India is unlikely to cross the Rubicon to launch all-out war unless the provocation is so intense that absorption is just not possible and the government is hugely embarrassed.

It is now reasonably confirmed that the spiral of events post the February 14 Pulwama attack by Pakistan-backed Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists almost brought India and Pakistan to the brink of an all-out war. It is being reported that on the night of February 27, a few missile batteries of both Indian and Pakistani armies had been deployed to battle stations.

The escalatory ladder had seen the crossing of the rung involving aerial strikes; the next rung was assessed to be the firing of a couple of surface to surface missiles against military targets in their vicinity. Any casualties would have led to the next rung or a direct escalation to war. It would have depended on the choice of targets for the missile strikes.

What can be safely assumed is that another major terror action, the roots of which lie in Pakistan, will witness from India a response on the escalatory ladder at a level higher than the last response. This was proved with Balakot which became the choice because surface surgical strikes of the post-Uri variety would have been predictable and deniable by Pakistan. However, there is nothing sacrosanct about the response. The choice lies within a spectrum.

India is unlikely to cross the Rubicon to launch all-out war unless the provocation is so intense that absorption is just not possible and the government is hugely embarrassed. I do believe that the principles of proportionality and adequacy will invariably be applied by India given its standing in the international community and its future aspirations. However, it must be stated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a fairly big political risk with the air strike and the sheer size of it. The larger the IAF packet, greater was the chance of success—but equally large was the political risk if any aircraft had been shot down. The response by Pakistan and India’s actions to meet it the next day did not constitute the same of level of risk.

An interesting aspect of the Indian response to Pulwama was the fact that the Indian Air Force launched its strike across the LoC and fairly deep without even a part mobilisation of the Indian Army. Interesting because the Army’s assumptions usually cater for all-out war if the IAF crosses the borders to strike against Pakistan. I have no doubt there were precautionary moves carried out by the Army, but no mobilisation took place.

This was in sharp contrast to Operation Parakaram in December 2001 after the December 13 terrorist attack on Parliament when the Indian Army mobilised en masses at concentrated areas and remained deployed for 10 months. The Indian Army’s cold start or proactive strategy was a compulsive outcome of this since mobilisation became laborious and delayed any potential launch.=

So with the situation in Kashmir none too stable and alienation of the populace even more intense than before, what is the possibility that there will be no more situations which will bring about a spiral in responses and counter response leading to a potential limited or even all-out war below the nuclear threshold.

This year will see two elections in Kashmir which provide periods of tension, take away attention from anti-terror operations and create fair hostility in the populace. While the robust policy of taking down terrorists is working and will continue to, the more important responsibility of the Governor’s administration is hardly being fulfilled. As long as there is turbulence in society, alienation and lack of cooperation, there will always be potential for Pakistan to up the ante the moment it perceives a change.

Radicalisation of youth also remains a reality. While all this is well-known to India’s security establishment as much as the necessity to do more to get to the people and assuage their feelings towards India, there is little knowledge on how to do this. Robust operations are mandatory and are going well but deliberate outreach to converse with the people has been missing. One of the mistaken beliefs which is causing reticence in response is the understanding that has been spread among many analysts that only five segments of Kashmir are really alienated and the rest are all with India. It is such belief which aggravates the problem and leads to flawed response.

There is talk of North Kashmir having seen light of the day and normalised to a great extent. To those who believe this, I have a couple of reminders. In 2010, too many believed that South Kashmir had stabilised just like the belief that North Kashmir has stabilised today. These believers rely on the understanding that absence of violence is normality. It leads to such flawed actions as declaring Baramulla district terror-free. But, weeding out terrorists does not end terror. As long as the ground worker and finance-related networks are intact, terror can always return. It happened with South Kashmir. Lessons from that need to be learnt.

The Indian security establishment just has to get its act together on conversations with the people. There are no laid down ways of doing that but election is one time when it can be done. No immediate outcomes must be expected. Those without patience will soon give up. The establishment needs to remember that while dealing with society immediate outcomes are never possible and only patience and continuity will reap dividends. That is a tall order in a tenure-based system.

It is, therefore, obvious that Pakistan will find little resistance to potential acts which can cause seriously negative triggers in Indo Pak relations. In pursuing that policy it cannot always anticipate the intensity of these triggers. One of them will once again go awry and evoke a response from India which will take the situation beyond ordinary escalation. We can only hope that better sense will prevail in Pakistan.