The grenade attack in Jammu city on Thursday (March 7) that killed two people and injured more than 40 has been attributed to the Hizbul Mujahedin and comes a few weeks after the Pulwama attack. This draws attention again to the abiding and complex terror challenge that India has to deal with and what merits scrutiny is the degree to which the post Pulwama trajectory that includes the Balakot air strike and the release by Pakistan of captured Indian Air Force pilot Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman will shape Delhi’s counter-terror approach.
Regrettably Balakot and what has followed has got tangled in a very divisive and bitter domestic political brawl. The air strike by the Indian Air Force against terror camps of the JeM (Jaish-e-Mohamad) in Balakot, Pakistan, carried out on Tuesday (Feb 26) is illustrative. In an anomalous and unprecedented press conference on Monday (March 4) it became necessary for the Air Chief Marshal S S Dhanoa to reiterate that Balakot was indeed a successful operation. Whether or not the number of those terrorists killed is 300 as claimed initially by some cyber outlets appears to be part of the fake news virus that has become endemic in India in recent years. National security issues have not been spared and a corrosive mix of fact and political spin designed to gain electoral benefit in the run up to the national election is vitiating the domestic discourse. Against such a backdrop it may be desirable to analyze Pulwama and later events in a more objective and non-partisan manner.
The Pulwama terror attack (Feb 14) on the CRPF convoy claimed by the JeM was followed by the Balakot air strike (Feb 26) , the subsequent downing of the Indian MIG 21 (Feb 27) with the pilot being held captive and finally – the return of Wg. Cdr Abhinandan on Friday (March 1). This brings to closure one phase of the long and complex proxy war that India has been subjected to since January 1990 when the Kashmiri pundits were forced to flee the valley by the first wave of radical Islamic religious fervor.
This Pulwama-Balakot-Abhinandan trajectory has many layers of grave relevance for national security as India reviews and refines its strategy to deal with the complex challenge of jihadi terror, which began in a virulent form in the December 2001 parliament attack. It later struck Mumbai in November 2008 and is now manifest as the JeM attack in Pulwama. Jammu and the Hizbul Mujahedin attack is indicative of the spectrum of the challenge.
The more immediate fallout is the current internal security situation in J&K, where a 56-hour long operation against two LeT militants (Lashkar-e-Taiba) concluded on Sunday (March 3). The militants were killed finally and one of them was identified as a Pakistani but India lost five security personnel in this Kupwara operation – three personnel from the CRPF and two from the local J&K police. And to place this incident and the larger security challenge in J&K in context, it merits note that as many as 70 ceasefire violations over the last week (Feb 27 – March 5), meaning thereby that there is no reduction in infiltration attempts by militants or firing from across the border in the immediate post Balakot period.
The question that now arises is how to assess the impact of the Balakot air strike; the loss of the MIG aircraft and the return of the pilot; and what lies ahead even as India prepares for the 17th general election in weeks from now.
Balakot has a significant symbolism to it, in that it marks the assertion and resolve of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi to use air power in a counter-terror operation and thereby test the formulation that this would automatically lead to rapid military escalation. Almost a week after the Balakot strike, it is now being revealed that contrary to the perception that Indian fighters had penetrated into Pakistan territory, the precision guided munitions were delivered “from the India side of the LoC.” This would suggest that Delhi was prudent and careful in how it used its air assets and that the resolve to use air power was also combined with restraint.
While the extent of the damage caused in Balakot has become a debatable issue – the international media for example has been sceptical – the strategic message is that India has crossed a self-imposed red line about targeting terror infrastructure inside Pakistan. This is the critical messaging from the Balakot air strike. Delhi has now demonstrated that it will use its air power – either in stand-off mode (that is nor cross the LoC) -or in a more intrusive manner depending on the operational exigency.
Predictably Balakot elicited a response from Pakistan and on Feb 27 the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) attempted to strike Indian military targets in J&K. In the dog-fight that ensued, India lost a MIG 21 Bison fighter and the pilot Abhinandan who ejected was held captive by Pakistan.
This sequence of events is yet another layer of policy relevance. While it is very creditable that a MIG 21 which is an air-frame of 1960s vintage could engage a more advanced F -16 in a dog-fight, this points to a major inventory gap for the Indian Air Force. The need for a replacement of fighter aircraft and the figure of 126 planes has been mooted since PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure and, over the last two decades, this figure has climbed to 200 plus. Sadly, the induction is yet to begin.
The air force is not alone and the other two armed forces and the para-military, as also the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP), need urgent inventory modernization and acquisition. Regrettably the Rafale deal and its political muck-raking is reflective of how much national security has become compromised by the bitter divide that now prevails in India’s domestic political calculus.
The last linkage is with the safe return to India of Wg. Cdr Abhinandan and the emotion this issue evoked across India. But sadly this emotional outburst also witnessed the most deplorable intimidation, wherein members of the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidharthi Parishad), the student wing of the BJP, in Karnataka forced a local lecturer to kneel and apologize for posting what they considered an anti-India post on Facebook. Citizens of Kashmiri origin in different parts of the country have also been targeted in a vile and vindictive manner by the ‘mob’ and the state has chosen to remain silent. Indian nationalism has now become an imposed value whose contours and content will be shaped by right-wing vigilantism.
Surely, this is not the democratic ethos that India symbolizes and the soldier defends with his life. The Pulwama-Balakot-Abhinandan trajectory has many layers of national relevance that need to be reviewed objectively for their long-term implications. Balakot could be the beginning of a new chapter for India in the proxy war that began in 1990 but the Jammu grenade attack is a reality check that would have to be factored in.