‘A threshold has been breached'

‘A threshold has been breached'

Srinath Raghavan

Srinath Raghavan, Professor of History and International Relations at Ashoka University, tells DH’s S. Raghotham that the February 26 airstrike will not be enough, India will have act along a broad front militarily and diplomatically to incrementally change Pakistan’s behaviour towards India.  

What do you think of this round of India-Pakistan hostilities?

The Pulwama suicide bombing on February 14 was one of the biggest terrorist attacks on our security forces. Naturally, it triggered tensions between the two countries. So, the origin of this round of hostilities with Pakistan is clear – it is Pakistan’s support for terror groups and its desire to inflict a thousand cuts on India. Prime Minister Modi has since 2016 maintained a strong posture against terror. In 2016, we had the surgical strikes. It was inevitable that this time, it had to be a higher response, thus the airstrike. So, while there was a strike on terror, it ended with air-to-air combat, our pilot being captured and released, which paved the way for de-escalation.

India seems to have wanted to convey that it is no longer deterred from acting against Pakistan-based terrorists, the nuclear overhang notwithstanding. Do you think we succeeded?

This is the first time India has struck on Pakistani territory in peacetime. That’s quite a signal that Pakistan will henceforth face higher costs for support of terrorism. Pakistan responded, and also showed it is willing to escalate, in fact, take a higher risk. Remember that it responded in broad daylight and in less than 24 hours. In future, if there are terror attacks, India will use air power. But Pakistan will respond. So, both sides will learn lessons from this episode.

Pakistan seems to have, as always, won the perception war, but who seems to have won this round in real terms?

Winning the perception war depends on what narratives you put out. It cannot be independent of what’s actually happening. The narrative is only as good as its credibility, consistency and whether it is being called into question or not. On the Indian side, there is some lack of clarity. As details emerge, there will be more clarity, but some questions will remain unanswered. That’s the nature of such things. There have been official briefings – by the foreign secretary, by the three Services jointly. In none of these have details been claimed that have been called into question. On the other hand, Pakistan first said it had shot down three Indian aircraft and captured two pilots, then it said two aircraft and it became one aircraft, one pilot. It said it had not deployed its F-16s, but then a part of its AIM-120 missile was found on our side. So, India did better in terms of credibility and consistency.

On the flip side, Pakistan grabbed the airwaves quickly. Politically, our prime minister did not make any statement at all, except for what he said at his public meetings. Imran Khan was on TV, constantly addressing the nation, parliament, making the release of Wg. Cdr. Abhinandan look like he was extending the hand of peace. But the perception battle cannot be won independent of the facts, and on facts the Indian side came out better.

The Indian media – the TV channels – made a spectacle of themselves, giving out misleading information, like Indian fighters being in Pakistani airspace for 21 minutes, or 300 being killed in the airstrike.     

Was India able to generate international pressure on Pakistan?

The airstrike catalysed pressure on Pakistan. Frankly, in this case, one wonders what else Pakistan could have done other than what it did to de-escalate. But it was politically smart to present the release of our pilot as de-escalation. A prolonged crisis was not in their interest. But the pressure on Pakistan has just begun. India has given it the dossier on JeM, it will press for Masood Azhar to be listed by the UN as a terrorist, it will want China to remove its technical hold on this.

Will getting Azhar listed help to stop terrorism?

Look, no one set of actions will do that. We will have to incrementally move on a number of fronts – militarily, diplomatically, the FATF listing, etc. The international community will take India seriously after what it has done. They would not have if we had been reckless with our action (following the airstrike), but India hasn’t been reckless.

What are the takeaways from all this for the next India-Pak episode whenever it occurs? 

First, let’s hope nothing of this scale occurs. A threshold has been breached with the airstrike, but it is not a one-way street. India will do well to manage and temper domestic expectation. Otherwise, next time, there will be pressure for greater escalation. We have demonstrated will and ability, but there are costs to India, too. That must be recognised. 

The airstrike has induced caution in Pakistan. You will see them moving around the terror infrastructure, etc. Hopefully, they won’t draw the lesson that they handled this episode smartly and were able to terminate it on their terms because they captured an Indian pilot. Next time, there is a major crisis, it won’t turn out quite that way, and they will not be able to terminate it on their terms. There are sober lessons for both sides to learn  

How has the government handled Kashmir, and where do you think India should go from here in J&K?

The first thing to do is to resume normal politics there. Create conditions for elections. Once the new government is formed, it must begin with the understanding that it has a serious problem on hand – the radicalisation of the Kashmiri youth. It must engage with them politically. Why allow Pakistan and the likes of JeM to take advantage of the situation? It is important to have elections, a government in place and engage with the people politically. It is not incompatible with being tough against terrorism.