Illustration by Marium Ali

On a dark night when clouds enveloped the sky and rain and lightning forced people indoors, the residents of a village heard a roar and a thud louder than the loudest of cloud thunder. Many of them rushed out and saw a fighter plane crashed in the nearby fields.

Some of them thought its pilot must have died during the crash. Others surmised that he could be hiding somewhere and might try to attack them. As this chatter was going on, a boy and his sister heard a weak knock at their door. Someone was crying outside in pain. They opened the door and found a man in military uniform standing outside. He was the pilot whose plane had crashed.

For a moment, they hesitated. He was, after all, a combatant from the other side. He could also be armed and might hurt them. But he was also badly injured and bleeding. They called their father and all three helped him get in. They offered him food and water, cleaned and dressed his wounds. Next morning, they quietly went to a nearby military post and handed him over to the soldiers there.

This story was told in a Pakistani textbook back in the 1970s.

Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian pilot whose fighter plane crashed on Pakistani soil late last month, could say that this is not the way villagers in Azad Kashmir treated him. After they saw him descend from the sky with a parachute, they rushed and found him by a stream. Some of them immediately started beating him up and continued doing so until a contingent of the Pakistan Army arrived and rescued him.

The earliest images of the captured Indian pilot showed his face bloodied by the beating he got. A black eye and a swollen cheek were still visible in the images of him being handed over to India on March 1.

What has changed between the 1970s and now? What has made real life Pakistanis behave differently from their storybook version? Context. Mindset.

The context for the textbook story was a government effort to pacify the Pakistani public’s opinion towards India in the aftermath of a lost war in 1971. People were hurt. They were angry. They did not want to accept the creation of Bangladesh even though it was already a reality. They felt deceived and stabbed in the back by India.

The government needed to revive their essential humanity in order for them to see that blind hatred towards their big neighbour to the east was neither helpful nor desirable in making them good human beings — both individually and collectively. A mindset needed to be changed and a new mindset required to be inculcated so that the hurt and anger could be replaced with kindness and care.

Since those distant years, the context has changed drastically. Beginning with the early 2000s, the situation has only gotten worse. A strategically strident, politically powerful and economically confident India has spared no opportunity to browbeat Pakistan in almost every field — from diplomacy to sports and from competition in the international arena to bilateral cultural exchanges. Except for a brief period around the Agra Summit between General Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001 and some helpful behind the scenes diplomacy over the thorny issue of Kashmir more than a decade ago, the two countries have moved apart with a mutual ferocity they previously displayed only during and around wars.

Pakistani attitudes towards India have gone through multiple war, peace and then war again sequences during these years. This could be because Pakistanis have received an overtly aggressive education vis-à-vis India in recent times — one that emphasises their difference from the people on the Indian side of the border. They have been made to see the political and geographical divide between India and Pakistan as a war between good and evil, as a battle between an Atal-Bihari-Vajpayee-neighbourhood bully and its smaller, but virtuous, nemesis, and as a conflict between two religions.

Same has been the case on the Indian side — only more so because a shrill news media there has come to believe that there is money to be made from selling war. The hostility towards everything Pakistani has often manifested itself in rabidly anti-Pakistan rhetoric coming out of India’s chatterati — including politicians, actors, former bureaucrats, ex-soldiers and sometimes even intellectuals and writers.

In its most recent manifestation, this schooling in hate has led to multiple lynchings of Kashmiris working and studying in different parts of India. They are increasingly seen as Pakistani agents out to destroy India.

That the two sides need to change this context and their mutually hostile mindsets to one that induces peace more than it breeds war, is something that cannot be over-emphasised. There is so much to lose from war — money, men, our essential humanity. And there is so much to gain from peace — human development, security, our long-lost kindness and care.

By F.S. Aijazuddin

We are at war, yet never really at war.
We are at peace, never truly at peace.
What is this land in which we live -
seeded by hate, by the sword tilled,
by Death scythe-harvested?

Since neither of us can win,
let our unequal gods meet,
bury arms instead of limbs,
and negotiate a mirror’d defeat.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has achieved the unthinkable: he has pulled his country back from the precipice of peace.

