India Stops Turning the Other Cheek

NEW DELHI – For two and a half decades, Pakistan has pursued a policy of inflicting on India “death by a thousand cuts” – bleeding the country through repeated terrorist attacks, rather than attempting an open military confrontation which it cannot win against India’s superior conventional forces. The logic is that India’s response to this tactic would always be tempered by its desire not to derail its ambitious economic development plans, as well as the Indian government’s unwillingness to face the risk of a nuclear war.

But this predictable and repetitive pattern of India-Pakistan relations was suddenly disrupted on September 29, when India’s Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO), Lieutenant-General Ranbir Singh, announced that Indian commandos had conducted “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, the de facto international border between the two countries. The DGMO stated that the strikes, in the early hours of that morning, had destroyed terrorist “launch pads” and eliminated significant numbers of militants poised to cross over for attacks on the Indian side, as well as some who were protecting them (presumably a reference to Pakistani soldiers).

The Indian public and the country’s notoriously fractious political class reacted with great pride to the news, unanimously hailing the decisive action as long overdue. For the preceding quarter-century, Indians had watched helplessly as their attempts at peace-making with their belligerent, military-dominated neighbor had collapsed repeatedly, thanks to terrorist attacks from Pakistan that the government in Islamabad seemed unable or unwilling to prevent.

The most horrific of these attacks, the assaults on multiple locations in Mumbai, starting on November 26, 2008, killed 166 innocent civilians. But India confined its response to diplomatic action. This exercise of “strategic restraint” in the face of repeated Pakistani assaults – partly in order to avoid provoking a full-fledged war with its nuclear-armed neighbor – had left many Indians seething in impotent fury. It seemed to them that Pakistani terrorists could strike at will in India, with the government’s reluctance to hit back guaranteeing the killers’ impunity.