Hina Pandey
March 31, 2019


Is South Asia the most dangerous place in the world with the presence of nuclear weapons? Do the possibilities of escalation dynamics spiraling into a nuclear exchange exists more in the India-Pakistan dyad than any other?  While there exists no clear answers to these questions, the recent play out of the escalation dynamics between India and Pakistan renders one observation that the crucial questions of ‘to war’ can sometimes be controlled by rational choices; and that  an India-Pakistan war is not an accident waiting to happen because of the existing triggers of non-state terrorist attack. The Indian response to such an action can be very well calibrated in order to convey the resolve- that terrorist attacks will not go un-punished.

However, eleven days into Pulwama attacks, and the Indian media was flooded with several opinions concerning India’s options. Some of the Indian social media outlets even criticised PM Modi for conducting business as usual, such as his visit to South Korea and his acceptance of the Saudi Crown Prince, after his powerful statement that , ‘The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain…’

Additionally, by adopting a skeptic’s view, some analyses also argued that there is not much India can do in response to the Pulwama attack, however, some of these reactions represented the western view of the situation as well as the Pakistani perspective. Within India, the public opinion in the immediate aftermath of Pulwama attack was viewed as shaping in favor of India’s military response.  It indeed seemed …an intense pressure was building up on the PM to live upto the reputation of surgical strike…’

Until  25th February 2019, the skeptics concluded rather harshly that India had not undertaken any military response, ignoring the possibility that – if a military action has not taken place yet, it doesn’t mean that the option is not on the table.   Moreover, the whole range of diplomatic options considered by India, such as its appeal to international community to condemn the Pulwama attack, gaining support of 50 countries in listing of Masood Azhar under the UNSC committee and the appeal to make him a global terrorist, as well as the proposal to ban terror groups operating from the Pakistani territories, India’s withdrawal  of the Most Favored Nation (MFN) status for Pakistan, the Indian effort in asking several other countries to give their support to Pakistan’s blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force, was somewhat overlooked.

It is important to reiterate that FATF blacklisting is crucial, as, if that happens, Pakistan would find it difficult in receiving loans from the lenders such as the IMF, World Bank, ADB and the EU. It is to be recognised that Pakistan is already in the grey list of FATF since 2018 for failing to curb terrorism. The FATF will take the the next review of Pakistan regarding its status in June 2019. Whether or not it will be successful in changing Pakistan’s behavior involves different dynamics altogether.

 In hindsight, one can argue that even when India did not take any military action until the 25th February 2019, it had already done enough to mobilise the international community to identify the hostility that Pakistan had committed, thereby  legitimizing its ‘pre-emptive non military strikes’ at Balakot. This was necessary, as it attached the notion of defensive legitimacy to India’s response. Additionally, the Indian response also evoked an ‘element of the right to self-defence’ located under the Indian position of zero tolerance towards terrorism.  It interesting that the Indian response, seems to be aligned with the motto of India’s topmost military institution- Defence Services Staff College (DSSC)-Wellington, called  “to war with wisdom”, which preaches a conduct of war with wisdom, instead of anger. By executing the diplomatic options first, India not only demonstrated its resolve but it  did so with legitimacy, further reiterating the ideal- “to war with wisdom”.  This is reflective of a soundly calibrated response in the crucial times of flustered social media opinions.

On a related note, one observation can be made on the escalation dynamics that played out in real time in the recent India-Pakistan crisis (Specifically 14th February 2019- 28 February 2019).  While the escalation pathway was triggered by an anti -India terror strike by the non-state actors attributed to Pakistan, the de-escalation too was quick to follow.Within hours of the capturing of the downed Indian IAF pilot, Pakistan’s PM signaled a clear message of not wanting to engage in further escalation and offered to return the pilot peacefully without any bargaining. On the Indian side too, the fact that action was taken days after the Pulwama terror attack, after executing the diplomatic options first and getting the international community on the same page as India, the move is suggestive of restraint.  Additionally, the fact that the Indian response was limited to only the terrorist infrastructure, not targeting any Pakistani military facilities or civilian, seemed to have been done in order to avoid provoking higher level of escalation by the other side. However, the crossing of Indian warplanes into Pakistani territory well beyond the Pkistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) by India can be seen as setting a new punitive ground rule in the India-Pak escalation dynamics. Especially, ‘Air Power has been used across the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) for the first time since 1971’.

The question that begs an answer is, is the message accepted by Pakistan, that use of air power by India might become a norm in response to terror? Nobody knows for sure as yet, but what has been assured with this ‘new normal’ (if one may like to call it) is that, only action rested in wisdom would likely guide further retaliatory response from India. Escalation is a competition in risk taking and sometimes states as rational actors understand it well to signal resolve and convey the message.

*** The author is a PhD Candidate in the American Studies Programme, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***