Modi was not even born in April 1948 when India, after it lodged an appeal to the United Nations for help in Jammu and Kashmir, was handed the toothless Security Council Resolution No 47 which called for “a free and impartial plebiscite” to determine the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. That plebiscite was never held. India’s action created a precedent, though, for after that, whenever there was any tension or confrontation between India and Pakistan, one or the other or both scurried to third parties for mediation.

It did not matter whether it was the United Nations Security Council, the United States, the Soviet Union and latterly China. The two irascible neighbours have always expected someone else to coax them into accepting what they doggedly denied each other. For example, the World Bank acted as the broker for the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960 and the Soviet Union midwifed the Tashkent Agreement in 1966. It was only in the aftermath of the war over Bangladesh in 1971 that Pakistan and India conceded the unavoidable. They agreed to talk to each other, not at each other.

The preamble to the Simla Agreement of July 1972 was piety incarnate. Both countries admitted that they needed to “put an end to the conflict and confrontation that have hitherto marred their relations and work for the promotion of a friendly and harmonious relationship and the establishment of durable peace in the Subcontinent, so that both countries may henceforth devote their resources and energies to the pressing task of advancing the welfare of their peoples”.

Its first clause reiterated their acknowledgement of the supremacy of the United Nations Charter (that is, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and respect for each other’s sovereignty).

The second clause expressed the resolve of both India and Pakistan “to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them”. Both countries decided to let the Security Council Resolution No 47 hang out to dry while they washed their dirty linen in private.

Before leaving for Simla in the last days of June 1972, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was all too aware that he was hamstrung: over 5,000 square miles of his country’s territory was occupied by India; over 73,900 prisoners of war and 16,400 civilians under protective custody (not protected by the Geneva Convention) were held in concentration camps scattered across India; and the United Nations had been palpably ineffective in getting India to hold the promised plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir. To Bhutto, bringing India to the negotiating table yielded parity to Pakistan with a larger, stronger and adversarial neighbour.

For Indira Gandhi, a concession to hold bilateral negotiations cost her nothing. She had succeeded in removing the United Nations’ flailing fly off the table and she had decided in her mind that she would delay all bilateral negotiations on Jammu and Kashmir by postponing them. She knew that no one – neither the United States nor the Soviet Union – could coerce her to sit at any negotiating table with Pakistan to settle the issue of Kashmir.

Children in Srinagar protest for peace and freedom | AP
Children in Srinagar protest for peace and freedom | AP

By 1999, with Pakistan’s misadventure in Kargil and India’s swift retaliation, the dynamics in the Subcontinent changed. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hurried to Washington DC and, over a July-fourth holiday weekend, implored President Bill Clinton to protect him from the Indians in Kargil and from his own military in Rawalpindi.

This was an ironical replay of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s panic-ridden appeal during the 1962 India-China conflict. He had approached not the Non-Aligned Movement, of which he was a founder, nor the communist Soviet Union, of which he was a close ideological ally, but President John F Kennedy of the arch capitalist United States for “two squadrons of B-47 bombers” and “twelve squadrons of supersonic fighters manned by American crews”. This plea went unfulfilled.

Even if had been fulfilled, conditions attached to arms supplies by the United States remained clear — weapons sold to the nations in the Subcontinent were intended for use only against communist states, not against each other. That is why during the current crisis, India, which could not prevent the purchase of F-16 fighter jets by Pakistan from the United States, is desperate to have the United States condemn Pakistan for violating the small print of the supply contract.

Subtly, the United States has responded by telling India that F-16s in Pakistan’s possession could not be used offensively. It reminded the Indians that they had been the aggressors in the attack on Balakot. They had violated Pakistan’s territorial boundary, therefore, technically, Pakistan was justified to use F-16s (if it had) in self-defence.

China – “Pakistan’s all-weather friend” – has no such qualms. It does not mind where its arms are used or against whom. In its armaments supply policy, China follows the dictum of its former president Deng Xiaoping: it does not matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice. 

China, however, could not have been unconcerned when its JF-17 aircraft (manufactured by Pakistan with Chinese assistance) engaged in actual combat against India’s Russian-designed MiG-21s and Su-30s. It needed to know if the aircraft was any good. The JF-17 passed the test and vindicated Pakistan’s decision to rely upon China rather than the United States, which asks for its money in advance and then delays delivery.

