Rana Divyank Chaudhary is Junior Research Fellow at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. He has a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding from Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. His main interests are international relations and strategic studies.
Usually, a note such as this is written at a moment when the wounds of a recent tragedy are still fresh and the moment for drawing lessons is considered at its ripest. Unfortunately, in India's case, tragedy is the new normal now where learning has become routine to the point of not even realizing that we are failing to learn anything at all. The terrorist strike on the Indian Air Force station at Pathankot is clearly not an anomaly. Instead, our doctrinal thinking, strategic preparation, counter-response, and the ultimate, societal reaction, are what as a whole constitutes the ineffectiveness and increasing impotence of India's so-called “zero-tolerance” towards terrorism.
The Pathankot ‘experience’ has revealed that the Indian state has not carried out a sustained discourse on India’s response to terrorism since the beginning of the Punjab and Kashmir militancy and all through the hijacking of Air India flight IC-814, numerous attacks on military installations and civilian public spaces, and even after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. India's experience of terrorism has been so extensive that a single discussion can never suffice nor summarize everything that needs to be done to eliminate this threat.
The Indian state continues to fight separatist militancies with old roots in ethno-nationalist movements. The Indian armed forces and intelligence agencies are perpetually engaged in high-visibility/low-intensity asymmetric warfare against enemy groups funded and equipped by its irredentist neighbours. Indian society witnesses internal radicalization brought about by global extremist phenomena. This has gone on for so long and with such regularity that accusing just Pakistan or China for troubles on the eastern or western borders amounts to never-fading ignorance of the existing international order and its leading countries' role, especially with arms and money, in allowing these threats to grow, fester, and spread.
Assuredly, taking a global perspective would lead any analyst to conclude that terror is just warfare by other means, and so, in effect, politics by other means. No state, big or small, sophisticated or ill-equipped, wily or green behind the ears, can be immune to a handful of motivated and suicidal men and women. The basic task for any state is only to convince its populace that a violation of the state's sovereignty, or in fact, its monopoly over law, order, and punishment, may be temporarily unavoidable but not permanently permissible, and certainly not without visible and violent repercussions in the case of foreign individuals and groups.
The Indian state has been successful in visibly countering internal threats posed by armed uprisings by militant citizens. But where it has singularly exposed its weakness is in protecting its monopoly from external threats (short of conventional total war). This should be the prime benchmark for evaluating any Indian government’s strategy and response to terrorist strikes. Presumably, this was the benchmark used by the Indian voters who elected Mr. Narendra Modi to be a ‘strong’ prime minister and vociferously endorsed the appointment of ex-spy Mr Ajit Doval as the National Security Adviser.
The present NDA government came to power on the premise that its predecessor was soft on terrorism and its state-sponsors, the Pakistani defence establishment. Yet it has shown the same diplomatic sense by continuing to support peace talks with the Pakistan government just as the UPA government did. It has made clear that India would now make a distinction between the Pakistani government and the anti-India violent elements inside Pakistan.
First, the United States adopted a similar stance during its ‘Global War on Terror’ in Afghanistan and has faced intolerable frustration. Second, can India also make a distinction between its diplomatic response and counter-terror response vis-à-vis Pakistan? Do the political leadership share the armed forces’ privately held belief that the fear of escalating the conflict and triggering a nuclear exchange is a false one and it should not keep India from either unilaterally striking individuals and groups inside Pakistan or forcing Pakistan to act against them?
The way the hijacking of the Air India flight went down in Kandahar is most relevant because a many terror attacks afterwards were traced to Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jaish-e-Mohammad (LeT/JeM) and Maulana Masood Azhar, who was released from Indian custody to secure the release of the Indian hostages. One should keep in mind the overwhelming public outcry demanding government action at that time which was cited as the main reason for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee administration’s decision to release its top enemies. One should also remember that these individuals went on to cause the deaths of many more Indian and foreign nationals ever since.
A debate took place some years ago regarding empowering the Indian Air Force to shoot down a non-compliant civilian aircraft which appeared to be hijacked or maneuvering in a threatening manner against sensitive Indian assets. Two things have happened in the years that followed. The larger significance of this debate was diluted, the discussions shelved and the very nature of terrorist incidents the world over changed. With great consistency, terrorists no longer want to negotiate their demands in return for releasing civilian hostages. This has been borne out by countless bombings in western capitals, 26/11, Charlie Hebdo attacks, 13/11 Paris attacks, and the brutal killings of hostages by the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. This renders the idea of ‘zero tolerance’ in India’s counter-terror response impotent. Unless Indians are prepared to revive the doctrine and postulate their future response options before confronting either a suicide attack or a hostage situation.
In the aftermath of Pathankot, and before a repeat of either a Pathankot or a Mumbai, this government had better make its stance clear on distinguishing between diplomacy and counter-terrorism. The so-called ‘Doval Doctrine’, with its bragging rights on hot-pursuit operations ever since ‘Myanmar’, was seen as a threat to sensible diplomacy and foreign-policy making not too long ago. The NSA himself had publicly spoken about shifting to an ‘offensive-defense’ strategic posture where India would be able to strike the enemy from its position and response of choice. It can be a sound strategy if it can be effectively practiced in isolation from India’s diplomatic engagement and if the state informs the public of its decision to never exercise restraint at the cost of civilian lives and peacetime military casualties.
The state must go beyond expressing it merely for purposes of public pacification: it should exercise force to regain legitimacy in protecting its sovereignty against external threats. To be sure, gaps in the intelligence apparatus or slow modernization of armed forces cannot be allowed to put the state’s security on standby. Would the state have the choice of deferring a war if it were imposed on it tomorrow in order to first acquire self-reliance in defence or complete foreign equipment acquisitions? Why not apply the same logic to fighting the constant threat of terrorism and striking its roots?