Assistant Professor, Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program
Pakistan has developed one core strategy in dealing with India over the
decades: deploy Islamist militants to attack India while seeking cover
from retaliation under its nuclear weapons. It should be noted that
while Pakistan is most notorious for supporting Islamist terrorists, it
also supports religious
and ethnic insurgencies within India as well. Pakistan not only seeks
to use terrorism to illegitimately acquire territory in Indian Kashmir,
it also wants to resist India's rise in the international system. Until
the Modi administration, Pakistan has remained fairly confident that
India will not respond militarily to punish Pakistan for its
state-sponsored terrorism or to deter it from doing so in the future.
Modi's election prompted Pakistan to wonder how India will respond to a
bold Pakistan-backed terrorist attack. Would it follow the path of the
previous prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and defuse public
demands for revenge in effort to avoiding any skirmish with Pakistan
that would impede India's economic growth? Or would it embrace a more
hawkish approach that would punish Pakistan?
Would a Modi-led government embrace a more hawkish approach that would punish Pakistan?
Last week, Pakistan tested the water by dispatching three terrorists into Gurdaspurvia the Ravi River. The attackers killed seven
people, including the Punjab state police superintendent, before the
three themselves were killed. Modi's government has been fairly quiet,
ostensibly due to the mourning period to commemorate the life of India's
president, Abdul Kalam,
who passed away on the same day as the attack. Despite the deafening
silence, Pakistanis, Indians and the global public are anxious to see
how India responds.
This is not the first time that Pakistan has sought to test Modi's
mettle: the first time it did so was in May 2014, before Modi had been
sworn in. On that occasion, Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan. Analysts believed that the Herat attackers were either associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, now operating under the moniker "Jamaat-ud-Dawa," or the Haqqani network, both of which operate at
the behest of the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency. Pakistan has
backed several terrorist attacks on Indian personnel and facilities in
Afghanistan in effort to compel India to maintain a small footprint in
Afghanistan, fearing that India will use its presence there to support
militants and terrorists operating in Pakistan.
Then, in June, India's government announced that it had staged a raid into Myanmar's territory to pursue militants who had ambushed an army convoy in Manipur that killed 20
security personnel. India was making it clear that it will not tolerate
its neighbors harboring terrorists who act against India. Pakistan,
understanding that the message was directed at them, retorted that Pakistan is not Myanmar and brandished various nuclear threats.
The attack on Gurdaspur is an important escalation by Pakistan. It is
the first attack during the Modi government's tenure that has taken
place outside of Jammu and Kashmir, the territory that Pakistan seeks to
wrest from India. Yet Gurdaspur, a middling third-tier city that will
not capture the attention of India's public for long, does not have the
provocation power of, say, an attack on Delhi or Mumbai. It is unlikely,
in the minds of Pakistanis, that India would risk war for Gurdaspur.
However, it is almost certain that a tepid response to the Gurdaspur
attack will most likely invite more ambitious attacks on high-value
targets within India. This moment harkens back to an event in 1965 when
Indian and Pakistani troops confronted each other in the Rann of Kutch. Pakistan interpreted India's lackluster riposte as a signal of weaknesses and thus launched a more aggressive attack in Kashmir later that year. Pakistan, in that case, miscalculated. India responded by opening a new front along the international border in the Punjab.
Gurdaspur, apart from being an important signal of Pakistani escalation,
is a target laden with historical and symbolic significance.
Historically, it animates a grudge that Pakistan has nursed since
partition: namely, that Muslim-majority tehsils from
Gurdaspur went to India in connivance with the British to facilitate
India's acquisition of Kashmir. Few Pakistanis ever concede that not all
of Gurdaspur went to India -- Pakistan got Shakargarh.
Pakistan asserts that this allocation of "Gurdaspur district" permitted
India to move troops into Kashmir. Of course Pakistanis conveniently
omit that these districts were allocated to India instead of Pakistan
likely due to the large population of Sikhs there, and Pakistanis also
fail to acknowledge that Pathankot --
with a Hindu majority and close ties to Kashmir -- would have gone to
India in any event. Symbolically, the "original sin of Gurdaspur"
animates Pakistani military, militant and popular thinking about India.
is a target laden with historical and symbolic significance; it
animates Pakistani military, militant and popular thinking about India.
