Saturday, 23 February 2019

Consequences for India’s minority of the gathering war clouds after Pulwama

The army’s new land warfare doctrine, put out in December last year, has it that a gray zone obtains where a state-sponsored proxy war is incident. While Kashmir is not mentioned as such, it is unmistakable that to the army it lies athwart a gray zone. From this gray zone emerged a gift horse for Prime Minister Modi. Surveying the election scene mid-month, Modi would likely have been nervous. Now he stands much more self-assured. He has been handed a potential election wining factor by the lone wolf from Pulwama.

PM Modi, and his political Man Friday, Amit Shah, have wasted no time looking the gift horse in the mouth. They are milking the aftermath to draw ahead of the competition. The leading opposition party, the Congress, initially wary of criticizing the government has only belatedly got into gear. This gave the ruling party some lead time to draw ahead and back in the lead by promising military delivered retribution. Meanwhile, mobs supposedly impelled by nationalism hit the streets, looking for Kashmiris to beat in many places, such as Dehra Dun and Jammu.

The sorry episode of hunting of Kashmiris by mobs that required the Supreme Court to step in and tell off nine states that they must uphold their constitutional duty by protecting Kashmiris in other parts of India has much of significance for India’s largest minority, its Muslims. This time it is Kashmirs, next time it is us, the larger constituency of readers of this publication. And our time need not necessarily be some time in Modi’s next term. It could well be now.

Modi has got onto a horse, he would be unable to dismount any time soon. He has ordered the army to swing into action in retaliation for the Pulwama terror attack. The army is presumably planning and preparing. The visit of the Saudi crown prince and Modi’s visit to South Korea have given it time. It would likely have come up with options by now and may have taken a sign off from the Modi-Doval combine on the punitive strike.

This strike may not be long in coming since there is a reasonable limit to the time lapse between suffering a terror blow and retaliation. As the United States was quick to point out, India has the right to retaliate, but the right to retaliate is limited in international law by the principles of proportionality and discrimination. While the army has been allowed to retaliate at a time and place of its own choosing, so that it is most effective and suffers least casualties, there cannot be too much of a delay between the provocation and the reprisal. The reprisal cannot be indefinitely delayed but must bear some co-relation with the initial provocation.

Currently, the Pakistani army is on alert. Its air force has flown combat air patrols. The villages along the Line of Control in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have been alerted to possible hostilities. The hospitals as far away as Baluchistan have been warned to keep beds for use by the military in case of casualties. This alert implies that in the immediate term there is little possibility of catching the Pakistanis by surprise as was the case during the surgical strikes two years back.

The longer India waits to get a counter punch in, the closer it gets to elections. While this will give the Modi-Shah duo more time to milk the situation of its election-related worth, it would also complicate the run up to the elections. The opposition will remind the ruling party of its rhetoric and point to its inability to follow through. It cannot be put beyond Modi to put back the elections in case he thinks the verdict is still iffy for him. He can use the impending operations as excuse.

Conducting operations sooner than later, prior to the elections, has a downside. As mentioned, the Pakistanis can hold up their guard longer. The operations are liable to meet with opposition. This could result in a costly operation, if not a reverse. It can be expected that Modi’s expertise in perception management, duly aided by national security supremo, Doval, can have the usual game of smoke and mirrors obscure the reality. India can come away the winner, whatever the ground reality. This would of course be contested by the Pakistanis, no spring chickens at spinning a yarn themselves.

Even so, there is no guarantee the government’s narrative of the outcome of the military showdown between the two armies would go India’s way and that India’s slip would not show. This implies that there is a possibility of escalation to what one Modi minister calls an ‘aar paar’ conflict. To ensure a victory of sorts, Modi may require upping the ante. In short, body bags can be expected to come home.

This is when the threat for attacks on minorities would tend to go up. Dehra Dun, for instance, witnessed the bodies of two of its sons come home in quick succession, one of which was in relation to operations connected with the Pulwama terror attack aftermath. This led to orchestration by the right-wing of nationalist sentiment to spike up the threat to Kashmiris studying in Dehra Dun, a well-regarded educational hub. Kashmiri youth are studying across India, including in Dehra Dun, mostly under centrally-sponsored schemes designed as much to respond to unsettled conditions in Kashmir – by sending them outside for study - as to prevent alienation in youth there from – by exposing them to India’s soft power.

What happened in Dehra Dun can be expected to be witnessed across India. Given the possibility of a bloody nose, the right-wing would also need to take out its invective and angst. The internal ‘Other’ – India’s Muslims – are readily available, particularly as they are ubiquitous, vulnerable and have in the popular construct already been identified with Pakistan – allegedly cheering for Pakistan during cricket matches. Thus, turning to vent their frustration and cow the rest of the majority and voting public, Muslims could form a useful outlet. The intensity of anti-minority mob violence will tend to increase as the Modi-Doval spiel on the outcome of the military contest unravels as facts inevitably seep through the information war blanket.

This is the good part. There is no limit to escalation since the threat of nuclear war cannot be discounted or underestimated how much ever the national security establishment prefers to sweep it under the carpet. They wish to do so in order to deny Pakistan a deterrence card. It also enables the establishment to undertake a punitive operation by ridiculing the notion that advent of nuclear weapons in such conflict is a far-fetched notion. Nevertheless, a thought to the outcome of such escalation in terms of early warning and consequence management is warranted.

Consider the prospect of escalation. It could occur on both counts, an alert Pakistani army setting back an Indian operation or an Indian operation drawing blood. In the former case, the Indians might be compelled to escalate, since for a bigger power to end up in a draw with the weaker one, it is to lose. The latter case is when the Pakistanis over-react to an Indian success; invest heavily in their counter, and in doing so provoke an Indian cold-start level conventional operation. The Pakistanis have time and again warned that should this happen, they may resort to their nuclear weapons. India is promised to ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation in such eventuality and the current thinking is that it may jettison its No-First-Use and take out Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in a damage limitation nuclear strike with first strike equivalent of megatonnage.

Whatever the level of nuclear exchange - lower order or higher order – there would be hell to pay for India’s minority, even if Pakistan comes out worse and India is spared the worst. It would provoke a backlash to rival Partition. The election backdrop will disappear and the multiple pogroms can acquire a historical mark of their own. There is no indication that the state is envisaging such possibilities as it hurtles along the nuclear path worshipping the false god, deterrence. The state institutions are too suspect to be relied on to follow their rajdharma in such a case.

Even if they were so capable, the Modi era has hollowed them out thoroughly. Recall, Modi was more bothered of the backlash received by the train Vande Bharat express he flagged off – and which promptly hit a snag – than the Kashmiris hounded across India by his supporters. His showing in the Gujarat carnage can only serve to warn of a nationwide repeat in case of a nuclear exchange, irrespective of whether India comes out on top.

The upshot of this consideration of national security matters with implications for minority security is that adverse India-Pakistan equations are not in the good health of India’s Muslims. Such adversarial relations are useful only for the right-wing. This is best evidenced by their attempt to profit in the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack. Their sway over power compels the national security establishment also to fall in line. The upshot is a hardline against Pakistan and in Kashmir, one that can go tragically wrong – as seen here - for the country and its largest minority. The antidote is the good health of the relations between the two South Asian neighbours. This can be only through boarding out the right-wing by mid this year, lest some other terror attack later bring the house down on Indian Muslims.