Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | We need to dramatically raise the cost for Pak’s terror strategy

Every time Pakistan retaliates, the cost will go up. We can absorb it, our neighbour cannot.

I am writing this on a cool breezy Thursday evening, sitting in a hotel balcony in Rishikesh overlooking the swift-flowing Ganga. She has hit the plains some miles up north and is in the process of slowing down, when she will widen and become bountiful, and 900km to the southeast, will meet the Yamuna and the shadowy Saraswati, where the largest congregation of humans in the planet’s history is taking place.

It is a strange place to be in at a time when the country is on the edge. The atmosphere in Rishikesh is peaceful and sublime, filled with cotton-clad people from across the world seeking nirvana, most of whom, I suspect, are world-peace dreamers.

I consider myself a non-practising Hindu—I have not been inside a temple in three decades, yet the first sight of the Ganga on the left of the highway as one approaches Haridwar from Delhi (Rishikesh is 20km beyond Haridwar) always thrills me. It is not a religious feeling; it is a sudden sense of being even an amoebically insignificant product of a great civilization that grew around this river. It is a sense of awe at these waters.

This has been an unusual trip because throughout the eight-hour journey from Delhi to Rishikesh a day earlier and till going off to sleep, I was glued to my cell phone, keeping abreast of all that was happening on the Indo-Pak situation. Alas, there is no TV at the hotel.

The Pakistani F-16s entered Indian airspace almost exactly at the time we were leaving home. While we were crossing Ghaziabad, Pakistan announced that it had downed two Indian fighter jets and had two Indian pilots in custody. The Indian government denied that any plane or pilot was missing. I did not believe this—Pakistan would never make such a claim unless it was in a position to release a video of a pilot.

When we stopped for lunch near Meerut, I received the video released by Pakistan of a blindfolded man being interrogated.

Passing Muzaffarnagar, I got a video of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman being beaten up by the Pakistani public and photographs of his bloodied face from a WhatsApp group. I did not open the video, but sent a message to my other WhatsApp groups that if they received these messages they should not circulate them.

By the time I reached Rishikesh, the abode of tranquility, several of Pakistan’s lies had been exposed (they had shot down one Indian plane, not two, and so on), Pakistan had released a video of Varthaman, calm and collected (the release of the video was a violation of the Geneva Conventions), and every Slob (Secular Liberal Outrage Brigade) member had come out of the woodwork—#SayNoToWar and #BringBackAbhinandan were trending on Twitter.

First, India did not commit any act of war. It did not hit military or civilian targets. It hit terrorist camps. Pakistan targeted Indian military installations. That is an act of war. Second, India has never said it wants war with Pakistan. It wants Pakistan to stop fostering anti-India terrorism. Mere dialogue will not work. It has not worked for decades. As Supreme Court lawyer Kanu Agrawal (@KanuAgrawal2) tweeted: “The textbook definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again, and expecting different results. If our foreign policy or defence policy has not yielded results, it is textbook insanity to expect anything else without changing what the Indian state has done till now."

We have been on the #SayNoToWar path for decades. We have repeatedly suffered terrorist attacks in which hundreds of innocent civilians have died, and responded by calling them “dastardly acts", and sending dossiers of evidence to Pakistan, which treated them with amused contempt. Meanwhile, 4,500 of our soldiers have given their lives during this “peace time".

Now suddenly, India was supposed to give up its national security interests for the life of one soldier, who Pakistan was bound to release anyway within seven days under the Geneva Conventions. This was a man who had flown a MiG-21, bought in 1963, referred to as a “flying coffin", and chased and brought down an F-16. He would never have wanted India to step back if Pakistan tried to use him as a hostage, which, anyway, it could not afford to do.

In the last few days, the message we have sent Pakistan is that we are no longer a soft state. Yes, ending terrorism will be a long haul, but now our enemy knows that it could be facing a disproportionately scaled-up response. We need to dramatically increase the cost for Pakistan’s terror strategy. This includes economic and diplomatic strangling, but also military costs. Every time Pakistan retaliates, the cost will go up. We can absorb it, Pakistan can’t. We must keep upping the military and economic cost. We may lose some brave soldiers, but we are far stronger. There will always be Indians who will oppose this. So be it. And the nuclear threshold is very, very far away.

It’s late at night now. Under my balcony, the Ganga, sparkling with the town’s lights, flows on. She has just come rushing down the mountains. She is catching her breath. She has a long way to go.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines.

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