The military cooperation and collaboration between Pakistan and China has come a long way since the middle of the 1960s when China would give in to Pakistan’s petulant and importuning demands for military hardware. Pakistan’s former ambassador to China, Sultan M Khan, in his book, Memories & Reflections of a Pakistani Diplomat (published in 1997), describes a visit to China in 1966 by a Pakistani delegation of senior military personnel. They had come to seek replenishment of their country’s weapons stockpile, depleted by the 1965 war with India.

The ambassador recalled that, on the final day of its stay, the Pakistani delegation called on Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. He told them that “all the requirements on their list would be met” and then remarked that he had seen the Pakistani list but was not sure on what basis the quantity of ammunition had been calculated. One of the Pakistani generals replied that the calculations were based on reserve supplies for 14 days.

This prompted Enlai to ask, “And what happens after fourteen days? How can a war be fought in that short time?” The general explained that Pakistan hoped that, during that time, the United Nations Security Council would meet and call upon both parties to cease fire and withdraw their armed forces to their respective borders.

“Please forgive me,” Enlai said, “if I appear to be confused by your reply. But if the outcome of a conflict has been predetermined to be a restoration of the status quo ante, then why fight at all? Why unnecessarily waste human lives and economic resources? Wars cannot be fought according to a time-table, and one has to be ready for a prolonged conflict.”

Pakistani soldiers stand near the remains of an Indian fighter jet shot down by Pakistan near the Line of Control on February 27, 2019 | AFP
Pakistani soldiers stand near the remains of an Indian fighter jet shot down by Pakistan near the Line of Control on February 27, 2019 | AFP

That conversation took place in the mid-1960s, before China became a nuclear superpower and before Pakistan developed its own nuclear capability. It was a time when the threat of nuclear attacks and retaliation could begin and end within 48 hours. Many people, even pseudo-statesmen, talk glibly about nuclear war today, as if it is a Republic Day parade in which nuclear-armed missiles will be ignited instead of fireworks.

They have perhaps forgotten that the last time a nuclear device was detonated, it was way back in August 1945 when the United States President Harry S Truman authorised his forces to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In retrospect, Truman’s diary entry about his decision to drop the bombs seems almost naive in its expectation: “This weapon is to be used against Japan between [July 1945] and August 10th. I have told the [Secretary] of War, [Henry Lewis] Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one.”

The bomb that detonated 1,900 feet above Hiroshima was nicknamed The Little Boy. It contained about 64 kilogrammes of uranium-235 and took 44.4 seconds to fall from the aircraft. Its descent was slowed by a parachute to allow the B-29 bomber aircraft, which carried and dropped it, to fly clear. The bomb did not distinguish between military and non-military victims nor was it gender sensitive. Everyone within a four-mile radius from where it detonated either died or was unspeakably maimed. On the whole, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the deaths of 220,000 people.

Since that searing August, no nation has dropped a nuclear bomb on another. They have tested them, certainly, to assess their efficacy but the world has yet to see a nuclear conflagration. And with good reason. No one will live long enough after a nuclear attack and retaliation anywhere in the world to find and read any diary entries, as we do with Truman’s, about the approval for using those bombs.

Historians trying to make sense of these past few weeks need to understand this background, if only to comprehend why the conflict began with Balakot and had to end with a mirrored de-escalation, brokered by guess who? the United States. Both India and Pakistan have decided that (to borrow Winston Churchill’s juvenile phrase) “it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war”.

The earliest cautious step in this direction was taken in the first week of March when contact between the director generals of military operations (DGMOs) of the two countries was restored. The second step – to ensure that their respective high commissioners return to their posts in New Delhi and Islamabad – is already being undertaken by both sides. The all-important third step would be a meeting between the two prime ministers in a neutral venue.

Saigon last month proved to be unlucky for President Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un. Helsinki in 2018 might have succeeded had Trump not tried to avoid any discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Russia’s alleged interference in the United States presidential elections in 2016. Tashkent and Simla are out — too many ghosts.

A peace rally in Pakistan | White Star
A peace rally in Pakistan | White Star

For the time being, the venue of such a prime ministerial meeting is less important than the outcome of the Indian general elections in May 2019. If Modi returns to power with a working majority (albeit in coalition with some smaller parties), he might interpret that as an endorsement of his belligerence. He could blunt that with an invitation to Prime Minister Imran Khan to attend his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi.

