Chief of Army Staff Gen Bipin Rawat must be under considerable pressure to deliver swift and suitable retribution for Pakistan Army’s ambush of two soldiers on the Indian side of the LoC in Poonch and then the barbarity and inhumanity of mutilating (read beheading) their bodies. Reason? His supersession of two Generals to the post of COAS was, according to the government, due to his wide experience of the LoC in Kashmir and superior acumen in counterinsurgency. The DGMO of the Indian Army conveyed to his Pakistani counterpart that such a dastardly and inhuman act is beyond any norms of civility and merits condemnation and response.
Incidentally, this is the nth time the Pakistan Army has done this, the last one being in October 2016 in Macchil sector, which was followed by an appropriate punitive response: massive direct fire and artillery assaults across the LoC, heavy shooting in Neelum valley, and an unconfirmed tit-for-tat for the Machchil mutilation. However indecent and callous, this trade in body parts across the LoC has gone on for decades. Only its frequency varying with the state of India-Pakistan relations with the Rawalpindi rogue army always being the initiator of the perfidy. Ram Madhav, the BJP point person in J&K’s analogy that all is fair in love and war on the government’s handling of the situation in the Valley was in sync with such activity on the LoC.
Over time, other pressures have begun to weigh on the first responders to such attacks — the Government and the Army. Public opinion and print, electronic, and social media, with TV gladiators including anchors spearheading the debate, have become oblivious to how they aggravate the crisis and arouse expectations on a response. This week, it was quite common to watch and listen to retired Generals, armchair strategists, and other cheerleaders talk about dismembering Pakistan, breaking up Balochistan, conquering PoK, suspending the Indus Water Treaty, and so on to punish Pakistan. With the well-paid usual suspects from Pakistan to bait them, the scenes became reminiscent of World Wrestling Federation matches. Among TV channels, all this comes in the garb of competitive patriotism alias TRP.
The imaginative scenarios created on TV are partly attributable to Manohar Parrikar, former Defence Minister’s periodic references “to use a terrorist to catch a terrorist” and Ajit Doval, NSA’s threats that if there was another Mumbai there would be no Balochistan fuelling the notion of illusory clandestine capabilities. Even without today’s TV noise and clutter, in 1999, following the hijack of IC 814 from Kathmandu to Kandahar, the round-the-clock protests and wailing of relatives shown on TV forced the government to succumb to the hijackers’ demand of releasing three Pakistani terrorists, including the now Chinese favourite Masood Azhar for the 100-plus Indian passengers.
Another reason for public outcry for revenge besides the media is the willy nilly lowering of thresholds and the narrowing red lines for reprisals.
For a country that did not respond to the attack on Parliament, Mumbai, and Pathankot, it suddenly woke up after 19 soldiers were killed — many accidentally by fire — in a fidayeen attack resulting in the first ever, rather modest surgical strikes across LoC and surprised everyone including Pakistan which denied the attacks. The surgical strikes had a limited, time-specific deterrent effect as the terrorist launchpads that were targeted have been relocated far deeper now. The space for additional strikes is also limited, especially when escalation and own casualties are key considerations. India is no Israel and Pakistan no Hamas or even Syria. There is no protocol for immediate retribution for ambush and mutilation except use of small arms and artillery fire assaults across LoC. India’s response to the current attack will be in the time-tested and traditional fashion at a ‘time and place of our choosing’. Raid on enemy posts, artillery assaults, and a shallow surgical strike are the limited menu of choices.
The legitimate question fathers, brothers, and friends of martyrs are asking is: How long will our soldiers be at the receiving end of Pakistan’s proxy war — a low-cost high gain strategy — for which, India has not found any antidote. The procession of coffins arriving at Palam will not end till the doctrine of denial and deterrence is in place. Denial is preventive and protective. Deterrence is through inflicting pain and punishment, their delivery mainly covert and deniable. It is time the political class spoke in one voice at least on national security instead of counting and comparing the beheadings in their tenure. Mr Modi should stop treating the defence portfolio as a stopgap ministry and instead of agonising, start acting.
DNA, May 5, 2017