Indian heavy firing across the Line of Control on September 29, described by India’s civilian and military leadership as a surgical strike, was meant to satisfy India’s political far-right and hardline Hindu groups who were led to believe, by Indian authorities, that India would inflict a war or heavy military punishment on Pakistan for its alleged support to terrorism in Kashmir and India. The danger in such a policy of military brinkmanship is that it can get out of control and plunge the two countries in a conventional war which is not viewed as a viable option in view of the presence of nuclear weapons in the region. Even a limited military action or a surgical air strike against a nuclear armed adversary is a dangerous strategy.
The political far-right and Hindu hardline groups, including some ex-service personnel, who subscribe to narrow-minded ultra-nationalism, often talk of inflicting a war on Pakistan whenever the relations between the two countries deteriorate or there is a terrorist incident in India. The influence of such elements is heavier on the BJP government led by Narendra Modi because he shares the worldview of the “Sangh Parivar”. Modi and some of his cabinet colleagues were either associated with the RSS or shared hardline Hindu disposition in the past. After the terrorist attack on the military camp in Uri, in September, there were repeated calls from the BJP support base and others overawed by ultra-nationalism to declare war on Pakistan or adopt some punitive military measure against Pakistan, i.e., punitive air or ground attack across the LoC, limited war and capture of some Pakistani territory across the international border, and support Pakistan’s adversaries inside of Pakistan.
However, when the top military professionals and key foreign policy managers took up the question of punishing Pakistan they reached the expected conclusion that they could neither unilaterally scrap the Indus Waters Treaty except at a very high diplomatic cost nor a war or a major military action against Pakistan was a prudent strategy in view of the latter’s possession of nuclear weapons.
India explored the option of a limited military action short of a full war or other ways to impose a severe military punishment on Pakistan on four occasions since the nuclear explosions in May 1998. However, India had to balance this desire with Pakistan’s conventional military capacity, nuclear weapons and Pakistan’s categorical statement that any kind of military action across the LoC or the international boundary will be considered as an act of war and that Pakistan would be free to respond in its own way. The military experts in both countries also pointed out that Pakistan did not subscribe to the principle of no First Use of Nuclear weapons. The other factor that contributed to averting a full war was the positive role of the major global powers, especially the US and the UN, to advise restraint to both sides.
The Kargil war (1999) was the first occasion that showed the restraining role of the nuclear weapons. A number of analysts argue that India did not expand the theatre of war mainly due to the nuclear factor. There are those who argue that Nawaz Shairf rushed to Washington to seek a ceasefire because he thought that India would escalate the war which could later lead to a nuclear exchange.
After the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, India downgraded diplomatic interaction with Pakistan, and suspended trade and travel arrangements between the two countries. India’s airspace was closed to Pakistani aircraft. It moved its troops and military aircraft close to Pakistani border by the end of December 2001. For the next ten months troops of India and Pakistan were in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation but war was averted. In October, India unilaterally called back its troops. Pakistan responded by returning its troops to peacetime positions. Three factors averted the war: nuclear weapons, diplomatic pressure from the major powers, especially the advisory of the US for not travelling to India, and the economic fallout on India of Western advisory.
In the post-Mumbai terrorist attack (November 2008) India’s official circles gave a serious consideration towards how to punish Pakistan militarily in a manner that it did not become a full conventional war. What restrained India was the spectre of a punitive military action setting the stage for full conventional war and then its escalation to a nuclear exchange.
The Pathankot attack (January 2016) was the fourth such occasion. It witnessed the repeat of the post-Mumbai debate in India. The sobering conclusion was that war was not a viable option.
There was a big drum beating in India for war on Pakistan after the latest Uri attack. The top Indian political leadership adopted a more threatening posture this time. However, the nuclear weapons and the restraining influence of the friendly countries led India to hold back. India therefore has launched non- and semi- military strategy against Pakistan involving massive diplomatic campaign to malign Pakistan as a source of terrorism, get Pakistan designated as a terrorist state by the US and other Western powers, and isolate Pakistan diplomatically. It may take some additional measures against Pakistan on the lines of the 2001-2002 strategy.
War is not an option for both India and Pakistan. India’s current negative diplomatic offensive against Pakistan is not going to succeed. Other states may have reservations about some Pakistani policies but they want to mould Pakistani behaviour through diplomacy and reciprocal gestures. These states do not entertain any emotional or domestic political reason like India to push Pakistan to the periphery of the international or regional systems. Modi is a victim of his tough talking against Pakistan before and after coming to power. Now, he cannot match his hostile rhetoric with the ground realities. However, his personal desire to adopt some punitive measures against Pakistan may result in more violent incidents at the LoC that have the potential to escalate into a war-like affair. There is no such thing as limited military activity.
When war is no longer an option for both countries, India will realise that unconditional dialogue is the only way to address the India-Pakistan problems. All the contentious issues, including terrorism and Kashmir, should be placed on the table for a constructive dialogue. India’s power elite should also realise that brute force cannot be used for an indefinite period in Kashmir. This land also needs a dialogue and peace. The sooner this happens the better.