Will Imran Khan peck at the olive branch just as Sharif did in 2014? But, as Imran Khan has demonstrated, he has stronger nerves than Sharif showed during Kargil. He has not run to Washington and begged for protection from the Pakistan Army. He stayed put in Islamabad and remained silent.

He may have begun his stewardship, as his detractors still claim, as a ‘selected’ prime minister but they forget that no prime minister in our history has had to face a war within the first seven months of assuming office. In 1939, Winston Churchill came over-prepared for World War II; he had been the Lord of the Admiralty. In 1945, when Truman succeeded Franklin D Roosevelt as president of the United States, he had already served as vice-president, albeit for only a short time.

It is clear from his brief but pithy speeches that Khan does not intend to be swayed by sentiment in his dealings with India. He can afford to wait until the May elections in India and some years thereafter. If there is anyone who is feeling the heat, it is Modi. He is having to watch ministers from his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) trip over each other’s lifeless lies. He has had to listen to the Indian Air Force chief who, when asked about the number of actual terrorists killed in Balakot, passed the buck to the government in New Delhi.

Modi’s ambition to violate Pakistan’s borders with a swift, surgical strike has festered into a gangrenous failure. His hopes of uniting India under his singular unquestioned command have disintegrated into a non-nuclear ash, incinerated not by Pakistan but by opposition parties within India.

Had Modi read history instead of trying to make it, he would have learned that on October 22, 1971 just before the India-Pakistan conflict over Bangladesh, Dr Henry Kissinger (then working as an assistant on national security affairs to president Richard Nixon) met Zhou Enlai in Beijing. They discussed the fomenting crisis in the Subcontinent. Enlai had already conveyed to Kissinger China’s principled stand on the sanctity of international borders and on non-interference.

Kissinger’s reply has not lost its relevance even after 48 years: “[United States is] totally opposed to Indian military action against Pakistan. I do not normally see ambassadors, but I have warned the Indian ambassador [L K Jha] on behalf of the President that if there is an attack by India we will cut off all economic aid to India. We have told the Russians of our view, and they have told us they will try to restrain the situation, but I am not sure that I believe them. We believe there is a good chance that India will either attack or provoke the Pakistanis to attack by driving the Pakistanis into a desperate action in the next month or two.”

A generation of Indians and Pakistanis lived through the subsequent Armageddon. Another generation has these days seen a vision of the next Armageddon. They see no future dying in it.

By Siddharth Varadarajan

Just when we thought India-Pakistan relations had hit rock bottom, a suicide blast on a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) travelling from Srinagar to Jammu has helped push the bilateral relationship several notches further down. The attack exacted the highest death toll for a single incident over the 30 years of insurgency in Kashmir.

Its scale (more than 40 troopers were killed) and its timing (coming just weeks before what is going to be a closely fought general election in India) were destined – and perhaps even designed – to generate a military response from India. In September 2016, the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had responded to an attack on an army camp in Uri and the threat of “infiltration by terrorists” from the Pakistani side with what it said were “surgical strikes” on “launch” pads across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir.

Pakistan denied the surgical strikes had taken place but these quickly became part of the political narrative of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) inside India. In fact, barely weeks before the Pulwama attack – which, ironically, the 2016 surgical strikes were meant to deter – a Bollywood film, Uri, was released to tremendous public response. Two lines from the film seemed tailor-made for the BJP’s electoral playbook.

“How’s the josh?” the commanding officer of one of the units, tasked with a surgical strike, asks his men and they reply, “High, sir!” And in a pivotal scene, the Indian national security adviser says of the war on terror, “This is a new India. We will enter their homes and kill them there.”

With Modi and several of his ministers using “How’s the josh?” phrase, it became politically impossible for the government not to react militarily to the Pulwama attack. This was especially so given the scale of the attack and the fact that its victims came from virtually every part of India. Within minutes of the news of the attack, hypernationalist television anchors quickly upped the ante, demanding that the government take military action against Pakistan.

A day later, Modi told a public gathering in Jhansi that he had authorised the military to give a fitting reply to the Pulwama attack at the time and place of its own choosing. He also told his audience that India needed a strong government and that they should strengthen his hands once again in the election.

