RATTLED: IAF conducted precision strikes against JeM terror camps deep inside Pakistan

NEW DELHI: The year 2019 will go down as a pivotal year when India effected dramatic changes in its Kashmir policy and, by extension, to its strategy to deal with Pakistan and the international community.

One of the first events to hit the headlines in 2019 was a terrorist attack in Kashmir’s Pulwama region in February, which changed the contours of the India-Pakistan relationship. A suicide bomber, belonging to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, detonated a car bomb as an Indian paramilitary convoy was on the move in Pulwama on 14 February. The explosion killed 40 personnel, drawing unequivocal international condemnation. Clearly, the sympathy was with India with no denunciation forthcoming, when on 26 February, New Delhi ordered the aerial bombing of a terrorist training camp in Balakot, Pakistan. It was the first time since the 1971 India-Pakistan war that New Delhi ordered its fighter jets to cross the border into Pakistan. Military historians have also noted that the use of the Air Force in sub-conventional warfare between two nuclear-armed countries was rare—if any parallel at all. A day later, a much smaller number of fighter aircraft from the Indian Air Force repulsed the Pakistan Air Force’s efforts to target military installations in Kashmir.

Visual proof of the strike beyond any question

“The use of air power by India to take out a terrorist training camp will have had a deep impact on the psyche of the Pakistani military establishment," said a person familiar with the developments in New Delhi. “It sends out the message that India has the capability and will to deploy its Air Force for counter terrorism operations," he added, requesting anonymity. It also signals the unveiling of a new strategy to counter terrorism emanating from Pakistan, that raises the cost for Islamabad manifold, he said.

“What India has done is to significantly raise the costs for any misadventure by Pakistan. The message is that any terrorist attack in India will have a cost for Pakistan and, hence, it had rewritten the rules of engagement. Second, it has broken the cycle followed in the past—a peace dialogue process whose momentum is broken by a terrorist attack and then resumed only to be stalled by another terrorist attack. It is not business as usual," said a second person, also requesting anonymity.

According to Harsh Pant, professor of international relations, King’s College, London, India has indicated that it was willing to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. “The days of India absorbing the costs of terrorism are now over. India is now willing to escalate the costs for Pakistan perpetrating terrorist attacks in India. And the onus is now on Pakistan to de-escalate," he said, adding that the message is for Islamabad, as well as the international community, which has traditionally pushed New Delhi to initiate talks with Pakistan to defuse tensions.

Incidentally, the Balakot strike was not the first instance of India signalling its willingness to up the costs for Pakistan. In 2016, India ordered its elite army commandos across the de-facto Line of Control in Kashmir to take out terrorist launch pads after 18 Indian soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack on an Indian Army garrison in Uri.

“Kashmir has been the space where Pakistan has found a way of imposing a cost on India," said Pant, adding that the Balakot airstrike and the surgical strikes post-Uri showed that the present government in New Delhi was willing to reset the terms of meeting this threat.

It is perhaps with this in mind that New Delhi in August revoked Article 370 of its Constitution, a temporary provision that bestowed special status on Kashmir. New Delhi also divided Kashmir into two Union territories—integrating it more closely with the rest of India. The aim, India said, was to ensure development of the region so that the youth were not lured into joining terrorist groups.

What the move also did was to effectively change the contours of any future talks with Pakistan over Kashmir. It took Indian-administered Kashmir off the talks’ table between New Delhi and Islamabad, and focused attention on the part controlled by Pakistan for any resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan, caught unawares by the move, was livid. It unleashed a diplomatic offensive aiming to put India in the dock for what it termed as human right violations in Kashmir—restricting the movement of people, putting embargoes on communications and detaining Kashmiri politicians. India’s cautious roll-back of the restrictions, aiming to quell protests, has prompted some sections in the international community to express concerns. New Delhi, on its part, has steadfastly maintained that not a single civilian life has been lost since 5-6 August and that the embargoes will be lifted gradually.

For the future, New Delhi will have to allow the emergence of a new political leadership in Kashmir. India will also need to gear up to ensure minimal violence should protests break out with the gradual phasing out of restrictions in Kashmir. “As long as violence is contained, the international community will not be able to say anything" to any allegation of human rights violations by Pakistan, said a third person aware of the matter, requesting anonymity.

Diplomatically, foreign minister S. Jaishankar has sent out a clear message that it was Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism that is the issue to focus on. He has also stressed that the “right to life is the most basic human right", highlighting the future course Indian diplomacy will take to counter Pakistan’s charges that India’s restrictions in Kashmir were violative of human rights.