On October 20, army chief Bipin Rawat said India had targeted three “terror launch pads” in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir with artillery fire, killing six to 10 Pakistani soldiers. The strikes were retaliation for ceasefire violations by Pakistan that killed two soldiers and a civilian, Rawat said. It was an escalation from the usual small-arms fire exchanged in ceasefire violations. The first major instance of cross-border violence reported since the Balakot air strikes in February, it suggests that India intends to maintain its aggressive posture on the border.
According to observers in Delhi, operations such as these are not new or even unusual, just as the 2016 “surgical strikes” along the Line of Control were not. What was speculated in 2016 now seems to be confirmed: the old doctrine of strategic restraint has firmly fallen out of favour. Under the Narendra Modi government, previously covert operations have been placed in the public domain, the centrepiece of a muscular policy on national security. National security was the government’s rationalisation for the Balakot air strikes in February, a response to the Pulwama suicide bombing days earlier, and the August 5 decision to revoke special status to Jammu and Kashmir, splitting the state into two Union Territories. The government has even toyed with the idea of abandoning its no-first-use nuclear policy.
But as India abandons the veneer of restraint, has it become more secure? The numbers suggest that this new policy has not deterred Pakistan or brought down casualties. According to some estimates, Jammu and Kashmir recorded 2,936 ceasefire violations by Pakistan in 2018, the highest in 15 years. In September, the Centre claimed that Pakistan had committed over 2,000 unprovoked ceasefire violations already this year. The January to June period saw 72 security personnel killed in Jammu and Kashmir, the highest tally for the first six months of the year since 2005. And that is not counting civilian or militant deaths.
The long-term strategic gains, if any, have not been conveyed by the government. The August 5 decisions may have caused an irrevocable drift between the Valley and the Centre. Across the border, Pakistan’s rhetoric has mirrored India’s. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is quick to invoke the spectre of a nuclear war. On Sunday, Islamabad claimed to have killed nine Indian soldiers, although the Indian army denies it. In the medium term, New Delhi has upped the ante for limited engagements across the border. The conditions are ripe for a dangerous escalation that could bring the two countries to the brink of war, commentators have warned.
While India has international sympathy for its war against terror so far, it is not clear how long this sentiment will hold. There have been signs of disquiet about India’s unilateral measures in Kashmir and a section of the international community has urged both countries to engage in dialogue. But talks, the alternative that might actually help curb threats to national security, are more politically unfashionable than ever.