While the nature of the Indian response was more or less hard-coded into the circumstances in which the attack occurred, Pakistan did not help matters by prevaricating in its initial statements. The Foreign Office in Islamabad issued a mealy-mouthed statement only to revise it quickly. Notwithstanding his offer to move on any actionable evidence India provides against the Pulwama plotters, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s own statement on February 19 was seen by the Indian side as lacking in sensitivity.

A crashed Indian Air Force helicopter in Indian-controlled Kashmir | AFP
A crashed Indian Air Force helicopter in Indian-controlled Kashmir | AFP

He could have helped defuse the tension which was clearly building up by immediately initiating a crackdown against the Jaish-e-Mohammad and its leaders. Muhammad Hassan, the official spokesperson of the militant organisation, was, after all, quoted in all Srinagar-based newspapers as claiming credit for the attack.

A video recording of a young man from the Indian side of Kashmir was also available in which he had acknowledged the Jaish’s role in the Pulwama blast. The fact that the Pakistani establishment was “in touch” with the Jaish has been admitted by no less a person than Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, albeit indirectly, in an interview to the BBC.

Instead of acting against the Jaish and its leader, Masood Azhar – as it was obliged to do given its international commitments and as it ought to have done given its own national interest – the Pakistani establishment went into lockdown. At an official briefing, the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Asif Ghafoor, not only failed to acknowledge the possibility of the Jaish’s involvement in the Pulwama attack but he also went on to insinuate that the attack on the CRPF (and, indeed, a host of other high-profile terrorist incidents) might actually be false flag operations.

He warned India against taking any military action and said Pakistan would “surprise” its neighbour with its response and would “dominate the escalatory ladder”. For added measure, and with an eye on the international community, Major General Ghafoor brought in the nuclear factor by referring to the convening of a meeting of Pakistan’s National Command Authority which supervises the country’s nuclear weapons.

By this point, it was clear the die was cast. Pakistan knew Indian military action was coming and India knew the Pakistani military would strike back. Neither side had any sense of the specifics but India was confident it could contain the danger of escalation.

Since the Jaish was seen as the public face of the Pulwama attack, the Indian side decided it would use its military to send a message to the militant organisation and its support infrastructure inside Pakistan. In the early hours of February 26, India launched an aerial strike against what it said was a Jaish training facility near Balakot, a town in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, many kilometres inside the LoC.

Major General Ghafoor scooped the Indians by breaking the news of the airstrike to the world’s media via Twitter at around 6:30 am. He also declared the attack to have been unsuccessful. Later the same day, the Indian foreign secretary held a press conference to say that a “large number” of terrorists and their trainers had been killed in an intelligence-led “non-military pre-emptive strike” on a Jaish target.

Kashmiris carry the coffin of a civilian killed in firing across the LoC | AFP
Kashmiris carry the coffin of a civilian killed in firing across the LoC | AFP

The details of the airstrike are still not clear since neither India’s Ministry of External Affairs nor its Ministry of Defence or the Indian Air Force have provided any details on record. Going by the accounts of India’s reputed defence writers, it does appear as if the operation involved the deployment of four Mirage 2000s of the Indian Air Force near but not across the LoC. These planes fired precision-guided munitions in ‘stand-off’ mode on to a madrasa complex that sits atop a hillock at Jabba village south of Balakot.

The fact that Pakistan has not allowed reporters access to the madrasa suggests the Indian airstrikes did cause damage. The extent of the physical damage and the casualty rate, however, remain, unclear and will likely be debated by image analysts and munitions specialists for months if not years to come. Indian politicians have put out figures like “350 terrorists killed” for public consumption, ignoring the fact that the metric for measuring the effectiveness of the airstrike is not necessarily a body count but the message that was sent to a group like the Jaish: that it should not consider any part of Pakistan to be a safe haven.

The airstrikes were also designed to send a message to the Pakistani establishment and to the world’s big powers. For the former, the Indian message was that its strategy of using jihadi groups as a reserve army would henceforth involve military costs. For the latter, the message was that New Delhi would no longer consider itself constrained by Western fears of Indian kinetic operations triggering the dreaded ‘nuclear flashpoint’.

For the nuclear bluff to be called, it was essential that any Pakistani military response be brushed aside and not responded to. That, in turn, required the Pakistani military response to be calibrated in such a manner that it could tell India it had the ability to pay back in similar coin while not actually striking in a way that wider hostilities get triggered.

