During the last couple of years, India has recalibrated its policy towards Pakistan by adopting a two-pronged approach. One prong consists of not holding formal talks until Pakistan stops using terrorism as an instrument of state policy against India. And the second prong involves retaining the right of retaliation against those elements and locations along the Line of Control (LoC) that are complicit in perpetrating cross border terrorism. In essence, India's aim has been to gain leverage over Pakistan by striking it where it hurts the most.

This policy has been critiqued in recent weeks. Some critics have ascribed “political motives” to the policy and described the military measures along the LoC as “disproportionate bombardment”. Others have questioned the “political purpose of force application.” And some others have highlighted the potential for “conflict escalation” as a result of the rapid increase in ceasefire violations.

But what the critics ignore is the fact that the genesis of the existing policy lay in the repeated failures of past endeavours of successive governments to stop Pakistan from employing terrorism as an instrument of state policy through bilateral talks alone. They also seem to suggest that talks and terrorism can co-exist and argue that India must lower the escalation in firing along the LoC even if that allows Pakistan to regain leverage.

This brief assesses the options that were available to India and the basis for adopting the current proactive approach in light of the limitations of the previous policy. It also suggests additional measures to enhance the effectiveness of the current policy.

India’s Previous Approach to Cross Border Terrorism

India’s struggle against Pakistan-sponsored cross border terrorism in J&K began almost three decades ago. The broad identifiable policy adopted by India for most of these three decades centred around stopping infiltration from across the LoC and negotiating a mutually acceptable political settlement. The above external prong of India’s policy was accompanied domestically by an attempt to reduce terrorist violence within J&K and reinvigorate the political process and state administrative machinery with a view to limiting the adverse impact of violence.

This policy did indeed meet with some success. J&K witnessed a series of popular elections, arguably with appreciable levels of support for the re-establishment of the political process. This has been accompanied by a substantial drop in violence levels over the years, with 2012 representing the lowest point, although there has been a marginal upsurge during the last four years (See Table). The state machinery has been successful in establishing its writ. However, despite these successes at the domestic level, the Pakistan factor, both at the diplomatic and military levels, has proved largely intractable, with only limited gains accruing in terms of desultory and superficial action by Pakistan against terrorist groups operating from its soil. Its recent decision to add United Nations proscribed groups to its domestic list of terror entities and freezing of their assets is a case in point. Immediately, thereafter, this measure was diluted by the failure to build strong legal cases against terrorist leaders, despite their obvious and vocal support for terrorism, which prevented their prosecution.

This failure to deal with the external Pakistani factor is mainly a function of the Pakistan Army’s unwillingness to resolve the Kashmir issue. The Army has emerged as the self-designated custodian of Pakistan’s destiny, unity and ideology. It has sustained its grip on power and influence because of the widespread perception and propaganda that India is an existential threat. India’s role in the humiliating division of Pakistan in 1971 and its establishment of control over the Siachen Glacier since 1984 have remained key elements in the Army’s narrative. However, the most evocative factor remains J&K’s accession to India, which is anathema for Pakistan both from a religious and territorial perspective. The institutionalised investment made to sustain the rhetoric of India as an existential threat, however artificial it may be, remains too high a cost to pay for the Pakistan Army to settle Kashmir. In the absence of such a settlement, the policy of sustaining terrorism, given existing deterrence at the strategic level, ensures suitable leverage against India at an acceptable cost as well as the retention of domestic influence for the army.

The inability or unwillingness to respond robustly to Pakistan’s persistent use of terrorism has led to repeated characterisations of India as a soft state. Over a period of time, this sentiment strengthened leading to demands for a different approach.

Options Available to India

India had two options to deal with Pakistan’s continued use of terrorism in J&K. One approach was “more of the same” of what had been practised since the late 1980s. This implied continued talks with Pakistan despite occasional terrorist strikes interrupted by short lulls marked by “no-talk” statements aimed at assuaging public sentiment. Simultaneously, a posture of offensive-defence would be maintained along the LoC, which would limit infiltration and retain moral ascendency against the Pakistan Army. Such a course of action would be sustained in the hope that Pakistan would eventually realise the folly of employing terrorism as state policy, given its domestic blowback effect, as well as growing international aversion. That would in turn lead to a political settlement acceptable to both countries.

