It is not often that India gets to be defensive on the issue of terrorism. Pakistani commentators and parts of its establishment can, however, be expected to react sharply to defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s remarks that India will “definitely take some pro-active steps” to preempt the terror plans of “any country”. The minister said: “We have to neutralise terrorists through terrorists only.” He subsequently clarified that he did not intend covert actions to be undertaken “by our own people” but that may not entirely reassure neighbours.
The remarks may have been motivated by the government’s intent to reiterate that India can raise the costs if State and non-State actors in Pakistan were to plot terror strikes in India — in line with New Delhi’s approach to step up intensity of firing across the LoC when responding to ceasefire violations, as was the case last winter. Perhaps a direct statement of intent would have worked better; the controversy will fan the Pakistani narrative, which New Delhi has denied, that India is waging a covert war within Pakistan by aiding rebels in Balochistan. Pakistan has long alleged Indian involvement in an effort to draw an equivalence between India’s alleged support to Baloch insurgents and its own barely disguised support to the insurgency in J-K. The Pakistani establishment has also been insisting that India’s consulates in Afghanistan plot covert activity and some analysts even suggest that insurgents of the Tehreek-e-Taliban — currently fighting the Pakistani army in North Waziristan — are also backed by New Delhi.
There is also a serious principle at stake here. By explicitly indicating its openness to such covert activity, India risks undermining its firmly held belief that terrorism should not be used as an instrument of State policy. In fact, a significant measure of India’s diplomatic successes vis-à-vis Pakistan after 9/11 can be attributed to the narrative on “cross-border terrorism” that it crafted and rolled through the international community. Any suggestion about using terrorism for diplomatic ends undercuts India’s moral authority on the issue and weakens its case in the event of terror attacks in the future. This has domestic implications too. Proscribing Maoists, for instance, for terrorist violence becomes less convincing when the State itself sees it as a convenient bargaining tool abroad. Not only is such an approach diplomatically untenable, it can also be counterproductive — risking reprisals and other political complications. And if there is anything Pakistan’s experience has shown, terrorists do not always do the bidding of their masters and often turn against them. We ought to stay away from such artifices.