Pathankot Attacks: Why India Should Not 'Turn the Other Cheek'

Nikhil Sachdev

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Pathankot, Punjab, the turbulent relationship between India and Pakistan has once again been in the spotlight. In the decades since the independence and partition of the two nations in 1947, concerns about terrorism have loomed over the fragile reconciliation process.

On 2nd January 2016, a heavily armed group wearing Indian Army uniforms attacked the Pathankot Air base, a key location for the Indian Air force situated close to the border with Pakistan. The attackers are thought to belong to Jaish-E Mohammed, an extremist group who have been categorised a terrorist organisation by various states including India, the USA. Six attackers, one civilian and seven air force base personnel were killed in the siege, which continued til the 5th of January, and included the use of an improvised explosive device.

Whilst the death toll in Pathankot was relatively low compared to the terrorist incident in Mumbai on 26th November 2008, in which over 180 people were killed, the timing and nature of this attack has raised a number of major issues. The Pathankot attack occurred in the lead up to diplomatic talks between India and Pakistan to be held on January 15th in Islamabad, and led to their postponing.

The question of Pakistan’s complacency and lack of commitment to preventing home grown terror-cells has been raised by Indian and international authorities, and there has been growing pressure within India for the government to halt all diplomatic engagement with Pakistan until they take sufficient action on the issue. In a statement on the attacks, and the suggested role of Jaish E Mohammed, Barack Obama said that:

“Pakistan has an opportunity to show that it is serious about delegitimising, disrupting and dismantling terrorist networks. In the region and around the world, there must be zero tolerance for safe havens and terrorists must be brought to justice,”

Yet it seems that insufficient action has been taken, given the ongoing nature of the terror threat that India faces from groups based in Pakistan. Compared to the horror 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and the continued Islamist insurgencies in Kashmir, Pathankot is but the tip of the iceberg. Despite the defence minister Manohar Parrikar, stating that India has “come to the end of its patience”, India’s failure to confront Pakistan, and the lack of repercussion, has allowed these incidents to continue to occur. The lack of conclusive response to Pakistani based terror groups seems to reflect the failures of the Gandhian tradition of turning the other cheek when adapted into policy. This logic was the basis of the strategy adopted previous government, led by Manmohan Singh, to treat terrorist attacks in India as separate from the reconciliation process. It’s clear from Pathankot that an altitudinal and policy change will be necessary for India to deal with Pakistan, and the terrorist groups which operate out of it.

So, how should India respond? Other than to kneejerk warmongers, any kind of military reaction would make little sense. Not only would this endanger the already fragile peace process, but the risk of two nuclear armed states in conflict with one another is seen as far too high in a multilateral sense. From a strategic standpoint, an effective response would comprise of three core points of action:

First of all, it is imperative that the Indian government continues to engage in dialogue and formal diplomacy with Pakistan. Despite the temptation, stopping bilateral talks following the Pathankot attacks is impulsive, and does not constitute a viable long term solution. Diplomatic power will be a helpful asset in steering the reconciliation process back on course. In fact, halting engagements would likely further harm the possibility of achieving any bigger picture solution between the two states. However, whilst talking is important, India must set out clear anti-terror actions that it requires Pakistan to take, including the arrest of Mazood Ansar, the leader of JeM who is known to reside in Pakistan.

Alongside any soft power dialogue, India must consider what harder actions it can take to pressure Pakistan to act against terrorists operating within its borders. With military conflict off the table, economic measures are a strong means of pressuring Pakistan, given the trade balance between the two nations is very much in favour of India. During the 2012 Indian financial year (April 2012-March 2013), Pakistani imports of Indian products totalled to $1.84 billion, as compared to their exports to India of $513 million in the same period. Whilst Pakistan is not economically dependent on India, restrictions on trade could certainly be a somewhat coercive way to induce action on the issue of terrorism.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, India must recognise that its counter-terror infrastructure is inadequate in dealing with the threat of terrorism. The mere occurrence of the siege in Pathankot shows military intelligence and information flows required to prevent such attacks as inadequate. Furthermore, the fact that four militants were able to take the lives of seven trained soldiers, and remain fighting for nearly 3 days, shows that India needs to improve its counter terrorism abilities.

Whilst military action is not a desirable option, the resumption of normal relations post Pathankot will send the message that Pakistan can continue to export terror without repercussion. India cannot continue to ‘turn the other cheek’ to Pakistan-based terror. However, long term resolution of this issue will require strong but measured steps, and a degree of co-operation. In the meantime, India must evaluate its internal policies and security measures which have allowed terrorists to enter its borders.

(Image Source: The Indian Express 2018).

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