Reasi and the ‘years-old’ issue of cross-border terror

In India’s responses to Pakistan-backed terror, New Delhi needs to sharpen its definition of what is an ‘unacceptable’ terror attack

Updated - June 28, 2024 09:39 am IST

Published - June 28, 2024 12:16 am IST

Securitymen inspect a bus on June 10, 2024 that fell into a deep gorge the previous day after it was fired at by suspected militants in Reasi district, Jammu and Kashmir. 

Securitymen inspect a bus on June 10, 2024 that fell into a deep gorge the previous day after it was fired at by suspected militants in Reasi district, Jammu and Kashmir.  | Photo Credit: AP

The Reasi terrorist attack of June 9, the day the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, took his oath of office for a third term, is reminiscent of the attack on the Consulate General of India (CGI), Herat, Afghanistan on May 23, 2014, three days prior to his first swearing-in. Nine pilgrims lost their lives in the attack in Reasi (in Jammu and Kashmir) and 41 were injured. Fortunately, the four Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists who attacked CGI Herat were detected in time. One of the terrorists who reached the door of the building was neutralised by an alert Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) jawan. The terrorists had come with the intention of taking hostages and a long-haul operation to coincide with Mr. Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. Clearly, both attacks had the same objective: to embarrass and enrage Mr. Modi and India on a day of great political significance.

Continuing challenge

The possibility of the Reasi attack’s links with terrorist groups in Pakistan remains high. The Jammu division has witnessed many terrorist incidents over the past few months, including after the Reasi attack. They profile the persistence of the terrorist challenge India has faced for almost 35 years especially in J&K. How far has the country succeeded in dealing with this grave problem?

Pakistan and separatists in J&K were encouraged by the success of the Afghan Jihad. Pakistan thought that if a superpower could be defeated by Afghan Islamist groups, other such groups could be used to pressure India in Kashmir through mass uprisings, violence against minorities, and terrorist actions against prominent personalities and the security forces, leading this country to abandon Kashmir. The Indian state and its security forces took time to craft defensive counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism approaches in the first half of the 1990s.

The Pakistan Army and its political class are committed to the “Kashmir cause”. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto who became Pakistan’s Prime Ministers in turn were supportive of the promotion of separatism in J&K by the army and intelligence agencies, through the use of terror. Ms. Bhutto decided not to hold talks with India in 1994 unless India was willing to purposefully engage Pakistan on J&K in a manner Pakistan prescribed. Consequently, there was no dialogue between the two countries while she was in office. Mr. Sharif became Prime Minister in 1997, for the second time. He decided to change Ms. Bhutto’s policy and engage India.

Pakistan desired a structured dialogue with India which would focus on all issues — humanitarian, conflict resolution and the development of cooperative mechanisms. Within this rubric, its focus was on ‘disputes’, J&K being the priority. However, India wished to discuss Pakistani terrorism as a separate issue in the dialogue process. By the mid-1990s, India had gained the confidence to manage Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in J&K. While it was exacting a toll in lives and had disrupted normalcy, the apprehension that Pakistan would take the State out of India’s grip had gone. The decision to hold Assembly elections in J&K in 1996 was a signal that while the application of force to counter terrorism was necessary and would continue, there was space to begin political activity.

India’s choosing diplomacy, dialogue

Thus, a combination of force and the restoration of political activity was used to address the problem in Kashmir: a problem within India’s internal jurisdiction. Distinct from the problem in Kashmir was the issue of Kashmir. This related to the recovery of the State’s territory in Pakistani control. Under the Simla Agreement of 1972, India was committed to resolving this issue peacefully, through negotiations. However, in 1972, the idea that Pakistan would promote terrorism through Islamist non-state actors under its control had not been contemplated. Hence, the constraints imposed by the Simla Agreement became void once Pakistan resorted to terrorism and India could legitimately treat Pakistani terrorism as a ‘strategic’ issue, i.e., one which required the application of force in the external sphere. However, India chose the path of diplomacy and dialogue.

India and Pakistan agreed on the mechanics of a bilateral composite dialogue in September 1998. The composite dialogue listed ‘terrorism and counter-narcotics’ as one of the eight issues of engagement. It became clear to India from the very first bilateral exchange on this issue in October 1998, that Pakistan was unwilling to address India’s concerns. This has continued to remain Pakistan’s attitude because the calibrated use of terrorist groups against India became a part of its security doctrine from the 1990s. Pakistan has adopted this approach for, if nothing else, it has meant pinning down an estimated two lakh security personnel in J&K to handle terrorism. That is a conservative number.

From 1998 to 2016, all three Prime Ministers — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi — pursued the path of diplomacy, as part of the Composite Dialogue, to address Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Indeed, Dr. Manmohan Singh tried to insulate the larger bilateral relationship by establishing with Pakistan a joint anti-terrorism mechanism, but it went nowhere.

The problem with the diplomatic approach was that public opinion in India was for military action after an ‘unacceptable’ terrorist attack or provocative and ‘unacceptable’ Pakistani action. However, governments chose only to withdraw from the dialogue process. A prominent illustration of this proposition was witnessed after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack when Dr. Manmohan Singh opted out of the dialogue process; he chose to garner global diplomatic support against Pakistan. There was public pressure to take kinetic action but he opted not to. Earlier, India had seriously considered using its military forces against Pakistan in December 2001, as a reaction to the terror attack on Parliament. It was the bravery and the sacrifice of Parliament’s security personnel which had prevented the killing of a number of Indian political leaders. The A.B. Vajpayee government mobilised the Indian armed forces but eventually decided not to go to war because President Pervez Musharraf gave an assurance that Pakistan would not use territory under its control to promote terrorism against India. It did not keep its word.

The use of pre-emption

Where India actually departed from the use of diplomacy and used military force against Pakistani terrorism was after the Pulwama attack of 2019. It undertook the Balakot aerial strike (2019) and also announced a doctrine of pre-emption. Earlier too it had used force in a limited way by way of undertaking surgical strikes in the wake of the Uri terrorist attack of September 2016. Despite these undertakings, the ambiguity on the use of force remains. Obviously, kinetic action is to be undertaken against an ‘unacceptable’ attack. Besides, the doctrine of pre-emption is based on the right to take out terrorist targets if preparations are being made in Pakistan to launch an ‘unacceptable’ terrorist attack. The question is what is ‘unacceptable.

It may be also pointed out that India used the full strength of its defence forces to defeat Pakistan’s regular military intrusion in Kargil in 1999, but that situation obviously did not come within the rubric of terrorism. Hence, sustained kinetic action did not pose a dilemma.

Pakistan’s use of terrorism against its neighbours is generally recognised by the major powers. Its reliance on plausible deniability has not been sustainable for years. India too has given material linking Pakistani terrorist groups to terrorist incidents but Pakistan has not taken action against them. This was clear after the Mumbai terrorist attack. After the Pathankot airbase attack in January 2016, India allowed a Pakistani team which included an Inter-Services Intelligence officer to visit the airbase. However, Pakistan again did not take the investigation forward. Despite these cases, it is important to pursue the practice of sharing information and evidence in terrorist cases to ensure the credibility of Indian assertions with the international community.

After the Reasi attack, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar expressed the ambitious intention of finding a “solution to years-old cross-border terrorism”. He could begin the process of putting a curb on Pakistani terror by pointing out to the international community that the first step on an escalatory ladder between nuclear countries is the use of terror.

Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer

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