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Ceasefire violations by Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) are standard news fare. What should not be standard is the suffering of the people of J&K, especially those living close to the border, where they are at the mercy of Pakistan’s routine and barbaric firing. Any search online for pictures of villages bearing the brunt of Pakistan’s mortar fire should convince you that there is no peace in those parts. Since the start of this month there have been at least 17 violations of ceasefire. Counted from the start of the year, the number is large.

For a change, India is responding adequately. There is no sabre-rattling and no belligerence, only a proper response both diplomatically and militarily. This has not stopped the cant of peace at all costs since the time India called of foreign secretary-level talks in September. India, it is claimed, has no other response except to sue for peace with Islamabad. Pakistan’s threat of a first nuclear strike makes all other options unviable.

These are well-known arguments and have been at play since the ill-conceived Operation Parakram in 2001-02. Responding to the attack on Parliament in December 2001, a huge number of troops were massed on the border only to be brought back some months later. Pakistan’s stance of first use of nuclear weapons deterred India from a conventional military response.

The received wisdom since then is that India is under Pakistan’s nuclear thumb and cannot do anything to deter it from launching terrorist strikes on Indian territory (the Mumbai attacks in 2008) and mounting limited conventional strikes (repeated violations of ceasefire). India’s muted response to the Mumbai atrocity and the tepid tactical responses to ceasefire violations are held as proof of this adverse situation.

The truth is considerably more complicated. It is true that India was deterred in 2001-02, when it was led by a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. In 2008, it was a Congress-led government that could not respond adequately. The conclusion being that irrespective of the political complexion of its governments, India has been deterred. Is that really so?

The objective function of the Congress-led coalition has been muddled. These governments (elected in 2004 and 2009) have had only one objective, peace at all costs. That led to mixed signals emanating from India: inadequate response to ceasefire violations and letting time elapse to weaken public memory about the 2008 attacks and then proceed to talks. Nothing was obtained. Peace, a thoroughly complicated idea in view of Pakistan’s claims over Indian territory, remained elusive. Instead, Pakistan was emboldened to do as it pleased. Lack of clear objectives cannot, and should not, be confused with a deterrence failure. It should certainly not be confused with the fog of peace.

What about deterrence itself? Pakistan is fairly clear about when it will launch a nuclear strike against India. Its thresholds are well-known. These are: space threshold—if India attacks and conquers a large part of its territory; military threshold—if India destroys a significant amount of its military capabilities; economic strangling, and creating political instability in its territory. From its perspective, Pakistan would like India to believe that these thresholds are extremely low to the point that any conventional military operation will lead to a nuclear strike.

There are limits to this kind of reasoning. One can, in theory, extrapolate it down to the level where even artillery fire across the border will escalate to the nuclear level. By that standard India is already indefensible. This is the standard peacenik argument that South Asia is one of the most dangerous parts of the world where nuclear armed adversaries are on a nuclear hair-trigger. It does not correspond to reality.

India can, and should, respond vigorously to ceasefire violations. If small arms fire takes place, then respond with small arms; mortar for mortar and artillery fire for artillery fire. These are matters best left to theatre commanders. Higher military and political leadership should not bother except giving a clear signal to respond resolutely. The time for worrying will arise when there is escalation across theatres.

India’s strategic challenge is to try and wriggle itself out of Pakistan’s nuclear grip. This is a multi-dimensional challenge and not a mere military matter. Incoherence in objectives is not the right expression for what is happening. As a country our effort for 65 years has been to manage Pakistan and not address the larger question of what to do with it? For the time being an old adage is the best response: do not disturb your adversary when it is busy destroying itself. If Pakistan is tottering economically, then don’t help it. Any talk of building a peace constituency by greater trade links should be evaluated carefully against the objective of weakening Pakistan in the long-run. If religious radicalization is eating the vitals of that country, that is its problem.

Early signs show the Narendra Modi government understands this well. Its signals to Pakistan have been clear and unambiguous, so far. Peace when asked for; mortar and shells when demanded.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight. Comments are welcome at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist

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