New Delhi: India seems to be keeping Pakistan guessing on how it will respond to Sunday’s Uri attack, by retaining all options, including choking the flow of the Indus river waters into Pakistan.
This seems to be a shift from the past when confronted by terrorist attacks by Pakistan, New Delhi’s strategy would be to call off engagement with Pakistan only to resume it some time later.
Keeping all options open this time implicitly signals that India means that it cannot be business as usual.
Sunday’s attack in Uri came against the backdrop of the Narendra Modi government conveying to Pakistan and the people of India that terrorism and engagement with Islamabad cannot go hand in hand.
The attack on the Indian army garrison—launched by four terrorists belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group—killed 17 soldiers with another succumbing to his injuries on Monday.
It has resulted in the complete unravelling of Modi’s Pakistan policy, which started with the prime minister inviting Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif for his swearing in, meeting the Pakistani leader at various international fora including a South Asian leaders’ summit in Kathmandu in November 2014, a meeting in Ufa in Russia in July 2015 on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to an impromptu pull-aside at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris at the end of November last year.
The last engagement resulted in the national security advisors of the two countries meeting in Bangkok in December, which was followed by Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan just days later and the announcement of the resumption of bilateral talks. These developments also paved the way for a surprise visit to Pakistan by Modi himself on 25 December to wish Sharif on his birthday. This was the first visit to Pakistan by an Indian PM in more than a decade—the last Indian PM to visit Pakistan was Atal Behari Vajpayee in January 2004.
This sequence of thawing of relations was stopped in its tracks by the 2 January attack on the Pathankot airbase. Pakistan’s seeming inaction in bringing to justice the perpetrators of the raid which was followed by the Uri attack has been piling pressure on the Modi government to act tough on Pakistan.
“The prime minister, seen as a strong nationalist leader, surprised everyone by reaching out to Pakistan the way he did after assuming office, including his visit to Pakistan that was seen as unexpected,” said a person familiar with the developments, who did not want to be named. “Given this, the repeated terrorist attacks are weighing down his Pakistan policy and there is certainly pressure for an overhaul,” the person cited above said, declining to elaborate.
Since the Uri attack, India has signalled that it is keeping all its options open—from military action to others like diplomatically isolating Pakistan and not adhering to the 1960 Indus Water Treaty.
This is a far cry from India’s strategy in the past decade. Post the 2008 Mumbai attack, peace talks were suspended for three years. In 2013, talks were again called off after Pakistani troops ambushed Indian troops in two separate instances.
“There was pressure on the Manmohan Singh government to act. But with war being ruled out as an option, calling off the engagement was seen as a message to the people of India as well as Pakistan that it could not be business as usual. The government in the past too has tried to focus international attention on Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism. But countries especially Western governments see this as an India-Pakistan problem unrelated to them except in the case of Al Qaeda involvement or perhaps the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Inevitably, there would be nudging from countries like the US to engage and India would go back,” said a second person, familiar with developments, on the condition of anonymity.
The one time in recent years when the world’s attention was focussed on India-Pakistan problems was in 2001 when India mobilised troops on its border with Pakistan, following the 13 December attack on Indian Parliament, the second person cited above recalled.
“That showed the world that India was serious about terrorism emanating from Pakistan,” the person said, noting that the decision was taken by then PM Vajpayee who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party as does Modi.
The second person pointed out that a series of provocations last year, including an attack on an Indian police station in Gurdaspur in Punjab, had the Modi government keep its plans for a dialogue with Pakistan on track. “It was Pakistan’s insistence that its national security advisor (Sartaj Aziz) would meet Kashmiri separatists that resulted in talks being called off,” the person recalled.
“The pressure on Modi is I think more this time because of this (Vajpayee) example before him as well as his statements about being tough on terrorism. There is also a strong sense that the Indian public is tired of repeated attacks from Pakistan. All these would I think amount to why there is no foreclosure of any option,” the second person cited above said.