Sushant Singh

In October 2022, Narendra Modi donned battle fatigues and boasted of military preparedness while spending a few hours with soldiers in Kargil, where India and Pakistan last fought a limited war in 1999. COURTESY PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU

The questions are about China. The answers are about Pakistan. That seems to be the case when it comes to the Narendra Modi government’s designs for India’s security challenges. Even as the Chinese army clashed with Indian soldiers at Tawang’s Yangtse Ridge, in December, the Modi government was more focussed on issuing diplomatic statements against Pakistan. The charge was led by the minister of external affairs, S Jaishankar, in New York, using India’s turn at the presidency of the UN Security Council to converge attention towards countries harbouring terrorism—a thinly guised euphemism for Pakistan. That terrorism is a priority when no major terror attack has taken place in India since the 2019 Pulwama suicide bombing while the Chinese continue to militarily threaten India along the border makes this direction incomprehensible. That too when the Modi government is robustly engaging with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a dispensation seen to be synonymous with terrorism.

The incessant focus on Pakistan has been on for a few months now. In October, Modi donned battle fatigues and boasted of military preparedness while spending a few hours with soldiers in Kargil, where India and Pakistan last fought a limited war in 1999. That same month, on Shaurya Diwas, commemorating the day the Indian Army landed in Kashmir in 1947, the defence minister, Rajnath Singh, said that the unfinished agenda of 5 August 2019—when Article 370 was abrogated—is to wrest back Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit–Baltistan. In November, responding to a question during a media interaction, Lieutenant General Upendra Dwivedi, the chief of the Northern Command, stated that the army was ready to take back PoK whenever such orders are given by the government. In fact, he did not go as far as the late Bipin Rawat who, as the army chief in September 2019, had said that, should the union government decide, the army would be ready to “retrieve PoK and making it a part of India.”

India’s claim over parts of Kashmir emanates from the instrument of accession signed by the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir on 26 October 1947. At the peak of the Kashmir insurgency, in February 1994, parliament passed a unanimous resolution stating that PoK is an integral part of India and that “Pakistan must vacate the areas of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, which they have occupied through aggression.” That is not very different from the unanimous resolution on China passed on 14 November 1962, where the same parliament affirmed “the firm resolve of the Indian people to drive out the aggressor from the sacred soil of India, however long and hard the struggle may be.” Any such resolve on China today is unlikely to be invoked by the current dispensation. Pakistan, caught in its own whirlpool of economic disaster, political turmoil and social strife, is a much more convenient target for Hindutva ideologues. However, such noise may be pushing India towards a dangerous precipice.

It is easy to ignore the hyper-nationalistic rhetoric of political leaders, but harder to disregard the claims of senior commanders indicating their intent to take back PoK. According to a survey by the Stimson Center, ninety percent of Indians believe that India “probably or definitely would” defeat Pakistan in a war, and now the Indian media is reporting claims of taking back PoK with great sincerity. These claims must, therefore, be clinically examined. Senior military officers, serving and retired, have told me that there are no actual plans to start a war with Pakistan to take back PoK. It is not a military aim that has been given any serious consideration within the armed forces. The terrain is very tough and, as the military dictum goes, “mountains eat troops.” Further, the current force levels would rule out any such endeavour.

The army can only undertake offensive operations in areas where the going is relatively easier. That would mean the Jammu and Chamb sectors, and some of the hilly areas in the Rajouri sector. The current plans in other areas are for the very limited objectives of gaining some local tactical and operational advantage—the Haji Pir Pass, which would allow the army to link the Uri and Poonch sectors, being the most prominent. The army has identified some other areas—in Kargil, and the Neelum and Leepa valleys—but, as HS Panag, the former chief of the Northern Command, wrote in 2019, “we have the capacity to extend the LoC by 5-10 kms in selected areas in a 7-10-day limited war.” That is, if everything goes as per plan—a big if.

According to military officials I spoke to, the Indian Army’s 14 Corps, looking after the eastern Ladakh border with China, besides its commitments in Siachen, is in no position to even attempt any serious moves to get into Gilgit–Baltistan. This is after discounting the fact that China’s showpiece China–Pakistan Economic Corridor projects pass through that region, which makes Beijing an important stakeholder in preserving the status quo. Considering the quantum of territory that would have to be captured in Gilgit–Baltistan, the force levels simply do not exist with the Indian military.

Any military engagement to wrest back PoK is not going to be a limited war. It will be a protracted conflict—not a short, swift engagement of ten or fifteen days—and a war that shall not be limited to Jammu and Kashmir alone. Pakistan is bound to open other fronts on the international border to relieve pressure in Jammu and Kashmir, even if we somehow assume that China will stay neutral in such a scenario. During the Kargil conflict, India kept the war limited to Kashmir, even ordering the Indian Air Force to fly only on India’s side of the Line of Control. One former army commander told me that such a conflict could easily last for three to four months, a lesson that the Russian misadventure in Ukraine should have driven home to Indian military planners.

Despite loftier aims of being prepared for fifty days of intense fighting, as per the defence minister’s operational directive—a document that was produced by the Manmohan Singh government in 2009 and has not been updated since, though it is meant to be issued every five years—the Indian armed forces are barely able to get ammunition and spares to fight for ten days. The Indian economy, post-demonetisation, cannot provide the resources for building up stock levels or for modernising the armed forces. The army remains short of over a hundred thousand soldiers, while the air force has around thirty combat squadrons against an authorisation of 42. The operational readiness of India’s submarines and aircraft carriers is not hidden from anyone in today’s times.

All these assessments have been made with two assumptions: one, the China crisis does not exist; and two, Pakistan does not have nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s military leaders—it is the only country where the military, and not the political leadership, controls nuclear weapons—have often argued that they will not hesitate to use their crown jewels if certain red lines are crossed. If, for instance, the Indian military was to somehow capture Muzaffarabad, the biggest town in PoK, it would definitely be crossing one of Pakistani’s red lines. Given that Pakistan is facing economic turmoil and politically instability, the threshold for Rawalpindi could well be lower. After the Balakot episode in 2019, when Modi threatened to fire missiles—he later boasted that India had not kept its nuclear arsenal for Diwali—Pakistan threatened to retaliate in greater measure. The threat brought diplomats and leaders from around the world to dissuade India and Pakistan, applying pressure to which New Delhi quickly deferred.

Military capabilities apart, the political leadership should heed the maxim that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” If the political objective is to capture PoK, these areas with large, settled populations will have to be controlled and pacified by India. Along with the restive people of the Kashmir Valley, they would create political difficulties that would be insurmountable for months, if not years. In 1971, Indira Gandhi decided that the Indian military should leave Bangladesh within weeks because she knew that the presence of soldiers in such a scenario does not end well. That lesson was forgotten by her son Rajiv in 1987, when he sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka. The outcomes could be far worse in the case of PoK.

India’s political leadership must also pay heed to China’s plans of integrating Taiwan. The Chinese leadership has no intention of taking over Taiwan through military means, when the whole world, including the United States and India, agree to the One China policy. It is willing to use all the other means in its arsenal—political, economic, and diplomatic—to compel Taiwan to rejoin China. Taiwan is not a nuclear-weapon state and China is a much bigger geopolitical, economic and military power than India.

Modi should pay heed to his own words, which he spoke to his “friend,” the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Samarkand in September: “Today is not an era of war.” That mantra applies as much to South Asia as it does to Europe. Indians cannot afford the social, economic and human costs of a war.

Sushant Singh is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and a visiting lecturer at Yale University.

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