India must decide whether the Pakistan-backed terrorist assault on the army base in Uri — that killed 18 soldiers and is the biggest attack on Indian army since the 2002 Kaluchak massacre — merits a tough tangible response, or is rhetorical flourish and a pregnant promise enough deterrence against a rogue nation that has fought four full-scale wars against us since its inception and continues to beat us with the terrorism stick as part of an asymmetric, never-ending battle.
The answer to this question is important because between a government trapped within its hardline image and realpolitik compulsions, an angry republic which demands some sort of a denouement vis-à-vis Pakistan, and a liberal commentariat that considers bleeding to death by a thousand terrorist cuts some sort of an attainable moral nirvana, India comes across as a weak nation that cannot act in its self-defence.
The boundaries between "strategic restraint", "paralytic inaction" and "cowardice" are not that pronounced when it comes to a country's national interests faced with repeated and extreme provocation. Historically, India's every action in the geopolitical sphere and international relations has been guided not by strategic interests but the Nehruvian axiom of "non-alignment" and the higher Gandhian ideal of non-violence.
But in this hour of crisis, the Narendra Modi government would do well to remember that even the Mahatma did not offer unqualified adherence to non-violence. He perhaps understood better that statecraft cannot be guided by idealism.
In Gandhi's own words: "I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence... I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor." And elsewhere: "My method of nonviolence can never lead toloss of strength, but it alone will make it possible, if the nation wills it, to offer disciplined and concerted violence in time of danger."
Let's come back to the original question posed at the beginning of the article. Is the government serious about a tough, tangible response? Going by the Prime Minister's own words, those responsible for the Uri assault "won't go unpunished."
We strongly condemn the cowardly terror attack in Uri. I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished.
What, then, would be the terms of "punishing Pakistan", whose hand in the incident has been proven in investigations?
Six days into the audacious attack, it seems pretty clear that Narendra Modi won't go for an armed retaliation because the cost of doing it against a nuclear-armed rogue state might be too high, or so what we have been led to believe.
That India has nothing to fear from Pakistan's nuclear bluff has been pointed out by many geostrategic thinkers including Professor C Christine Fair of Georgetown University, who told India Today recently that "if Indian troops transgress into a populated city like Sialkot or Lahore, Pakistan will suffer more fatalities than on Indian troops. Therefore, this battlefield calculation gives India a lot of wriggle room to retaliate than to exercise restraint."
Firstpost has also argued in the past in favour of a surgical strike in defiance of Pakistan's nuclear pretense because giving in to this blackmail opens us up indefinitely to further attacks.
However, in defiance of his own pre-prime ministerial hardline position against Pakistan, and belying the overwhelming domestic expectations of a military strike, Modi has decided not to use the military offensive. At least for now.
India has been betting exclusively on a diplomatic offensive to counter Pakistan. However, while that may ensure some brownie points for India on global forums like the UN and maybe even a wink and a nod on Kashmir, nothing that our diplomatic corps can achieve will bleed Pakistan and force it to mend its ways. Also, only a fool will bet on US and China acting against Pakistan.
As R Jagannathan pointed out in his article for Swarajya recently, "Diplomatic isolation is not going to make any difference to Pakistan’s terror infrastructure targeted against us. In Pakistan’s case, neither the US nor China is ever going to abandon it or declare it a terrorist state."
What else, therefore, can India do? Will it cancel Most Favoured Nation status with Pakistan? Some media reports have pointed out that the government is considering that option but this may mean absolutely nothing since our trade volume with Pakistan isn't something to write home about.
We may keep sending dossiers to Pakistan, submit demarches, withdraw our envoy or send their diplomat home but if these are Modi's idea of a "tough response" to Pakistan-backed terrorists' roasting alive of 18 Indian soldiers, it sends a worrying message that we don't value the lives of our armed forces or the sentiments of our people. Also, it would be political suicide for him.
The Prime Minister must remember that any "tough action" against Pakistan even within the realms of economic or diplomatic spheres may result in some sort of an adverse impact for India. There can be no action without consequences. No effective steps without inherent risks. Modi's chair anyway is not meant for providing insurance policies to forces who want to harm us.
Therefore, if war is ruled out, controlled strikes are not viable, surgical strikes or hot pursuit are too risky then which set of actions would send across a message to Pakistan that "enough is enough"?
A new, promising front was opened on Thursday when India indicated that a 56-year-old water treaty with Pakistan that has survived multiple wars might be up for a review. The water-sharing agreement are one of the very few tools that India as an upper-riparian state has at its disposal that may cause serious pain to Pakistan without the firing of a single missile.
According to a PTI report, India has made it clear that "mutual trust and cooperation" was important for such a treaty to work.
"For any such treaty to work, it's important that there must be mutual cooperation and trust between both the sides. It cannot be a one-sided affair," MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup told reporters on Thursday. According to the report, he also noted that the preamble of the Treaty itself said it was based on “goodwill”.
Now while Swarup dropped nothing more than a hint, the very mention of it has sparked an interesting set of reactions. It has set alarm bells ringing at the UN (belying its pro-India pose on terrorism) and unleashed a volley of excuses from the usual suspects in India for whom a prospective pain for Pakistan is more unacceptable than watching India suffer under the yoke of terrorism instigated by the banana republic.
Two sets of arguments have been put forward by these apologoists on why India should not dishonor the treaty. One ethical, and the other technical. On the ethical front, it is being stated that India should maintain its bilateral commitment with Pakistan because that is what responsible nations do. It begs the question that what is more important? Upholding the sanctity of a treaty with a nation that repeatedly sends terrorists to kill our soldiers and civilians and encourages insurgency among our borders, or ensuring that they fall in line using the tools at our disposal.
Also, as strategic thinker and CPR professor Brahma Chellaney asks in an article for Livemint, "Pakistan has consistently backed away from bilateral agreements with India—from the Simla Agreement, to the commitment not to allow its territory to be used for cross-border terrorism. So why should India honour the IWT?"
According to Chellaney, the treaty ranks among "world’s most lopsided and inequitable water pact". He points out that "the main Jammu and Kashmir rivers — the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus—and their tributaries have been reserved for Pakistani use, with India’s sovereignty limited to the three rivers of the Indus basin flowing south of Jammu and Kashmir: the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej. In effect, the IWT kept for India just 19.48% of the total waters of the six-river Indus system."
Yashwant Sinha, former finance minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet, wrote in a recent Indian Express column that: "Treaty terms are observed between friends, not enemies. Pakistan is an enemy state of India. It has said so repeatedly. The attacks on our military bases in Pathankot and Uri were not mere terrorist attacks; they were acts of war against the Indian state, sponsored by Pakistan. India will, therefore, be fully justified in abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan."
At the very least, India can explore multiple options related to the treaty stopping short of abrogation. It may renegotiate the terms of the agreement or take a leaf from China's book to build a few projects. A report carried last year in The Indian Express points out how China built a controversial Zangmu Hydropower station on the Yarlung Zangbo River — the Tibetan name for the Brahmaputra — and managed to commission a gravity dam on the bend of the river in the Tibet Autonomous Region, just before it enters India via Arunachal Pradesh.
Water has long been a part of strategic warfare between countries. If India can use it to its advantage, not only would it send a message across to Pakistan, it would also right a historical wrong that the treaty imposed on us.