Every act of terrorism carries the threat of war. The Pakistani attacks on parliament in 2001 and on Mumbai in 2008 were followed by the possibility of a major conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. It was undoubtedly the menace of the ultimate, Holocaust weapons which made the two countries draw back from the brink of the precipice at the time.
It is unclear whether the present crisis will see a similar turn of events. The fact that this is an election year in India complicates the scene. The ruling party may feel that the absence of a muscular response to the Pulwama tragedy will hurt its image even if the opposition parties have vowed to stand by it.
At the same time, there is probably diplomatic pressure on it as well to prevent any dangerous escalation of the situation in a region which has sometimes been described as a “nuclear flashpoint”. Although the US has assured India of its support for an act of “self-defence”, it is doubtful whether this term covers a full-scale war.
In all probability, it is a green signal for something like a surgical strike or precision bombing of targets for which the air force is said to be preparing. It is not impossible that among the targets such a focused operation will have on its radar is the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s (JeM) headquarters in Bahawalpur in Pakistan. Since the JeM was behind the Pulwama massacre, a aerial strike on its den can be construed as an act of “self-defence” if only because the JeM must be having other heinous plans up its sleeve.
Since America has consistently asked Pakistan to deny safe havens to terrorists, it cannot but guardedly approve of any targeting of Bahawalpur although it is unquestionably an act of war. As such, there will be pressure on Pakistan from the US not to respond. Even China, notwithstanding its fondness for the JeM chief, Masood Azhar, will be wary of a serious outbreak of hostilities lest they put an end to its Belt and Road Initiative. However, for India, a covert operation is perhaps the best option.
It is a mystery why India has not carried out more such undercover hit-and-run attacks on terror camps and individual terrorists since this is the only way that Pakistan’s proxy war can be effectively countered, as a war with or without the use of nuclear weapons will be disastrous for both the countries. Is it because of a sense of being a gentleman who cannot adopt such “mean” tactics that India has desisted from playing James Bond ?
However, it is possible that the covert initiatives have not been taken because India’s “deep assets” or spies in Pakistan were deactivated out of a misplaced sense of friendliness towards Pakistan by some prime ministers, as the BJP’s former defence minister Manohar Parrikar once said. Since, as Parrikar said, it takes 20/30 years to build up the deep assets, it is obvious that a secret mission against JeM is not immediately possible, but it is an option which India has to keep in mind.
The advantage of such a mission is that the perpetrators cannot be directly identified or blamed as in the case of an aerial attack or a missile strike although everyone in the world will know who is behind it. But the attackers will earn as much plaudits at home as an open surgical strike.
Apart from such military operations by either soldiers or spies, India may well have to consider other alternatives. These include breaking off diplomatic relations with Pakistan because it is of no use maintaining such formal contacts with an overly and unrepentantly hostile country. There is little that India can gain by maintaining high commissions and consulates in Pakistan.
The snapping of diplomatic ties can be accompanied by ending trade between the two countries and putting an end to cultural exchanges or what has been called people-to-people contacts. The playing of cricket and other games will also have to be called off although India may still have to adhere to the schedules prepared by world bodies for such sporting encounters.
Pakistan is not India’s only enemy in the region. China is another. It is obvious that Pakistan wouldn’t have been so emboldened to persist with its tactics of bleeding India with a thousand cuts year after year if it wasn’t sure of Chinese support.
Given this unholy alliance between the two “iron brothers”, India may well have to revise the “Wuhan spirit” by telling China that friendship is a game which both the sides will have to play. If China continues to tilt heavily towards Pakistan, India will have to consider whether it will have to take a fresh look at its Tibet policy.
India may also have to ramp up its ties with Taiwan, put the squeeze on Chinese businesses In India and side with the rest of the world on the oppression of the Uighur Muslims by China. For far too long has India tried to play fair with the two all-weather friends driven by an intense antipathy towards India. It’s time to make a new beginning.
The author is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal.