The Modi government’s conundrum is that if it rides the jingoism tiger, it will have to retaliate against Pakistan – but that will risk conflict between two nuclear armed nations.
The beheading of a Border Security Force (BSF) head constable and an Indian army naib subedar by a Pakistani border action team serves multiple aims for the Pakistani army. Firstly, it serves to provoke India, thus dooming re-engagement with Pakistan and blighting any chance of dialogue between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that could have taken place on the sidelines of the forthcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. It also signals to Sharif that he may handpick his army chiefs all he wants but they will ultimately be more loyal to the army than their political masters. And finally, the timing of the beheading could have been selected to coincide with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to India, since he touched upon the Kashmir issue in a pre-visit interview.
It is not surprising that the Pakistani army would take this step but that it would choose to do so now. Besides the reasons outlined above, the Pakistani army’s action was likely informed by a few other considerations. Having observed US President Donald Trump’s administration during its first 100 days and the decision-making power that US generals – especially defence secretary James ‘Mad-Dog’ Mattis – enjoy in the White House, the Pakistani army has a measure of the new world order. The Pakistani army also seems to have concluded that the unrest in Kashmir – which is reviving with the onset of spring – is now self-sustaining but could do with an impetus to escalate it. And what better way to do this than by embarrassing the Modi government and Indian army? Finally, China’s anger over the Dalai Lama’s Tawang visit and the fact that Pakistan had just received a $1 billion financial bailout from China gave the army assurance that it would have China’s backing if matters with India escalated.
If all of this is clear to New Delhi, what then are its options? The message at the political and military level is clear: Pakistan will be punished appropriately. Talks between India and Pakistan’s director generals of military operations (DGMOs) followed the same old hackneyed script – with India accusing its counterpart and Pakistan denying that its soldiers crossed the LoC. The Modi government is caught in a jingoistic loop which it both feeds and responds to when public ire begins affecting government decision-making. Thus, we can assume some retribution is in the works.
In past situations when Pakistan’s provocations were much graver – say after the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai – India has discussed the full range of retaliatory steps available to it. The problem is that having two nuclear powers with roughly evenly matched military power reduces India’s options to prevent the situation from escalating. After three years in power, the Modi government should not have to repeat the ritual of the army chief rushing to Kashmir while the prime minister summons meetings and then deliver the expected rhetoric about executing an appropriate response at a time and place of Indian choosing.
Beheadings and mutilations are known to have taken place in the past as well. Since the act violates the Geneva Conventions, retaliation in kind was undertaken by local commanders without publicity. However, the perpetrators received the message and normal behaviour across the LoC was restored. The conundrum facing the Modi government is that if it rides the jingoism tiger then it will have to declare and execute retaliatory punishment. That means its action can be big on words but could avoid targeting the Pakistani army directly (like the surgical strikes), or it could go after some terror-related infrastructure, or it could put the Pakistani border units which sent raiders across in its cross-hairs.
Alternatively, Modi could break out of this self-created trap. Local commanders should be allowed to extract revenge but Modi should not let these actions derail his planned contact with Sharif – if industrialist Sajjan Jindal was indeed on a diplomatic mission in Murree, that is. That would be the appropriate punishment as it would cost the Pakistan army its men but also prevent it from using India’s actions to derail political communication between the two nations. Drawing from T.S. Eliot, it remain to be seen how the drama will end this time – with a bang or a whimper.
K.C. Singh is a retired Indian civil servant and was the Indian ambassador to Iran.