How will India respond to an attack which keeps haemorrhaging India but stays below the threshold of tolerance?
Massive cross-border shelling to every act of terrorist adventurism is probably the easiest, but by no stretch of imagination the best response from the Indian side. Of course, going back to a dialogue would certainly be the worst possible response, says Sushant Sareen
The attack on the army camp in Uri is not an isolated act of terror but a sign of things to come. One way to explain the attack would be to link it to the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly elections and the campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Srinagar beginning on Monday.
The attack could also be linked to the convention of the Hafiz Saeed-led Jamaat-ud-Dawah in Lahore. The angle of the Pakistan ‘deep state’, or the real rulers of Pakistan i.e. the Pakistan army using this not only as a pressure tactic to force India to the talks table but also throwing a challenge before the new Indian government on how it will react to attacks that are neither big enough to warrant a major escalation, nor small enough to be brushed aside cannot be ruled out. All of these are probably at play.
But the other way to analyse this attack is to see it as a portent of things to come. Although aggression in Jammu and Kashmir has been significantly under control over the last seven to eight years, there has been a steady uptick in terrorist violence in the last couple of years. Security forces have underplayed these rising incidents as fairly routine; not something that they need to sit up and take notice. For some time now, the general approach has been not to see these incidents as being part of a developing design by terrorists. Perhaps having faced a far worse situation in the past, the security forces didn’t feel the need to get all worked up over an odd incident somewhere in the state.
In the process they seem to have ignored the tell-tale signs of an attempt by terror groups, their sympathisers in Jammu and Kashmir and their patrons across the Line of Control to not just keep things on the simmer but also rebuild and reignite the insurgency in the state.
The Uri attack should shake them out of their reverie because there is a clear pattern to the rising incidents of violence, which suggest that in the months ahead there could be more such dastardly attacks by the terrorist string-pullers in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. If indeed the situation deteriorates according to the apprehensions being expressed, the Modi government will need to work out its responses on how to prevent and preempt such attacks in the future and how to inflict punishment on the perpetrators.
The immediate context of the Uri attack is of course the massive voter turnout in the first two phases of the state assembly polls. It would appear that neither the separatists nor the terrorists and not even Pakistan’s infamous spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence had expected such an enthusiastic response from the voters. After the success of the first phase, trouble should have been expected, more so since there was a series of terror-related incidents that followed -- infiltration attempts, grenade attacks, firing etc.
After the second phase polling, it should have been even more apparent that all efforts will be made to instill fear among voters so that the turnout drops, which in turn would be used to question the credibility of the elections. But elections is only one part of the terror game being unleashed.
The Uri attack coincided with the climax of the JuD/Lashkar-e-Tayiba convention in Lahore. A day before Saeed and his sidekicks had made extremely provocative, hateful and inciting speeches against India. The suicide attack on the final day of the convention would come in handy to impress not just donors and potential recruits but also cadres about the commitment of the outfit to wage jihadist terror in and against India.
To be sure, there is no way the JuD could carry out such an attack without the knowledge and concurrence of the Pakistan ‘deep state’, which for some months now has been ratcheting up both rhetoric and violence in Jammu and Kashmir. With the Afghan theatre winding down, the Pakistanis think they can once again restart the terrorism in J&K. At the very least, a spike in the violence will ultimately force the Indian government to once again seek a dialogue with Pakistan.
The problem is that the Modi government has taken a tough stand by drawing some red lines which its predecessor was loath to do. What the Pakistanis want is to explore how they can breach the red lines without inviting a response. The Uri attack is the latest gambit in this quest.
The Modi government has worked out response to some, but not all breaches of the red lines have been laid down. Suspending foreign secretary talks was the response to Pakistan hobnobbing with the separatists. The massive retaliation to ceasefire violations was yet another response to the breach of a red line. The Pakistanis fear, and perhaps justifiably so, that the reaction to a massive 26/11 type attack could be quite severe. They will therefore avoid testing this red line. But how will India respond to an attack which keeps haemorrhaging India but stays below the threshold of tolerance?
In a sense, Pakistan has thrown a challenge to which, it would appear, a response has still not been worked out. What the government needs to do is examine the full spectrum of attacks that Pakistan will unleash and then work out proportionate responses to them. Massive cross-border shelling to every act of terrorist adventurism would probably be the easiest, but by no stretch of imagination the best response from the Indian side. Of course, going back to a dialogue would certainly be the worst possible response. It would reaffirm that Indians aren’t serious about the red lines they lay down. All it takes to make the Indians resile from the stand they have taken is a little pressure through some old-fashioned terrorists and a renewed clamour by the turn-the-other-cheek liberals.
Therefore, if India has to break the logjam and increase the costs for Pakistan, it needs to put in place a series of overt and covert options that will come into play on the breach of every red line. This will require building conventional and unconventional capabilities, many of which are not present at this point in time. But acquiring these capabilities should not take interminably long and can be available within a couple of years. So what does India do in the meantime?
It is entirely possible that the Modi government will want to avoid doing anything that could disrupt the election process in J&K and therefore there may not be any immediate reaction to the Uri attack. But if there are a few more such attacks in the days ahead, the government will be forced to respond in a befitting manner. If it doesn’t, on one hand it will lose credibility and Prime Minister Modi might see himself being seen in the same light as his predecessor. On the other hand, if the government responds in a knee-jerk manner, it could risk a setback that also damages it grievously. This is the dilemma.
Sushant Sareen is senior fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation