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Home / Analysis / After Pulwama, India effected a doctrinal shift

After Pulwama, India effected a doctrinal shift

With the emphasis on pre-emptive action, India has signalled that it will no longer accept loss of lives

analysis Updated: Feb 13, 2020 19:37 IST
Vivek Katju
Vivek Katju
The site of the Pulwama attack, February 14, 2019. Prior to the surgical strikes, India followed a policy of hardening defences to prevent terrorist attacks and diplomatic responses whenever they did take place and led to large loss of life
The site of the Pulwama attack, February 14, 2019. Prior to the surgical strikes, India followed a policy of hardening defences to prevent terrorist attacks and diplomatic responses whenever they did take place and led to large loss of life(PTI)

Hours after the Balakot air strike of February 26 last year, the then foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale read out a brief statement that implicitly marked a far-reaching doctrinal shift in the way India would handle Pakistan-sponsored terror in future. Many aspects of the sequence of events that began with the Pulwama terrorist attack on February 14, exactly one year ago, and concluded with Pakistan returning Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman on March 1 have attracted considerable attention; the doctrine though has not.

The statement asserted inter alia, “Credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide attack in various parts of the country, and the fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose. In the face of imminent danger, a pre-emptive strike became absolutely necessary.” Earlier, the statement had noted that Pakistan had always denied the existence of terrorist training camps, despite information being provided, and that Pakistan had not taken action to “dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil”. The obvious implication was that if Pakistan did not take action, India would do so to protect its people. That can only be accomplished through pre-emptive action.

The foreign secretary’s statement marked a dramatic departure both from the policy followed by successive Indian governments prior to the surgical strikes after Uri in 2016, but also to what those strikes represented. They were retributive — as distinct from being directly pre-emptive — and carried the expectation that Pakistan would draw the right lesson: That the era of making the use of terror as part of its security doctrine against India was over. Clearly, that lesson was not learnt; hence, Pulwama.

Prior to the surgical strikes, India followed a policy of hardening defences to prevent terrorist attacks and diplomatic responses whenever they did take place and led to large loss of life. The objective was to bring such international pressure to bear on Pakistan that it was left with no alternative but to abandon the use of terror. This never happened. Why?

The interest of the major powers lay in preventing an escalation of India-Pakistan tensions and armed hostilities, not in avoiding the loss of Indian lives. This is the harsh reality of international relations where States act to safeguard and promote their interests and not out of altruism. Thus, India was applauded for its responsible and wise conduct, while Pakistan only, if at all, gently rapped on the knuckles.

The fact is that India pursued the diplomatic path in dealing with Pakistani terror, because it did not, certainly from after the late 1990s, consider it as a strategic threat. It did so obviously because of the thinking that Pakistan could not wrest Jammu and Kashmir out of the Union. In relegating the threat, Indian political and strategic classes ignored the political, economic and social costs that Pakistani terror was really extracting. The pre-emption doctrine has put not only Pakistan on notice, but also signalled to the world that India is no longer willing to bear these costs.

The Balakot action has posed a very serious challenge, especially in doctrinal terms, to Pakistan’s pursuit of terrorism for that relied on the shield provided by nuclear weapons. For decades, it had sought to prevent kinetic Indian action by putting forth the argument that such action would set in motion a dangerous escalation between the two nuclear-armed countries. Pakistan had assiduously pushed that viewpoint to the international community, whose first interest naturally was to prevent such escalation between two nuclear countries.

That point is again being made by members of the Pakistani security community. Recently, Lieutenant General (retd) Khalid Kidwai, the chief ideologue on strategic issues of the Pakistani army brotherhood, told an audience in London that Pakistan’s doctrine was “quid pro quo plus”, as demonstrated through its counter to the Balakot strike. He stressed that Pakistan would always respond with greater force to any Indian attack. He underlined that Indian kinetic action would be irresponsible and escalatory. Kidwai’s comments were laced with the current usual Pakistani invective against India and particularly against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Not surprisingly, what was missing from Kidwai’s statement was a reference to Pakistan’s reliance on terror as a part of its security doctrine and its role in provoking India in an attempt to keep it on the defensive. The point that the government and India’s security community need to vigorously make on the anniversary of Pulwama and Balakot is that terrorism, and not the Indian response to it, is the first step on the escalatory ladder.

As India marks the anniversary of the sacrifice of the Pulwama martyrs, it is necessary for the government and the political class to reiterate the pre-emption doctrine in clear terms so that the global players take note that the only sure way to prevent the dangers of escalation is to ensure that Pakistan changes stance on terrorism, for India is no longer willing to accept loss of innocent lives and other costs.

Vivek Katju is a former diplomat
The views expressed are personal