(Editorial: Economic & Political Weekly, India, December 6, 2008)


A catastrophe awaits if the government takes military action against Pakistan.


Grief, shock and fear. These feelings can produce inchoate rage that compels a government into taking the most counterproductive of actions. There is a sentiment that Mumbai 26-29 November 2008 is India’s equivalent of New York 11 September 2001 and that India must respond as the United States (US) did seven years ago. This argument, encouraged unfortunately by the electronic media, has grown in noise and threatens to box the government of India into a corner. If India were to be forced into military action, there is a monumental disaster that awaits the country that will dwarf the horrors of 26-29 November.


The whole world other than the George Bush presidency knows that the US’ external response to “9/11” – the invasion of Afghanistan and the “liberation” of Iraq – has made the world more dangerous than what it was earlier and the US less rather than more secure. Seven years later, the US is still struggling in Afghanistan.


The Indian State has to demonstrate that it will not countenance a murderous attack from abroad on its citizens; the Mumbai killings are almost certain to have been plotted by “elements”/”non-state actors” in Pakistan. But at response will aid the process of justice and prevent such attacks from abroad in the future? Among the short list of military options, there is, first, a repeat of mobilization for war of the kind carried out in late 2001/early 2002 after the assault on Parliament. Yet, we know that the threat of war seven years ago achieved little other than giving the US an opening to press for its own demands while making Pakistan take some token decisions of concern to India. And a repeat in 2008 will not be taken seriously. The second military option now being bandied about is another old one – “surgical strikes” against camps and bases of Lashkar-e-Toiba and other such groups in Pakistan. Assuming that the Lashkar is behind the Mumbai horror, terrorists and guerrilla fighters do not have fixed locations and such “surgical strikes” have never worked anywhere. (The US targeted Al Qaida bases in 2000 and achieved nothing other than violating Pakistan’s air space.) Pakistan is unlikely to quietly accept “limited” air strikes by India and its response will escalate conflict. And the masterminds of Mumbai will escape punishment. The third military option is “limited” war, whatever that may mean, with the one sure result being a strengthening of the military in Pakistan. The biggest danger about any military action is one that nobody seems to want to acknowledge – that conflict between two nuclear weapon states could escalate beyond a point of no return. In both 1999 and 2001/02, the subcontinent edged closer to the nuclear abyss than the strategists are willing to accept. We cannot run another risk of escalation that may trip into a nuclear conflagration.


If military action is not an option that will yield results – leave alone the immorality of waging war – what choices does India have? There are admittedly not many, but the box is not empty of instruments to bring the perpetrators to justice and, equally important, prevent future attacks from abroad. A multilateral response under the United Nations Resolution 1373 of 2001 seems to be a good option. This has been suggested by the Left parties and is one to pursue since, crafted and adopted immediately after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, the resolution deals explicitly with national governments’ responsibility to locate and remove terrorism within their borders. India has little to fear and everything to gain from a “UN-isation” of this issue.


Since the Mumbai terror was a global phenomenon in that it took the lives of people of so many nationalities and seemed to herald a new and deadly form of terrorism that could visit other countries, a multilateral initiative that pressures Pakistan to take action does promise results. (Bilateral initiatives, such as asking the US to deliver are problematic for they will increase American levers and, in any case, the one major interest that country has is in containing tension on Pakistan’s eastern border so that it can pursue its objective in Afghanistan and the tribal areas in the western tracts of Pakistan.) The challenge in such an approach is that like in any thorough police procedure, evidence has to be painstakingly collected, the dots carefully connected and the temptation to make a leap of faith and construct conspiracy theories avoided. Such evidence, if it does incontrovertibly point to the involvement of Pakistan-based groups, will simultaneously strengthen the hands of the democratic government in Islamabad and also leave little room for denial.


If there is a difficulty with diplomatic and multilateral responses it is that they do not promise immediate solutions, while military action (wrongly) claims to do so, which is why it is being pushed on to the agenda. Sadly but naturally, the Bharatiya Janata Party has turned aggressive because jingoism courses in its veins and it smells blood in the next Lok Sabha elections. A new and vocal lobby is that of the so-called educated elite who know neither war nor the human costs it imposes but have been egged on by an irresponsible electronic media, which has abdicated its responsibility to educate and inform and has chosen instead to stoke the fires of hyper-nationalism.


Those who are pressing the government to take military action against Pakistan should pause for a moment and ask who will gain from even a “limited war” between India and Pakistan. The faltering peace process between the two countries will be the first casualty. Pakistan, already under internal siege by tensions among the fledgling democratic government, the military and the jihadis, will have to say goodbye to democracy once again. The jihadis will acquire greater influence in Pakistan and the prospect of that country being torn further apart by sectarian and fundamentalist-orchestrated violence will increase. The ultra nationalists in India remain pleased with such a possibility because they do not have the foresight to realise that a neighbour of 172 million that is riven by violence is a bigger threat to people’s lives in India. Perhaps, this is what the forces who organised the Mumbai terror actually do want. Beyond spreading terror in this city, their larger and diabolical plan may have been to foster the consolidation of jihadi groups in Pakistan.


The crescendo of calls for military action comes from a people – or rather a small section of urban India – who are confused, angry and insecure about their lives and those of their children. They need to be spoken to and assured that the State will respond and protect their lives. Yet, there are none in government or civil society who seem capable of doing so. Those who do reach out to them do so irresponsibly and are egging the country on to military action.


There is a tirade going on against “politicians” but it is the politicians in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government who for the past week have behaved responsibly even as they have been put under immense pressure to take revenge for the Mumbai horror. But how long can they withstand the demand for action, especially when the chances of being re-elected to office in the 2009 elections may well depend on what results they can come up with in the coming months? The ultimate proof of leadership and statesmanship comes when a government withstands populist pressures and takes decisions for the larger good. In these very difficult times one can only hope that the largely discredited UPA government will in its last lap put true national interest above any (illusory) gains it may perceive to be had from even “limited” military conflict with Pakistan. 

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