In the event, Pakistani military chose the tactic of aerial ingress and the targeting of military facilities. While the Pakistani military spokesperson said the Pakistan Air Force deliberately detargeted at the last minute so as not to escalate, the Indian side simply says the Pakistan Air Force “missed” its targets.

Indian Air Force officials show a part of the AIM-120C-5 missile allegedly used by a Pakistani F-16 aircraft | White Star
Indian Air Force officials show a part of the AIM-120C-5 missile allegedly used by a Pakistani F-16 aircraft | White Star

Whatever the truth in these claims and counter-claims, the fact is that Pakistan was able to ‘respond’ militarily to India’s strike in Balakot in a manner that Indian military officials described as “an act of war”. Yet, this tit-for-tat action drew the hostilities to a close without either side contemplating the next step up the ladder of escalation.

The downing of an Indian MiG-21 and the capture of an Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, certainly played its part in the de-escalation, especially since the Indian side also claimed to have shot down a Pakistani F-16. Pakistan denies this but the truth will only be known with certainty when the United States conducts its next round of end-use verification — an exercise that will involve, at the very least, an inventory count.

From the Indian point of view, the first-order risk that the strike in Balakot entailed – of gradual or even open-ended escalation – appears to have been contained. But there is a wider risk involved here: of getting locked into a predictable military response each time a terrorist group launches a major strike inside India. This means it is the terrorists and their backers who keep the initiative on their side, drawing India out and escalating tension whenever they wish to.

The swift return of the Indian pilot was a shrewd move on the part of Imran Khan. It was more realpolitik than magnanimity because the longer he remained in Pakistan’s custody, the greater were the chances of conflict escalation.

The fact that none of the world’s major powers and none of the countries in the wider neighbourhood saw fit to condemn India’s military action in Balakot – which Pakistan had officially described as an act of aggression – would also have weighed on the minds of Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Returning Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, at least, allowed Islamabad to shore up its diplomatic capital and give itself leverage over the big powers to call on India to de-escalate.

Where do India and Pakistan go from here? The Imran Khan government has responded to the aftermath of Balakot with a crackdown against the Jaish and other groups but just how far these measures go is not clear. Judging by the past, Islamabad is likely to take only reversible steps so long as it believes India remains vulnerable in Jammu and Kashmir.

Unlike the years of Pervez Musharraf’s rule in 2000s, when Pakistan seemed committed to an end-game that involved ‘out of the box’ steps in Jammu and Kashmir short of any change in the territorial status quo, Islamabad believes it holds better cards today.

If the desire of United States President Donald Trump’s administration to leave Afghanistan has raised the salience of Pakistan and even made Russia get warm to it, Modi government’s disastrous handling of the situation on the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir has also dealt Pakistan back into that game. Yet, the experience of the years before 2001 is proof that Pakistani support – whether ‘moral’ or armed – for militancy in Kashmir is a strategic dead-end that will yield no solution. Worse, Pakistan’s failure to take action against militant organisations will, in the event of further terrorist attacks, only invite further military responses with an uncertain outcome.

Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar (centre) | White Star
Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar (centre) | White Star

On India’s part, the recent crisis is a reminder of just how poorly conceived and untenable its line of ‘talks and terror cannot go hand in hand’ actually is. Attacks in Pulwama, Nagrota, Sunjuwan and other such incidents which happened earlier are all proof of the fact that the absence of talks does not deter or disincentivise terror.

The Balakot airstrike has added one more element to the Indian menu of options but its utility, if any, will be diminished if New Delhi steadfastly refuses to use diplomacy too. Cessation of trade and travel between the two countries is hardly a lever that bothers the jihadi groups. It is a fact that levels of terrorist violence have declined precisely at those times when India and Pakistan were engaging with each other on all issues, including Jammu and Kashmir.

Any decision on engagement before the Indian elections is perhaps too much to expect but a meeting between the two sides to open Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims has been scheduled. This means progress is certainly possible.

After the election, whoever is prime minister in New Delhi will have to find ways to talk to Pakistan. Balakot and its aftermath gave both India and Pakistan a glimpse of the abyss that lies ahead if the only form of engagement left on the table is military.

This article was originally published in the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.