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This article was first published 5 years ago  » News » 'Air strikes showed India will not tolerate terrorism'

'Air strikes showed India will not tolerate terrorism'

By Archana Masih
March 04, 2019 11:37 IST
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'We could quibble with each other whether there were 25 terrorists killed or 250 killed.'
'The message is more that India undertook such an aerial attack and this attack has actually changed the paradigm.'
'The change in paradigm is that India has shown by the surgical strike in 2016 and the aerial strike of 2019 that we will not just sit back and tolerate terrorism which killed so many of our people.'
'We will hit back and by hitting back we will raise the costs of such activities.'

Ambassador Gautam Bambawale is one of India's most accomplished and cerebral diplomats.

As India's high commissioner in Islamabad in 2016-2017, he dealt with Pakistan during three turbulent crises -- the aftermath of the Pathankot terror attack, Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav's arrest and after the Uri attack/surgical strike.

The ministry of external affairs then assigned the China specialist to Beijing where he served as our ambassador till he retired from the Indian Foreign Service last year.

His assessment -- 'India-China Relations: Doklam to Wuhan and Beyond' -- which proudly published on Saturday is a MUST READ.

What are India's diplomatic options after last week's air strikes?

Can India isolate Pakistan on the global stage?

Will China consent to supporting India's resolution at the United Nations to outlaw the Jaish e Mohammad's Masood Azhar a global terrorist?

To secure his insights on these and other foreign policy issues vis-a-vis Pakistan,'s Archana Masih spoke to Ambassador Bambawale. A rare and exclusive interview.


Now that the cannons have hopefully gone silent for a while, what are the diplomatic steps you believe India should take on the Pakistan front?

The first thing we have to keep in mind is the reason for the spurt of activity that happened over the last few days -- and the reason for that was the terrorist attack in Pulwama in J&K.

The basic point that we are still pressing on Pakistan is to give up State sponsored terrorism which is aimed at India.

So until Pakistan stops providing support and financing to terrorists who are aimed at India, we will have cycles of what we have seen.

The key takeaway is that Pakistan must see the light of day and stop aiding and abetting terrorism across the border aimed at us.

I think there will have to be a combination of diplomatic and non-diplomatic steps.

The first diplomatic step is that we must continue with the efforts that are being made to put Masood Azhar on the UN's 1267 sanctions list.

Secondly, understand that terrorism is not going to end by undertaking the air strikes in 2019.

This is going to continue -- we need to have better intelligence and we need to prepare ourselves better for facing such attacks in the future too.

Do you think China will ever allow the UN resolution declaring Masood Azhar a global terrorist to go through? You dealt with the Chinese on this aspect -- how do you account for their reluctance to support India on this issue?

On this question, we need to be a little bit transactional with China.

What I mean is that if you just think back a little, last year we did manage to convince China to let the grey listing of Pakistan in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to move ahead.

They let the grey listing move ahead and we in return did something that they would have liked us and wanted us to do for them.

We need to find a kind of deal that we can do with China where China's own national interests are met. Then I feel they would let this listing of Masood Azhar move ahead in the UN.

Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photograph: @pid_gov/Twitter

IMAGE: Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photograph: @pid_gov/Twitter

Prime Minister Imran Khan has spoken about a dialogue with India. Do you believe that talks will have to wait till after the general election and a new government is in place in New Delhi?
Even if a government in New Delhi were to consider a dialogue with Pakistan, it won't be possible till July or August, if not later.
How then do we keep the peace in the region?

That's a very good question. I would like to give Imran Khan, the current Pakistan prime minister, the benefit of the doubt. I would like to assume that he means what he says.

Unfortunately, the reality in Pakistan as we all know is that the India policy is run by the military authorities or by the Pakistan army.

I think it is a question of how much Prime Minister Imran Khan can convince the Pakistan army to walk the talk. To do everything that he has promised to do.

I will give you an example: When the Pulwama attack happened, the prime minister (Imran Khan) suggested that India hand over all the evidence that we have that Jaish-e-Mohammad was involved in this attack to them.

Since then, we have done that. What I would like to point out is that on the face of it, it seems like a very balanced and a logical thing to ask.

But when you look back, we have seen that previous prime ministers of Pakistan have asked for evidence. We have given them enough evidence after the Mumbai attacks on 26/11, especially the evidence provided to us by Ajmal Kasab.

More recently in 2016, we allowed their special investigation team to actually visit Pathankot after the Jaish attack on the air force base. But all that evidence and information that we have given has come to nought.

If you look at it in the long term perspective, you can understand why India is not convinced when Prime Minister Imran Khan or Pakistan once again says give more evidence about this particular attack.

We are not convinced that it will go anywhere or move anywhere.

That is why I keep saying that Imran Khan may be well meaning, but the question is can he walk the talk?

There is talk that India must isolate Pakistan on the world stage. Do you think it is possible to isolate Pakistan that has an all weather friend like China?

You are absolutely right when you say that they have an all weather friend like China. There is a strategic partnership between China and Pakistan because of which they stay close together.

Pakistan has also other friends in the Middle East whether it is Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

When we say we want to isolate them, we don't mean that each and every country and all countries should not have anything to do with them.

But there should be a general feeling amongst the international community that Pakistan is the source of terrorism at least aimed at India -- and in some cases aimed at other countries also.

