Alexander of Greece, the Scythians, Genghis Khan, Mahmud Ghazni (17 times), Mohammed Ghori, Timur the Lame and the Mughals, among others, all invaded India through the Khyber Pass. Less than 400 men could have stopped these invaders at the Khyber Pass every time. The motley array of princelings who ruled India woke up from their drunken orgies only when the invading hordes had reached Panipat and were knocking on the gates of Delhi.
Like it has been said of the Bourbons of France, though we forgot nothing about these invasions, we learnt nothing. Even seven decades after India’s independence, the ‘Panipat Syndrome’ still permeates our strategic culture.
For almost three decades now, Pakistan has been waging a war against India through asymmetric means in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and elsewhere. The terrorist organisations through which the Pakistan army and the ISI have waging this war are based in Pakistan and POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir), but we have voluntarily opted to confine our counter-insurgency operations to our own side of the Line of Control (LoC). While our ‘strategic restraint’ has won us diplomatic accolades from the international community, the so-called mujahideen from across our western border continue to strike terror into the hearts of our hapless civilians almost at will.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been in occupation of 38,000 sq km of Indian territory on the Aksai Chin plateau in J&K since the mid-1950s, has laid a claim to Arunachal Pradesh (90,000 sq km) and routinely transgresses across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The most recent incident has occurred at the Bhutan-India (Sikkim)-Tibet tri-junction and the Chinese government-controlled media have gone ballistic in warning and threatening India with dire consequences if Indian troops do not withdraw. China is engaged in building and acquiring ports on the Indian Ocean rim and the PLA Navy’s submarines have been prowling in Indian waters.
Incidents like the Purulia arms drops, serial IED (improvised explosive device) blasts at Mumbai and Delhi, the assassination of political leaders in Kashmir, attacks on army camps and logistics installations, election-related violence and the prevalence of the law of the jungle in large parts of central India where the Maoists call the shots, dampen the enthusiasm of multinational investors to jump on to the bandwagon of India’s growing economy. Incidents such as the daylight massacre of our Border Security Force (BSF) personnel by the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and the BDR’s proclivity for a long time to suddenly fire upon and kill or injure innocent civilians working in their fields, show up India as a weak and timid nation that is either uncaring of the security of its people or incapable of direct retaliatory action even when the provocation is acute or, perhaps, both. We appear to take perverse delight in being called a soft state. We appear to have convinced ourselves that ‘soft’ power can substitute ‘hard’ power.
The opportunity cost of the unstable external security environment and the rapidly deteriorating internal security situation has been estimated at a one-quarter per cent slowing down of India’s annual rate of growth. For the full genius of the Indian people to flower, like it has done in the case of those who have made Western countries their homes, and for their real potential for entrepreneurship to develop unhindered, their physical security must be ensured. Neither external nor internal forces that are inimical to India must be allowed to depict India as a nation that is riven by violence and always in flames – no matter what it takes.
What it will take is a pro-active national security strategy, including a vigorous response to future incidents of terrorism sponsored from across the border. India’s response should be initially limited to trans-LoC strikes and later, if things do not improve to our satisfaction, the full range of options must be considered for action across the international border. Every single act of terror must meet with a calibrated response. Even if the suspicion is not too strong and the links of terrorists with organisations across the border have been established only tenuously to begin with, retaliation must be swift and carefully targeted to deliver the message that India has shown enough restraint and that from now onwards, India will act when struck. For example, if the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) is suspected to have engineered the terrorist attack on the air base at Pathankot in January 2016, it is appropriate to launch covert operations against its leadership when Pakistan has been dragging its feet over the investigation. When necessary, the option of launching even a Special Forces raid across the international boundary should be on the table.
Those who worry about the repercussions of such actions in international law should scrutinise Israel’s stated policies and the retribution that it inflicts on the terrorist organisations that sponsor attacks on its soil. They should also study details of the action taken by other members of the United Nations when their vital national interests were so blatantly threatened – for example the intervention by the United States and its coalition partners in Afghanistan after the al-Qaeda inspired 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. in September 2001.
If a resurgent, nuclear-armed and self-confident India acts with strength and assurance to protect its national security interests, neighbours like Pakistan will soon get the message. Pakistan will be forced to clamp down on terrorist organisations operating from its soil, instead of merely pretending to do so while actually encouraging them to operate with impunity. Will it lead to war? It could and India should be prepared for that eventuality. Is war in India’s interest? It certainly is not, but neither is a daily dose of terrorist incidents that sap the people’s morale, tie down the army and other security forces in counter-insurgency operations that serve to alienate the people, inflict huge economic costs and damage India’s reputation as a suitable investment and tourism destination.
Will such a response result in the permanent breakdown of the rapprochement process with Pakistan? It might, but so will the lack of a pro-active response, as Pakistan will continue to deny that terrorist organisations based on its soil are sending mercenary marauders to destabilise India. Eventually the Indian government will have no option but to call off the composite or comprehensive dialogue process.
India must graduate to becoming a nation that is safe and secure for all its citizens – a nation that takes its national security interests seriously and is pro-active in dealing with emerging threats. It is far better to nip emerging threats in the bud rather than allow them to become festering sores that eventually lead to gangrene on a large scale. Only in a secure environment with good governance will India make rapid economic progress to lift its unfortunate citizens out of the morass of poverty, hunger and homelessness – before the revolution of rising but unfulfilled expectations, that has begun to rear its ugly head, takes the whole country in its sweep.