.
Give Time, Pakistan Would Come Around
On the face of it, this looks like a reasonable proposition. But how much time? ‘Well, Modi has only tried for five years, these things take time, India must ignore Pakistan and focus within’. We have heard these arguments umpteen times. Of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has only tried for five years. But India has now tried for 30 years, since terrorism started in Kashmir.
Apart from the delusional months of I.K. Gujaral (when he subverted India’s covert abilities), Indian policy has broadly been the same. That we will defend Indian territory and people, isolate Pakistan economically and diplomatically the best we can, and then hope to bring Pakistan to the negotiating table. Narasimha Rao tried it for five years, Atal Bihari Vajpayee for six years, Manmohan Singh for 10 years and now Modi for five years.
India has faced this challenge for 30 years with broadly the same policy. At some point of time, we would have to say this is not working. No matter how much time we give to Pakistan, it would not come around. At some point we would have to say that not every prime minister has to begin trying from scratch because India is not trying from scratch. It has given the state of Pakistan 70 years and the strategy of terrorism 30 years.
To give a sense of what 30 years is, think of Gandhi. He started his Satyagraha movement in 1915. By 1947, just over 30 years later, two World Wars had been fought, the British hegemony had been quashed and India was independent. That is the amount of time that India has already given to Pakistan.
The Nuclear threshold
Pakistan, since its birth, has deftly navigated the international scenario, perhaps unlike any other country. While it has completely mismanaged its economy and destroyed its society, what it cannot be accused of is not being able to manage diplomacy. Even the military defeat of 1971 was partially reversed in the diplomacy in Shimla in 1972. Since then it has managed Iran, the USA, China, Saudi Arabia, hosting Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, while simultaneously being an ally of the USA and much, much more.
Behind all the bluster and the mad-mullah image they have built, the people in charge of Pakistani policy have proved that when it comes to diplomatic and strategic survival calls at key moments, they have generally taken the right call. When called upon to abandon the Taliban, after 9/11, in which Pakistan had invested time and money and blood, they did abandon them initially. The Taliban was ousted. Pakistan’s pragmatism made them realise that bluster would not work and strategic retreat was necessary. When time became right again, they started reinvesting in Taliban. The thinking heads of Pakistan even managed to navigate the discovery of Osama Bin Laden in their nursery.
Which is what makes it hard to believe that one day the Pakistani leadership will suddenly sign up for mass national suicide. Because that is what the constant threat of low nuclear threshold means.
Essentially, what Pakistan is saying that look Indians, we will keep murdering you at will, at time and place of our choosing. If one day, you Indians decide that enough is enough and we no longer want to be killed with impunity then we, Pakistanis, will commit mass suicide as a nation. Because no matter how many nuclear weapons the Pakistanis use, one or many, tactical or strategic, India will survive. Now with the nuclear-triad also in place, India will always be in position for massive retaliatory strike which will wipe out the geographical entity of Pakistan. In effect, any resort to actual nuclear use would mean a mass suicide for the Pakistani nation.
Surely, the thinkers and planners of Pakistan, who have so brilliantly managed to keep their country afloat, know this. So, it really defies belief that they would ever actually resort to nuclear use if and when India says, look we are not threatening your existence, just stop killing us. This low nuclear threshold is a bluff that even the Pakistanis know about. Strangely, somehow India in the last three decades has paralysed itself into believing that this is not a bluff but a reality. One day, this bluff needs to be called out.
It is not that there has been secessionist tendencies in just Kashmir and not any other state. Since independence, India has faced such forces in many states. While motley secessionist groups are still active in the North East, those who do not have fair acquaintance with history may be surprised to know that even a state like Tamil Nadu faced secessionist groups during the early decades of independence as did many other states. The Indian nationhood has in the last 70 years subsumed almost all these tendencies except in the state of Kashmir. What is it that is different about Kashmir from all these other states?
Think of it this way. What article 370 has done is that for all practical purposes it has erected a solid, insurmountable wall between India and Kashmir. A wall which is invisible to the naked eye but which has more strength than any physical wall ever built. A wall through which nothing meaningful passes. Kashmir shares land boundary with more than one state in India but for all practical purposes it could well be situated in an unreachable place in the southern hemisphere. Indeed, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are more near to mainland India than the state of J&K.
Nation states are not artificial constructs. They live and breathe and thrive because of the people who inhabit that state. People mix and mingle, they get to know each other, learn from each other and build an invisible bond which withstands the gravest threats and wars. Software engineers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh find gainful employment in Bangalore and Chennai, and doctors and nurses from Kerala and Tamil Nadu practice and serve in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. It is this shared life that exposes them to the brilliance of each region and culture and develops a common bond. In our lived reality, we feel connected with the shared brilliance of the Indian reality.
Article 370 has short-circuited this process for Kashmir. The lived experience of the ordinary Kashmiri is not the uniting nature of Indian cricket, or the IPL opportunities, or the aspirational nature of sprawling IT campuses or the fun and frolic of an evening night out in a multiplex, or the brilliance of the Holi festival celebrated in full fervour. An average person living in Maharashtra knows what Chhath festival is and an average person on Uttar Pradesh knows Pongal. In case of Kashmir, they simply do not know India. Their only exposure to the India has been the Indian state, not the Indian people, not the Indian culture. Article 370 has ensured that. How can you win hearts and minds when you do not allow the hearts to meet?
Repealing Article 370 will not solve the problem the moment it is done. It will start a process. The day Maharashtrians can work and live and settle in Srinagar, and Biaharis can call Anantnag their home, and Assamese can travel to Uri for a business prospect, then will it be the integration that the dream of 1947 actually promised. It will take maybe a generation or two for the effects to show. But as experience has shown, that is the only lasting solution.
India’s place in 21st Century
India is now the sixth largest economy in the world. Soon it will be fifth. Our young generation does not carry the baggage of a socialist nation that bogged down our energies in the first few decades after independence. Our young engineers have built the prowess to board the technological revolution bus, after we missed the industrial revolution bus. We have the soft power that is so necessary to be seen as a leader in the community of nations. Unlike China, we are on the right side of history when it comes to democratic enablement. Our rising economy will give us enough leeway to build our hard power as well.
All evidence indicates that if we play our cards right, this century could definitely be ours. With just one caveat. It is difficult to find an example in history when a country has become the leading nation in its time while being unable to manage its neighborhood. Britain, United States and empires before them —all sorted out their neighbourhood before they attained escape velocity in their era. India is on the verge of that moment in this century. Time will tell where we go from here.
The author is CEO of Bluekraft Digital Foundation and former Director of MyGov India. Views expressed are personal.
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