The second policy option available to India was based on the premise that Pakistan is unlikely to change its policy of sponsoring terrorism given the vested interests of the Pakistan Army. This led to the conclusion that unless India could hurt the principal architect of Pakistan’s Kashmir policy, that is, the Army, terrorism would continue unabated, with only minor adjustments to tailor violence in response to the severity of Indian and international reactions. There is little doubt within the Indian policy making elite that the Pakistan Army remains the bulwark of an anti-India policy and more so the policy on Kashmir. It was also clear that the planning, preparation, facilitation and execution of terrorism in J&K could not be accomplished without the active support and involvement of the Pakistan Army. Under these circumstances, it was reasoned that India needed to create the requisite leverages against the Pakistan Army in order curb terrorism.

Contours of the Existing Policy

As a result, the last couple of years have witnessed an evolution in India’s approach towards Pakistan and its employment of terrorism as an instrument of policy. The new approach closely reflects the second option discussed above. There are three clear elements in this approach. First, the security forces will neutralise terrorists not only inside India but also target the perpetrators of terrorism across the LoC. Given that the government was convinced of the Pakistan Army’s complicity, actions were undertaken along the LoC to punish the posts that were an integral element of Pakistan’s terrorist actions against India.

It was expected that there would be Pakistani military retaliation to the same, which could raise the existing threshold of weapons and quantum of force employed along the LoC. However, the decision itself was premised on sound fundamentals. One, India possessed the ability to gain a military advantage over Pakistan along the LoC, irrespective of the level of escalation, something that had been accomplished in the past as well prior to the ceasefire in 2003. Two, there existed an understanding of the escalation ladder and adequate measures were taken to cater for the same. This understanding included the limits beyond which Pakistan was unlikely to go, despite disproportionate punishment by India. Most important, the option of a conventional war as an escalatory step by Pakistan was calculated as unlikely, given its repeated failures in 1965, 1971 and 1999 as well as the conventional superiority enjoyed by India. Pakistan’s experience of force application against India through four wars and beyond indicates that the calibrated use of terrorism, supported by strategic deterrence, limits India’s conventional military options and thereby allows Pakistan to retain the strategic advantage of bleeding India. It therefore has no reason to take a retrograde step towards the failed model of waging a conventional war against India.

The first element of the current policy was not formulated in isolation. It was accompanied by a declaratory information regime aimed at making public the fundamentals of India’s response across the LoC, along with comparative casualties on both sides. This approach is unlike that adopted by the Pakistan Army, which has chosen to hide its own casualties. Inputs based on intercepts suggest that a substantially higher proportion of casualties had been incurred by the Pakistan Army during these cross-LoC actions. The information component of conflict is a critical factor in shaping perceptions. In this case, the decision to go public helped assuage public sentiment within India. It limited the concern that the country was a passive victim of terrorism emanating from Pakistan. The ownership of surgical strikes was an example of this approach, as were cross LoC fire assaults on Pakistan Army posts. As a result, there was public acknowledgement of a robust counter-strategy of bleeding the Pakistan Army through a thousand cuts. The Pakistan Army could no longer get away with employing terrorists as cannon fodder, as punitive action was being initiated against it by India, unlike in the past. For once, strikes across the LoC were not necessarily reactive, but under changing circumstances these were also pre-emptive and punitive. The vulnerability and cost paid by the Pakistan Army was also brought to the notice of Pakistanis, thus denting the tales of one-sided superiority that had been peddled for long.

Second, other than discrete back channel processes, after the initial attempts at initiating talks, there was no attempt at formally offering talks to Pakistan. This was aimed at drawing the line between Pakistan’s desire to hold talks and simultaneously employ terrorism. In effect, India rejected negotiations under the shadow of a gun. Further, doubts regarding the Pakistan Army’s sincerity in seeking a solution were reinforced by its repeated sabotage of peace initiatives. This did not merely occur in the aftermath of Vajpayee's Lahore bus diplomacy in the form of Kargil, but also happened after Modi’s late December 2015 visit to Pakistan in the form of the Pathankot attack in early January 2016.