India has dealt with the Pulwama attack with unusual robustness. Despite the proximity of national elections, the government has taken the risk of military action against Pakistan. Public anger has been running high and Prime Minister Modi has been vowing strong action. In such situations, things need not always go according to plan and the political price of a misstep can be very high in electoral terms. It is to the credit of the Prime Minister that he has placed national interest above all.

We have so far not found an adequate response to Pakistan’s use of the terror arm against us. The foremost concern has been that of being able to control the escalatory ladder should we take military action and Pakistan retaliates. Pakistan’s nuclear capability has been a strong deterrent. Pakistan’s bluff was too difficult to be called. On top of that, international opinion has always drawn attention to the dangers of a nuclear conflict in South Asia over Kashmir. In this background, military action by India has always made the international community nervous.

The Modi government has set to rest all such fears and constraints with our air strikes against terrorist targets in PoJK and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP). This was done in a smaller way in 2016 with limited surgical strikes across the LoC in J&K. The international reaction was positive from India’s point of view, in the sense that our action did not meet with disapproval or criticism by external powers. Pakistan itself helped in this regard by claiming that no surgical strikes took place.

Air strikes are very different from limited cross-LOC operations or fire-exchanges that have become commonplace in J&K. We have not used air power against Pakistan since 1971, except in the Kargil war when our air force was under strict instructions not to cross the LoC, framing our response as purely defensive to reclaim our own posts.

As in the case of the surgical strikes, we have characterised the air strikes as directed not at the Pakistan military or any economic asset of Pakistan but specifically at terror outfits and camps in PoJK and KP. We appear to have had information that the JeM was seriously planning car bomb attacks across Indian cities outside J&K. We have apparently shared this information with Pakistan, without its authorities taking any action. Which is why we are stating that our air strikes have been pre-emptive in nature. We have actively briefed foreign governments on our action.

We had prepared the ground for our action at the diplomatic level. We have kept the Americans in the loop, which explains the statement by the US National Security Adviser that India had the right to exercise its right to self-defence. The statement issued by the UN Security Council at the initiative of France that strongly condemns the Pulwama attack and holds JeM responsible for this prepared the diplomatic ground for India’s action. China was forced to go along as its continued petulance would have isolated it and it would entailed bilateral costs with India at a time when China, cornered by America, is seeking to engage India more. We also obtained strong statements of support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia on Pulwama. We intend now to raise the issue of cross-border terrorism at the Russia-India-China meeting this week and have our concerns reflected in the communique.

Pakistan’s response so far is confusing. On the one hand it is claiming that no real strikes took place and on the other, it is claiming that it reserves the right to react. It is possible Pakistan may absorb these strikes as their response options are limited. India has no terror camps on its soil. Pakistan can only attack Indian military targets which will escalate matters. Countries like the US will strongly counsel Pakistan not to escalate. In its precarious financial situation, its ability to press its case for “self-defence" would be limited. After the UNSC statement, the scope for China to raise the matter of air strikes in the Security Council does not quite exist.

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary.

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