On September 29, the Narendra Modi government announced that the Indian Army had attacked what it described as terror launchpads along the Line of Control, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. These so-called surgical strikes were widely seen as a response to the September 18 attack on an Indian Army facility in Uri, Kashmir, in which militants had killed 19 soldiers.
The announcement was a political success for the Bharatiya Janata Party. However, its impact on India’s security might not be as beneficial. Since the strikes, there has been a significant intensification of hostilities on the Line of Control and the international border. On Monday, an Indian soldier was killed in Pakistani firing from across the Line of Control. On Friday, militants crossed over from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and gruesomely beheaded an Indian soldier. Between September 29 and October 31, Pakistani firing has killed eight Indian military personnel. In effect, this means that the 2003 ceasefire on the Line of Control is almost dead, a development that could end up greatly harming India’s security interests in Kashmir.
While this is the first time the Union government has announced such an attack publicly, it is clear that the Indian Army has crossed the LoC to strike Pakistani targets on at least nine previous occasions. The current Union defence minister, however, sought to play down this history using semantics: Parrikar claimed the earlier attacks were "covert” strikes, not surgical strikes. While the minister did not explain the difference, it seems the government’s use of the term “surgical strike” was itself non-standard. A surgical strike refers to an aerial attack with precision-guided weapons or the airdropping of special forces deep inside enemy territory. The September 29 action, on the other hand, was a ground assault.
Even while inaccurate, it is not difficult to see why the Union government chose the term “surgical strikes”: its mass appeal and muscular connotations makes it politically attractive. Given its constant criticism of the Manmohan Singh government’s policy of strategic restraint from 2004 to 2014, the Modi government’s passivity in the face of numerous cross-border attacks on security installations was making its supporters restless. Additionally, the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections provide a platform for the BJP to utilise the political capital from these strikes.
Indeed, post the strikes, the BJP has made skilful use of military rhetoric in its politics, even blending it in with its Hindutva agenda. Modi made a reference to the surgical strikes on the festival of Vijay Dashami, celebrated by Hindus as the victory of good over evil. On Diwali, the Union government introduced a programme to help Indians express gratitude to the Army for its services. The Modi government has stoked anti-Pakistan sentiment by targeting popular activities such as films and cricket. But other less-popular instances of India-Pakistan interaction – such as cross-border trade and even the sport of hockey – have been left untouched, given that there is no political capital to be earned by disrupting them.
However, the strategic advantage of the raids in the context of Kashmir remains unclear. In fact, India's bellicose reaction might actually end up benefitting Pakistan’s army and deep state, which operates independent of civilian control. Given that Pakistan’s bloated military justifies its existence by using India as a bogey, tensions between Delhi and Islamabad actually act as a support for the Pakistani Army.
Increased hostilities harm India
While the Indian Army’s September 29 raids were ostensibly meant to make the Line of Control safer, they have actually given Pakistan an excuse to ratchet up hostilities. Just four days after the surgical strikes, militants attacked Rashtriya Rifles and Border Security Force camps outside Kashmir’s Baramulla town, killing an officer. On October 13, one Indian soldier was killed and seven others were injured after militants attacked an army convoy on the outskirts of Srinagar. Pakistani troops also began to regularly violate the ceasefire, firing on Indian troops across the LoC. The beheading of an Indian soldier on Friday recounted the events of 2012-'13, when Indian and Pakistani soldiers had crossed the Line of Control, killed soldiers and then beheaded them.
In the one month since the surgical strikes on September 29, Pakistan committed 57 ceasefire violations. To understand just how high this is, the number of ceasefire violations in the nine months leading to September 29 was 58. These hostilities have meant that three civilians and eight military personnel have been killed in Indian Kashmir. This large spike indicates that the 2003 ceasefire is near-dead – an alarming development for India. Regular firing on the LoC means the Pakistani Army can provide cover to militants trying to cross over into India. It can also destroy India’s LoC fence, which has played a key role in reducing infiltration.
Post the surgical strikes, it was clear that India’s options were limited. Even for the September 29 attack, the Union government made it clear in its statement that this was a one-off event and it did “not have any plans for further continuation”. While Pakistan has kept up a constant stream of provocation after September 29, the Indian government has restrained itself.
The lack of options for the Modi government after the bravado of the surgical strikes is exactly why the Manmohan Singh government adopted a course of strategic restraint. While tension at the LoC helps Pakistan’s Army, it bogs down India, which would rather focus on the development of its people.