The danger of an escalation of conflict with Pakistan can never be fully ruled out
by Sushant Singh
In August 1962, barely a couple of months before China humiliated India in a border war, Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan Rajeshwar Dayal was in New Delhi. He was summoned for an urgent meeting in then defence minister V K Krishna Menon’s office, where the three service chiefs and the foreign secretary were also present. Menon opened the meeting, saying that he “was glad the High Commissioner was present to give a first-hand account of the vast preparations being made to launch a professedly non-violent massive infiltration of so-called volunteers across the ceasefire line in Kashmir”.
Bemused like other participants, Dayal protested that he was not aware of any such plan. But Menon insisted on the “vague second-hand rumour”, in Dayal’s words, and directed that “all leave be cancelled and the armed forces put on alert”. Y K Gundevia, the Commonwealth Secretary in the external affairs ministry who was present in the meeting, was not “able to fathom why this nonsense about Pakistan troop movements in Murree was fabricated in that crucial week”.
It was not only in that crucial week but throughout the year that Indian attention remained focused on possible Pakistani actions than the Chinese ones. In August 1959 itself, Army Chief General K S Thimayya had complained to Jawaharlal Nehru about Menon’s “war psychosis against Pakistan” as compared to his apathy towards Chinese moves.
Nearly six decades on, India is in the danger of repeating those mistakes, as it focuses too much on Pakistan while the real challenge could come from its bigger Himalayan neighbour, China. This is not to say that the situation with Pakistan is peaceful. The ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC) is marked only by its absence, with January having seen more ceasefire violations than ever. With J&K having experienced low snowfall this winter, infiltration by militants from the Pakistani side is expected to start early this year. More local youth are taking to the gun in Kashmir, while security forces’ camps in the state continue to be targeted by militants from Pakistan.
The danger of an escalation of conflict with Pakistan can never be fully ruled out. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of our nightly news television warriors, the probability of things getting out of hand on the Pakistan border remain rather low. In fact, barring a dozen years of ceasefire on the LoC after 2003, India has long been accustomed to a state of “no war, no peace” with Pakistan, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. The surgical strikes of 2016 and the recent proactive stance on the LoC — more than two-thirds of the ceasefire violations are now initiated by the Indian Army — actually demonstrate the limits of Indian options. In a scenario devoid of strategic options, these are but tactical byplays which lead to the loss of lives of soldiers and innocent civilians on both sides.
Despite the inherent strategic stability under a nuclear shadow of a paradoxically tactically unstable state of “no war, no peace”, the lens of public attention is obsessively focused on Pakistani action and the Indian response to them. More than any great strategic thought, this is due to an intricate linkage of Pakistan with domestic Indian politics in recent years.
From union ministers asking people criticising them to “go to Pakistan” to cow vigilantes calling their victims Pakistanis, the tag of “enemy” country is permissively being used to tarnish not just Indian Muslims, but also those opposed to Hindutva ideology. Keeping the attention focused on Pakistan thus becomes imperative for a certain kind of political ideology to succeed: Any action on the LoC or in Kashmir is a god-sent opportunity for these ideologues to further their political goals.
There is, however, a grave danger in Pakistan garnering a disproportionately high share of attention in our strategic mind space, including from the government and the military. It shifts the focus away from the strategic challenge posed by China, whether on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or in the Indian Ocean region.
The number of transgressions across the LAC by Chinese military patrols and face-offs between soldiers of the two armies were the highest last year. The two armies were in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation for 73 days in the Doklam area on the Sikkim border last summer. After the disengagement, the Chinese continue to remain deployed in the area, with recent reports indicating yet another upsurge in their activity.
Poor state of infrastructure on the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh leaves India highly vulnerable to Chinese military action in a state it claims as South Tibet. Beyond the contentious land borders, Chinese submarines and vessels have been spotted in the waters of the Indian Ocean, forcing the Indian Navy to stretch itself by the continued deployment of its ships and submarines.
As our political and military leaders remind us, 2018 is not 1962, and India won’t be a pushover against any Chinese military action. In the past few months, the challenge of a two-front war — fighting China and Pakistan simultaneously — has also been spoken of by our senior military commanders. One of Z A Bhutto’s biggest complaints against the then Pakistani military dictator Ayub Khan was that he didn’t use the opportunity provided by the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, for “if Pakistan had attacked India at that time, we could have gone up to Delhi”.
That is a scenario New Delhi has to watch out for: Pakistan by itself is not a potent strategic threat but when combined with China, it is likely to pose a major military challenge for India. New Delhi will benefit in the long-run by paying due attention to China, and moving away from its current unhealthy obsession with Pakistan. Focusing singularly on Pakistan may be electorally profitable for a few, but India can’t afford to sacrifice its strategic interests at the altar of its domestic politics.