The Valley has been gripped by fear and confusion created by a slew of unexplained government orders which in turn have led to speculation that something big is afoot. From sudden induction of 100 paramilitary companies (over 10,000 men) into the Valley, to midnight raids on Jamaat-e-Islami cadre, to cancellation of doctors’ leaves and instructions to hospitals to store medicines and food have resulted in panic buys by the people.
A journalist from Srinagar called me to say that people were talking about army movement to the border. He connected this information with the recent visit of Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Bajwa to the Line of Control and an order issued in Pakistan to prepare civilian hospitals to receive injured army personnel. Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force flew sorties over the Valley which were explained as routine exercise. By strange coincidence, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations department released pictures of Pakistan air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan flying F-16 fighter aircraft over Islamabad. Does the above mean that the Modi government is planning to avenge the Pulwama killing? And has Pakistan got wind of India’s impending attack?
A war by India is ruled out for a number of reasons. India does not have the capability, capacity and political will for war. A war is much more than localised army action on the Line of Control; it involves the air force and numerous enablers like space, cyber, electronic (to jam communications) and so on. It is certain that any crossing of the LoC for Indian army, the air force, or use of stand-off weapons or long-range artillery guns from within own territory, would be met with an equal response from Pakistan.
Moreover, a war between India and Pakistan would quickly involve China too in some form. Since the Pakistan army is responsible for security of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is the designated flagship of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, the People’s Liberation Army’s support to General Headquarters, Rawalpindi against India is assured. For example, the recent United Nations Security Council statement condemning Jaish-e-Mohammed for the dastardly Pulwama attack was delayed because China was keen that the phrase ‘state of Jammu and Kashmir’, which Indian wanted, be replaced by India-administered Kashmir, which suited Pakistan. Since the Chinese gloves are off, it would be instructive to recall the December 2010 declaration made by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Indian soil that China has 2,000km border with India. According to India, the border is 3,488km; China does not recognise the 1,488km border it shares with India in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir).
Given its stakes in Pakistan’s security, China would (a) heighten its military activities on the disputed border with India in order to ensure that the Indian Army is unable to move troops from there to Pakistan border, (b) it would send unlimited spares and other war support materiel to Pakistan to enable it outmatch Indian military reserves for intense war, (c) it would provide its space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities to the Pakistan military which the Indian side would have difficulty contending with, and (d) if its own civilians and security personnel, who are working on the CPEC get killed or injured by Indian Air Force (IAF) strikes, China will be ‘forced’ to enter the war in self-defence.
Once that happens, the Indian war would not remain limited to two fronts – Pakistan and China. The IAF would be compelled to fly over neighbourhood nation’s airspace. This would transform it into a regional war with extremely high stakes since the three main players are nuclear-armed. The above-mentioned progression of war should underscore the fact that since escalation has its own dynamics, it would be impossible for India to restrict or control war. All talks about limited war (in time and space) that Indian generals are fond of discussing are peace-time activities with no relationship with the reality of war.
The reality, unfortunately, was laid bare by the so-called 2016 surgical strikes by the Modi government where localised tactical operation had political rather than military objectives. For one, surgical strikes which are akin to blitzkrieg are done by the air force and not the army, which can at best do raids. For another, they were as the then foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar described, ‘low level, targeted counter-terror operations.’ Given the army leadership’s complicity and eagerness to please political bosses rather than serve their command, something similar to surgical or fake strikes (as President Trump would call them) could be on the cards.
Moreover, there is added pressure on the Modi government from its ideological mentor, the RSS. The latter has reworked its priority for the coming general elections, where instead of the Ram Mandir issue, the Pulwama tragedy would be the focus. The RSS is expected to assert that only a muscular and stable government can ensure that more Pulwamas do not happen. The RSS is demanding hard choices from the Modi government. Writing in Sunday Times of India, Swapan Dasgupta has said ‘India will have to exercise hard options, including the grim sight of body bags.’ It is another matter that he knows little about India’s hard power, Pakistan’s hard power choices, and China’s enormous military capabilities which would come in support of Pakistan. Unfortunately, people’s unreal expectations, and whipping up of nationalistic passions has put Prime Minister Narendra Modi under immense pressure to do something spectacular about the Pulwama killings.
What can he do? The additional 100 paramilitary companies could enable bulk of army’s Rashtriya Rifles to move forward towards the border. Aided by the mostly subservient media (especially electronic), and retired generals, the increased army strength on the border would be interpreted to convey that Pakistan has been intimidated. The punishment to Pakistan, it would be said would be meted out after the General Elections. Anything beyond these theatrics would be extremely detrimental. These limitations, however, might not apply within the Valley where the people should brace up for a hard summer.
(The writer is editor FORCE newsmagazine and co-author of Dragon On Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power)