Recalling Indian Response to Pulwama Attack On Its 2nd Anniversary

Indian response to the attack marked a watershed in its approach to Pakistani terrorism. 

5 min read

India’s main security focus has rightly remained on Chinese moves from mid-2020 along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. A consequence of this development is the recession of the Pakistani threat in the people’s minds. This is reflected in media reports and discussions too.

The second ‘anniversary’ of the Pulwama terrorist attack on 14 February 2019 and the events that followed provide an occasion to recall the significance of the Indian response to that attack. It marked a watershed in India’s approach to Pakistani terrorism. It also sent a very significant strategic signal to the international community.


‘Balakot Air Strike’: India’s Response To Pulwama Attack

The Indian response to the Pulwama attack through the Balakot air strikes conclusively changed the dynamics of Indian responses to Pakistani terrorist attacks. The surgical strikes showed a resolve to take armed action in response to unacceptable attacks whose nature allowed Pakistan the escape route of denial. The Balakot attack did not give Pakistan such an option. It had to therefore respond and the aerial combat that occurred after the Balakot strike drew in the world’s powers to defuse the situation.

The international intervention that took place succeeded quickly because of intense pressure on Pakistan to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Revelations by Pakistani politicians also reveal that both the generals and the Imran Khan government were intensely alarmed at the prospect of war. They therefore simply caved in and sent the Indian officer back.

The clear takeaway from these developments is that India must now ensure that the international community is left in no doubt that India will forcefully but creatively use its armed might to respond to any unacceptable Pakistani terrorist attack. More than that, the international community must also be reminded of the doctrine of pre-emption that India had announced after the Balakot strike. That made it clear that if India has intelligence that showed that preparations were being made for an unacceptable attack, India would act to prevent it.

The object has to be for the international community to put the onus on Pakistan to give up its reliance on terror as part of its security doctrine. The major powers should not seek Indian understanding and restraint as was the case before the Balakot strike. Unfortunately, neither the government nor the Indian security community has paid enough attention to project its pre-emption doctrine.

One last point on these aspects. India has never accepted third party intervention in India-Pakistan issues. It is clear ever since the Simla Agreement of 1972 that all bilateral issues, including that of J&K, have to be resolved bilaterally.

Since 2016, the Modi government has also made it clear that a resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue can only take place when Pakistan abandons the use of terror against India. The international community knows India’s position and despite occasional offers such as were made by former US president Donald Trump has never tried to mediate.

International Interventions

Behind-the-scenes international interventions seen in the aftermath of the Pulwama terrorist attack and the Balakot strike do not erode India’s position of a refusal to accept mediation to resolve bilateral issues, including J&K. These interventions fall in a different category and that is crisis diffusion. This does not and should not cause India any diplomatic discomfort.

This is also a good opportunity to briefly consider Pakistani approaches towards India in the past two years.

Clearly, Imran Khan had hoped that Modi would seek to make positive moves in India-Pakistan relations after his 2019 election victory. However, the Pakistani establishment was completely shocked by the constitutional changes in J&K in August 2019.

Instead of taking the rational position that they did not detract from Pakistan’s traditional stand on the issue, it went overboard in launching an all-out campaign against India. It demanded that they be reversed. Besides, it condemned the administrative steps including the detentions and the curfews and the communications blockade taken in the wake of the constitutional changes.

Pakistan met with total disappointment on the issue of the constitutional changes. Barring China and a few Islamic countries, the international community, including major Muslim countries, virtually took the changes to be within India’s domestic sphere. There was, however, concern at the administrative steps and quietly the major powers did urge that the situation be normalised as soon as possible. While this need not have worried India, the fact is that international liberal opinion was deeply concerned at the detentions and the communications black out.

Indian Government Termed As ‘Authoritarian’, ‘Anti-Muslims’ by Pakistan

To play up these concerns of the global liberals, Pakistan decided to focus on the ideology of the ruling party and the Sangh Parivar. It projected them as ‘authoritarian’ and ‘anti-Muslim’. A high voltage campaign has continued over the past year and a half on this front. Wisely, the government has ignored it but its policy of showing a disdain for international liberal opinion needs to be re-examined especially after the coming in of the Biden administration in the US. In this context, the restoration of 4G networks in J&K is a step in the right direction.


Reducing ‘Diplomatic Ties’ With India Only Affected Pakistan

To show its anger on India’s J&K move, Pakistan downgraded diplomatic ties and also sought to curtail the limited trade that existed between the two countries. These have hardly been of any consequence to India. They only damage Pakistan.

Pakistan’s major effort in the past six months has been to show that India sponsors terror in Pakistan through its own disaffected domestic terrorist groups like the TTP.

In a widely publicised media conference in November 2020, Pakistan foreign minister and the army spokesman sought to project audio recordings and bank transactions as evidence of India’s state terrorism in Pakistan. This proved to be a damp squib and made no impact in changing the international narrative of Pakistani involvement in terrorism.

There is unlikely though to be great pressure on terrorism on Pakistan for its role in extricating the US from the Afghan mess is vital. What will be expected is that it ensures that it does not precipitate a crisis with India. And, the generals always seek to calibrate the use of terror to seek to keep India on the defensive but not provoke an armed Indian response.

This is not always possible as seen in the Pulwama attack and the events that followed; it must always be vigilant on Pakistani terrorism. Hence, India must maintain its current policy of insisting on Pakistan abandoning terror before any dialogue process can begin even if the Biden administration encourages the Modi government to start talking to Pakistan.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He tweets at @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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