New Delhi is no longer going to only talk, but is now ready to neutralise terrorists Photograph: (Others)
As a mature democracy, India has all options on the table and is sticking to no first-use policy
When India carried out the attacks on terror camps across the LoC, its objectives were clear that it was striking at terrorists that Pakistan could not find. It also made it clear to the government and military in Pakistan that this was not an attack against the Pakistani army. India was avenging the Uri attack for which the terrorists have claimed responsibility. Pakistan had denied its role in Uri, so the objective of India was crystal clear. New Delhi is no longer going to only talk, but is now ready to neutralise terrorists and flatten any launch pad. The time for restraint for India is over and this is the occasion for New Delhi to exercise all options, but without being callous about them.
Strategic restraint is useful only when it is part of the strategy. But when that restraint becomes a habit, it is looked upon as weakness. India has reached that point. Terrorists would attack, and India would say that it would take action and then one more attack would take place. The Indian population’s endurance limit has already been stretched thin, and it is no longer willing to suffer another infiltration.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi understood this well. He knew that he couldn’t be seen as a warmonger but he was also not willing to be perceived as a weak leader. When he came to power he reached out like a statesman to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, hoping that there would be an opportunity for peace. But Sharif is incapable of controlling the elements in Pakistan which some describe as non-state actors.
The presence of guns in Pakistan in almost every home makes it difficult for the state to control the violence that unfolds. So even if Sharif had wanted, he could not have controlled these groups.
Exercising control over such outfits would have been a strategic restraint on the Pakistani side but it does not seem to be a possibility. The inclusion of non-state actors as part of its strategy has been Pakistan’s challenge. Once the gun culture seeps in and groups are formed on the basis of religion with the goal to create a religious state, matters spiral out of control.
If these were two countries fighting a conventional war, the story would have been different. But they are nuclear powers. They have an arsenal strength of close to 200 weapons and capable of delivering warheads deep inside each other’s territory.
I remember sitting with Hamid Gul, the former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence. He thought he was joking with me and said that his son, an F 16 pilot, was capable of delivering a nuclear weapon as far away as Bangalore. I laughed it off, but the reality is that we should not be looking at these weapons of mass destruction as options.
According to the 2007 study by researchers from Rutgers University, University of Colorado-Boulder and University of California, if India and Pakistan enter into a nuclear war, 21 million people would be killed within the first week of the war itself. It will not only be devastating for the two countries in question, but also for the people around the world. A nuclear war would result in dramatic climatic changes, putting at least 2 billion people around the world at a risk of severe starvation. So, even a reckless statement from either side reduces the sensitivity required to handle these weapons of mass destruction.
While these nuclear weapons were not made for display, they should be used only as the last resort. They are more like ‘deterrents’ for other nations. India has shown maturity by pledging to the no-first-use policy. This means that in the case of a war, India would not be the first one to use nuclear weapons against any nation. But if a weapon is launched towards it, then it can empty its whole arsenal. However, Pakistan has not taken a similar pledge.
How much time does India have to respond to an incoming nuclear weapon?
Once a nuclear-tipped missile is launched and has taken trajectory, it would take about 7 minutes to reach its destination or be intercepted.
In May 2016, the successful test of Ashvin, a defence interceptor supersonic missile, by India, tipped the balance towards New Delhi. Ashvin is a missile that India would launch once it is alerted that a nuclear missile has been unleashed.
Nuclear missiles have a signature and the Israelis have worked with India to develop the ability to read that signature. This deterrence is essential but it is still not enough. Because an initial attack on India would be twin strategies of conventional and nuclear warfare, a couple of missiles may breach India’s security systems. Pakistan may have a few systems in place as well. The Chinese would have possibly also equipped them with some defence systems.
Is there a way forward?
War is in nobody’s interest but there is also no scope for low-intensity on-going terrorism. India has reached a stage where public support for restraint is over. Indians are willing to fight it once and for all.
So, if this precipitates a full-scale war then there will be casualties. Some estimates put them at 200 million with climatic impact as far as the US. It is the cost of war many would say. And in this case, it would impact the human race for a long time to come.
But there is a way out for secular democracies to flourish and coexist. The choice is with the leadership in both countries. History for them should not become the burden of memory.