The recent terrorist attack in Punjab was unfortunately foreseeable. Not in the particulars of location or timing, but in the possibility of its occurrence. The mere fact that the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan had agreed to resume high-level exchanges was a signal for vested interests in Pakistan to play the spoiler. Even a cursory glance at attempts over the past few years to begin talks would have suggested as much. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi actually agreed to travel to Pakistan for the next SAARC summit—a trip that his predecessor never managed to pull off—raised the stakes for anti-India terrorist groups as well as their state handlers in Pakistan.
New Delhi has done well to indicate that the meeting between the National Security Advisors will proceed as planned. Yet it is also time to break away from the older pattern of engagement with Pakistan.
The attack in Gurdaspur district points towards a change in the contours of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. It is worth recalling that the pattern of using terror against India has never been fixed. Militancy in Punjab was actively supported from across the border, but once India gained the upper-hand this support began to taper. From the late 1980s, Pakistan’s attention moved to Jammu and Kashmir. Initially, insurgency and terrorism were almost exclusively confined to the Valley. From about the mid-1990s, it expanded to areas south of the Pir Panjal.
Following the ceasefire of November 2003, there was another shift in the modus operandi of the terrorist outfits. For the next five years, they focused on launching major attacks on Indian cities outside of Jammu & Kashmir. This was dictated by two related developments. Pakistan was under international pressure to tone down its support for the insurgency in Kashmir. And the Indian army was steadily getting the better of the militant groups operating on our side of the LoC.
In the wake of the Mumbai attacks of 2008, there was yet another change in the pattern of terrorism. Pakistan now appears to have realised that staging such spectacular attacks was drawing unnecessary international opprobrium and pressure. In the years since Mumbai, especially from 2012 onwards, we have seen a move towards attacking soft targets—particularly villages along the International Border. The latest attack is a continuation of this trend of terrorist strikes that hurt India but are still below the threshold of serious international scrutiny.
‘Befitting replies’ the norm
Over the past 15 years, New Delhi has responded with varying levels of force. The present government’s promise of a “befitting reply” is by no means new. Both before the ceasefire of 2003 and after, India had retaliated strongly, even disproportionately, to provocations from across the LoC. The capability of the terrorist outfits has been periodically degraded using the entire gamut of tools available. Even when New Delhi has exercised restraint—as in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks of 2008—it has done so on the calculation that military strikes on terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan are unlikely to eliminate it and that an escalating conflict would have avoidable economic costs for India. The problem of terrorism had to be dealt with in other ways. It is no coincidence that we have not seen an attack on the scale of Mumbai for the past seven years.
By contrast, our diplomatic approach to Pakistan has swung between the extremes of total engagement and complete disengagement. New Delhi has periodically called off talks, insisting that Pakistan must discard its support for terrorism—only to eventually return to the negotiating table. The fundamental flaw has been our assumption that diplomacy should be treated as a reward for good behaviour by Pakistan. Instead of seeing diplomacy as a process, we saw it as an end-state.
In fact, talking or not talking to Pakistan has little direct bearing on the issue of terrorism. It is strange that, on the one hand, we believe that the infrastructure of terror is deeply embedded in the Pakistani state and, on the other, we expect Pakistan to shut it down simply because we refuse to talk. If anything, not engaging in diplomacy deprives us of some levers. It also leaves us open to international calls for restarting dialogue. Such resumption typically takes place at the highest levels, which means that there is little prior spadework for a meaningful summit.
Tone down rhetoric
New Delhi should break out of this straitjacket. The government must aim to reduce the symbolic importance of diplomacy by presenting it as a routine activity. This will require both domestic political management and the toning down of unnecessary rhetoric. Senior officials have been reported as claiming that unlike the previous government, whose response was “calibrated and cautious”, the current policy is of “unpredictable and disproportionate response”. Even if true, such claims needlessly ratchet up domestic expectations. By insulating diplomacy from other means of dealing with terror, we can actually enhance the utility of force. After all, there are good reasons why even countries at war tend to talk with each other.
This is all the more important in the current conjuncture. As so often in its history, Pakistan is once again useful to the great powers and it will aim to leverage this opportunity to direct pressure on India. The United States, China and Russia are all keen to get Pakistan to forge a settlement between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban. If the reports of the death of the Taliban supremo, Mullah Omar, are true, then the search for a settlement will gain momentum in the weeks and months ahead. Pakistan will naturally seek to shrink India’s presence in Afghanistan as part of the price for its own cooperation.
In such a scenario, there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by refraining from engagement. Indeed, the government should also aim to revive the Foreign Secretary level talks. The meeting between the NSAs will focus on terrorism—an issue on which little headway is likely to be made. A wider diplomatic agenda will give us more room for manoeuvre.
(Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research)