Gurdaspur is also important because it brings up memories of those bloody days of
a terror campaign waged by Sikh militants who committed wanton acts of
violence in the guise of an ethno-religious campaign to secure an
independent Sikh state known variously as Sikhistan or Khalistan. The
so-called "Khalistani militants"
enjoyed significant support from Pakistan. In fact, in 1993, I met a
Khalistani hijacker who had taken a passenger plane from Delhi, destined
for Amritsar and forced it land in Lahore. That hijacker was residing
in a prominent Sikh temple (Gurdwara) across from Lahore's famous fort.
Over the years Khalistani activists have continued to enjoy sanctuary in
Pakistan. A few weeks ago, the head of the committee that oversees Sikh
shrines in Pakistan metwith
Hafiz Saeed, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader and mastermind of the November
2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. Equally disconcerting, Khalistan's most
generous support lies in
the diaspora communities of Canada, the United Kingdom and the United
States where they can freely interact with ISI officials should they
In the weeks prior to the Gurdaspur attack, #Khalistan was trending on social media.Reports of
t-shirts and posters celebrating Sant Bhindranwale in India's Punjab
have further raised concern about a resurgent Khalistan movement.
Bhindranwale was a prominent Sikh militant leader who was killed in 1984
in an Indian army operation against the Golden Temple, Sikhism's most
sacred shrine. Bhindranwale had fortified the shrine and used it as a
military base from which his lieutenants conducted their terror
There is reason to believe that Pakistan seeks to reopen the Punjab as a new theater of terrorism.
There is reason to believe that Pakistan seeks to reopen the Punjab as a
new theater of terrorism. Pakistan is anxious to persuade militants to
stop fighting Pakistanis and resume the fight in India and Afghanistan.
To this end, Pakistan has rejuvenatedJaish-e-Mohammad in
effort to lure fellow Deobandis out of the Pakistani Taliban and
refocus on India. Lashkar-e-Taiba's cadres are also anxious to re-engage
in India. To add to India's concerns about the Punjab, the state faces
a rampant drug problemwhich creates numerous opportunities for militant-criminal-trafficking collusion.
Despite tense developments this summer, peaceniks heralded new portents for South Asian peace after Modi met his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in Russia and made a much-celebrated agreement on a definition of terrorism. This, however, would be of little comfort to Indian victims of Gurdaspur.
Optimism for a breakthrough was misplaced for several reasons. First,
Nawaz Sharif does not hold any lever of power that matters. Even if
Sharif wants peace himself -- a questionable assertion -- he is not the
Sharif that matters: Pakistan's army chief Raheel Sharif is the one in
charge. Pakistan's army has no incentive to normalize relations with
India; rather, it wants to protect its preeminent hold upon the state,
its resources and its people, all of which is predicated upon an
interminable, civilizational war with "Hindu India."
Second, such meetings can be productive if there is some glimmer of
joint preferences. Alas, there is little evidence of any common ground.
Pakistan wants to change the status quo through terrorism backed by
nuclear proliferation, while India wants to ratify the status quo and
get on with the business of being a rising power. The Gurdaspur attack
proves Pakistan's men on horseback do not want peace with India. The
attack was a clever move.
The Gurdaspur attack proves Pakistan's men on horseback do not want peace with India.
So far, Pakistan has used terrorism under its nuclear umbrella because
it is cheap, effective, difficult to deter and ultimately successful in
prompting an international chorus to call for "resolving the
If India fails to respond, it will no doubt court further Pakistani
adventurism. After the bust-up in Myanmar, a failure to take decisive
action to punish Pakistan will mean that Pakistan has essentially called
India has options that include political, diplomatic, economic and
military modes of redress. Diplomatically, it can downgrade Pakistan's
mission or even oust Pakistan's ambassador. India can engage in economic
sabotage. Military options that are proportionate include air raids on
terror camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir from aircraft safely
within Indian airspace. These are all options at the lower end of the
Politically, India must change the narrative about this conflict with
its major partners. India would be behooved to tell its international
backers bluntly that there is no "India-Pakistan problem" -- only a
Pakistan problem. India's partners should support India in its
application of power and join hands to force Pakistan to abandon terror
under a nuclear umbrella as tools of foreign policy rather than, as is
the case, finding ways of excusing Pakistan's behavior in order to
continue writing checks to Islamabad.
Pakistan is not just India's problem. It's time the international community understood this and began acting accordingly.