Off-centre | Poonch terrorist strike: Wake-up call before G20 Kashmir meetings
In my last column I argued that the demand of the times was to evolve an integrated grand strategy to secure India’s interests over the next twenty-five years. Such a vision and action plan for India: 2047 would necessarily be a bold departure from the past, when we shied away from a geostrategic role whose ambit was greater than the Indian subcontinent.
It is not that India has not had a history of post-Independence strategic thinking. In fact, one of our primary goals has been to safeguard our borders and maintain peace within our vast and diverse country. This, indeed, has occupied much of our energies. Arguably, even in the best of times, we cannot take for granted that we have secured these twin objectives.
How can we forget or ignore that we have two hostile neighbours, with whom we share a boundary that exceeds 6,500 km, perhaps the longest antagonistic border anywhere in the world? I am not even seriously considering the huge coastline of over 7,500 km. But, speaking of the latter, can we afford to forget that the 26/11 terrorists came to India via the sea route, traversing the Arabian sea, to land in Mumbai to kill close to 170 people? In addition to 14,000 kms to monitor, we have significant internal threats, whether from Communist or Islamist insurgency movements, which are against the very idea of India. All these taken together pose a formidable challenge to the fundamental priorities of our grand strategy, namely relatively secure borders and peace within the country.
It is in this light that we must examine the deadly and dastardly rocket ambush on our armoured truck in Poonch, which incinerated five of our brave jawans from the Rashtriya Rifles. Yes, this was most likely a rocket-propelled grenade attack, accompanied by firing by assault rifles. The latter was obvious. How do we know this? Because the charred vehicle, which was still burning when passersby approached it, was pock marked with bullet fire from automatic weapons. But few reported that the army truck was likely to have been attacked by a shoulder mounted rocket launcher, a deadly weapon against armoured vehicles. It was sadly ironic that the attack was on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr; the army truck, and the jawans, were carrying fruits to be distributed on the festive occasion.
After the attack unfolded on April 20, some news channels reported that there had been intelligence reports at least three days earlier warning of such attacks. Especially because some of the G20 meetings were scheduled to be held in Srinagar. Cross-border terrorists and their handlers in the Pakistani army and intelligence would want to send a message to the world that Kashmir, a disputed territory, was unsafe for any international event.
Given how obvious such a game plan was, why were we unable to prevent the strike? No matter how effective the post-op counter will be, the sheer amount of time, energy, money, and manpower expended in neutralising the culprits is likely to be far greater than whatever preventive measures we might have undertaken. Had we used actionable intelligence effectively, that is.
In the history of our never-ending war with Pakistan this, unfortunately, has been the pattern. They are the ones who usually make the first, usually bold and unexpected, strike. We are forced to react, often against difficult if not overwhelming odds. That we have usually succeeded in worsting our arch enemy despite the initial setback is nearly miraculous. It shows that a determined and united Indian state can be a formidable adversary.
This has been illustrated again and again, from our retaliatory capacities from the initial Pakistani invasion of Kashmir in 1948 right up to our regaining the Kargil heights in 1999. In the process, one of India’s greatest strategic triumphs was the dismemberment of Pakistan in the 1972 war in which we played a critical role in the creation of Bangladesh. The Pakistan establishment has neither forgotten nor forgiven us. Given a chance, they will pay us back in the same coin, whether in Kashmir or Punjab. Their nefarious intentions have been demonstrated again and again; no need to wait for further demonstrations.
It is, of course, another matter that when it comes to extracting a price for Pakistan’s misdeeds and mistakes, India has been possibly the most generous and charitable of adversaries. Some would say foolish to the point of being self-destructive. Starting with Mahatma Gandhi’s fast to return Pakistan’s share of the undivided treasury amounting to a substantial Rs 55 crore in 1947. Following that pattern, we seem to have squandered most, if not all, of our hard-won advantages against Pakistan.
For instance, we should have captured Lahore in the 1965 war. We were a mere 25 km away from the greatest of Pakistani cities, less than an hour away by surface transport. We had actually captured over 500 sq km of territory leading to the outskirts of the city when we unilaterally halted our advance at the BRB canal. Imagine the impact of Indian tanks rolling into the capital of West Punjab! It would have put an end to the idea of Pakistan.
Or, jumping to the aftermath of the liberation of Bangladesh, why didn’t we use the 90,000 prisoners of war against the aggressor? Not only did we hand them over peacefully, but fed them better than our own men! With the Shimla accord of 1972, India squandered most of its strategic gains, with Mrs Indira Gandhi showing unusual and conciliatory generosity to her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. All in the interests of lasting peace.
The same mistake was repeated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after Kargil in his doomed Agra peace summit with General Parvez Musharraf. Even his BJP successor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ten years later, tried personal friendship and proactive peace diplomacy in his unexpected stopover meeting with Nawaz Sharif in 2015. What India failed to understand is that conflict with India is the very raison d’être for Pakistan’s existence, the one thing that kept its army in charge of the state. No matter how friendly the incumbent government, Pakistan’s track two assault on India will continue. Once again, we will notice that Pakistan foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto, will come to India to attend a G20 meeting in Goa, just after his army-backed so-called extra-state rogue elements have killed our soldiers in Poonch.
Clearly, for India’s grand strategy to succeed it must be proactive, not reactive — whether against Pakistan or even China. Our enemies must realise that we can hit them hard where it hurts, not merely react or rectify the situation after we have struck. In this regard, consider the colossal failures of the Indian state in the past, from the Chinese invasion of 1962 to its incursions in Arunachal Pradesh as recently as December 9, 2022. Pakistan has already bled us by a thousand cuts, some of which I have underscored above.
Now the time has come to show that we can retaliate. Uri and Balakot were examples — the messaging has to be clear, regardless of the actual amount of damage we can exact on our enemies. In this case five of our men have been ambushed and murdered, while one is alive, but injured. That too in our own territory. For India’s grand strategy to work, it is obvious that we must have a counter-offence in place.
Are we in a position to carry out a retaliatory attack in which we can take out ten of their soldiers in Pakistan-occupied Poonch? That too with weapons deadlier than a handheld rocket launcher and assault rifles? Hasn’t the time come to do whatever it takes, even create our own proxy warriors, that operate on the other side of the border? We must inflict deadly damage upon our enemies so that they think ten times before daring to injure us again. Perhaps, such an action plan is already in place. If so, isn’t it time for the nation to know?
The writer is an author, columnist, and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal.
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