Iran and Afghanistan are complaining about the same thing.

As India's high commissioner in Pakistan, you dealt with the Pakistani foreign ministry at difficult times -- Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav's arrest and after the Uri attack. How difficult is it to deal with the Pakistanis?

You are absolutely right, I went through those two experiences. In our interactions with Pakistan, we always talked to the ministry of foreign affairs.

If and when required, I could always request for a meeting with the foreign secretary or even higher up if necessary.

But the question which arises once again was that the foreign ministry was not in full control of many unfolding events.

The control lay somewhere else and by somewhere else I mean the Pakistan army.

Therefore, in my interactions with Pakistan, not just the civilian government, but also with the military authorities, I used to very often tell them, that when we have diplomatic interaction between the embassy and the authorities in Pakistan, why don't you have a military person around too?

So that the person would be able to provide many more answers than were available to the civilian authorities.

If and when we sit across the table, maybe the Pakistan army should also be represented. They need not do the negotiations, but they can provide their own side of what are the facts and what are the red lines they do not want crossed.

Does the Pakistan foreign ministry give the same treatment to other countries also?

No. I think this happens with some of the major countries. For example, the diplomats from the United States used to tell us that very often the civilian authorities of Pakistan are not aware of certain things.

But in their case, they are also in touch with the Pakistan army. Wherein in our case, we are only in touch with the civilians. We do not really get access or have interactions with them (the Pakistan army).

So that is the difference.

How different is it dealing with Chinese diplomats?

In China, the Chinese foreign ministry works very closely with other parts of the government including the military. They are fully aware of issues and of recent events and developments.

So when you interact with the foreign ministry of China they have all the answers. They know everything what is happening on a particular subject.

What do you think of China's reaction after the air strikes?

I think the reaction that we have seen by the Chinese foreign minister (Wang Yi) when the External Affairs Minister, Madam Sushma Swaraj, was in Wuzhen for the India-Russia-China trilateral meeting is a step forward.

He has very clearly articulated China's position that the breeding ground of terror should be attacked and should not be left by itself.

China's position is that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations is a bad thing. In the western part of China, especially the Muslim majority Xinjiang province, there are issues of terrorism.

So I felt that the position that the Chinese foreign minister took was a forward movement than the position taken earlier.

But having said that, you are abosultely right, I don't think that means that they will allow the Masood Azhar listing to move ahead easily unless we are able to persuade them and do a deal or some kind of bargain with them.

There has been no official communication about the damage assessment and there are conflicting reports on number of terrorists killed in Balakot. Why do you think so?

The way I look at it is as follows -- there is very little doubt that an air strike did take place at Balakot and there is damage to some of the facilities available.

We could quibble with each other whether there were 25 terrorists killed or 250 killed. Sure, that's a question that we can argue about.

I think the message is more that India undertook such an aerial attack and this attack has actually changed the paradigm.

The change in paradigm is that India has shown by the surgical strike in 2016 and the aerial strike of 2019 that we will not just sit back and tolerate terrorism which killed so many of our people.

We will hit back and by hitting back we will raise the costs of such activities.

Ambassador Gautam Bambawale

What do you make of United States National Security Adviser John Bolton's statement that India has a right to defend itself? Would it indicate that the US understood India's need for retaliation for the Pulwama massacre?

More than John Bolton and the United States, many other countries have implicitly said the same things.

When you look at the statement put out by the foreign secretary (Vijay Keshav Gokhale) about the aerial attack of Balakot, he said very clearly that we had credible intelligence that Jaish-e-Mohammad was planning further fidayeen attacks in India. Not just in J&K, but across India.

In such a situation, it is incumbent on the government to take pre-emptive action and that is exactly what was done.

India has the right and responsibility to protect Indian citizens from attacks about which we have credible intelligence. That is exactly what has happened and that is exactly what we have undertaken.

The US and other countries like France, UK, Australia have all agreed that India has the right to protect its citizens. Especially when it has actionable intelligence about possible further terror attacks.

In this case, I think the US did see that it was imperative for India to act in the interest of its citizens and I am happy about it.

There is a belief that peace in Afghanistan will bring the barbarians to India's gates, encourage Islamic terrorists to foment trouble not only in Kashmir, but perhaps in the rest of India. What are the security challenges India must be prepared for in the months to come?

We only have to look back at what happened when the Taliban was in office between 1996-2001. There was an upsurge in terrorist activity across the region.

If this was to happen again, there is very little doubt amongst all of us who study that region that there will be a similar kind of upsurge in terrorism across the region and perhaps across the world.

This possibility of a withdrawal and leaving Afghanistan to these kind of forces would be bad for all of us who live in this region.

What are the challenges that confront Indian diplomats who serve in Islamabad?

Serving in Islamabad always has its pressures. You have to be very careful about how you live and work in Islamabad. That is something that every person assigned to our high commission in Islamabad is trained for and prepared for.

You have to prepare yourself mentally and otherwise for an assignment there, but we very willingly have been able to serve in Islamabad and very happy to go there if our country asks for it.

In the course of his duties, Wing Commander Abhinandan ejected on the other side and we know that is a casualty that can happen. Similar for us diplomats.

We know that we have signed on to serve India anywhere in the world and when we are posted to Islamabad it is an honour to serve our country.

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