India’s Post-Pulwama Response
Amruta Karambelkar

The attack on Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Pulwama, J&K, shook the nation. This has been the worst hit on the security forces of its kind. The nation was horrified and there were widespread demands to respond with an iron hand. There were many firsts in this entire episode - be it the attack or the aftermath. Using a vehicle laden with explosives as a weapon has been rare in India. India’s response to all these developments merits attention. The political leadership’s statements resonated with a grieving nation. The Indian Air Force (IAF) was laudable in carrying out a successful operation that struck out a terror facility in Balakot.

Many weeks have passed since the Pulwama attack and a lot has happened since – from the Indian airstrikes at Balakot to the bail-out and release of Wg. Cdr. Abhinandan Varthaman. Besides the various government agencies that have been responding to the events post-Pulwama, the role played by the Ministry of External Affairs is notable. New Delhi has demonstrated sharp thinking, adequate preparation and political acumen in such a response. This commentary enumerates the manner in which New Delhi responded to the situation in aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack.

Immediately after the Pulwama attack, the Government summoned all the heads of missions to the South Block. The diplomats were informed of the terror attack, and possibly presented with evidence of the role of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and the support Pakistan gives to it. This action of briefing the foreign diplomats was significant because if India were to take a strong actions against Pakistan-based and Pakistan-supported terror groups, as she did, the international community had to be clear on her stance.

The next thing India did was with the air strikes. India meticulously planned the mission and executed it flawlessly. The IAF jets attacked and destroyed the terror facility at Balakot. The Ministry of External affairs briefing after the IAF strike was apt1. The Foreign Secretary said that India had conducted “non-military pre-emptive strikes on JeM.” The usage of words ‘non-military’ and ‘pre-emptive’ is significant. Non-military meat that the strike was not on Pakistan’s military facility but specifically targeted at terrorists. Pre- emptive meant that the action was taken in cognisance of the terrorist’s plan to attack India, and that the IAF action destroyed the enemy’s capacity to do so.

That caught Pakistan in a Catch-22 situation. The IAF had carefully chosen a target to avoid civilian casualty, nor had it targeted any military facility. If Pakistan was to use its regular military to retaliate, that would have amounted to military aggression. Even if the Pakistani forces were to retaliate, that would have amounted to the Pakistani state coming out in support of terrorists. That would have been a major international embarrassment for Islamabad. On the other hand, if it did not take any action, the domestic constituency would be upset. The Indian action left Pakistan with hardly any choice. India did what it had to do - she struck. By the time Pakistan could react, the international community was watching and the pressure was not to escalate. By striking swiftly, India achieved her aim. It is worth noting that no foreign country could criticise New Delhi for its destruction of terrorist camps deep inside Pakistan.

Statements from foreign countries condemned the Pulwama attack and expressed solidarity and grief with India. US NSA John Bolton spoke to NSA Ajit Doval and stated that the US supports India’s right to self-defence. The US also issued a stern warning to Pakistan to immediately end its support to terror groups. US Secretary of State Mile Pompeo supported Indian air strikes on JeM camps. India also got support from about 50 US lawmakers. Pompeo’s statements2 after the IAF action is noteworthy:

“Following Indian counter-terrorism actions on February 26, I spoke with Indian Minister of External Affairs Swaraj to emphasize our close security partnership and shared goal of maintaining peace and security in the region. I also spoke to Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi to underscore the priority of de-escalating current tensions by avoiding military action, and the urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil. “

India’s action were rightly seen as ‘counter-terrorism’ and Pakistan was asked to refrain. More or less every diplomatic response was on these lines - support for India and demanding Pakistan to take action against terrorist organisations. France and Australia initiated a UN resolution to ban terrorist Masud Azhar. UK said that it was working to ensure that those responsible for the Pulwama attack are held to account. It also asked Imran Khan to act against all terror groups and asked the UNSC to blacklist Masood Azhar. In the past, India was hesitant to act forcefully, even in its national interest, for the fear of international backlash. It is a fact that India barely received any support in her struggle against terrorism. The world neglected or perhaps underplayed the menace of terrorism in India. A lot has changed since then. India enjoyed international support that could not be assured on previous occasions. India has gown closer to the western democracies.

The focus of Indian diplomatic activity has been on Pakistan for its support to jihadi elements. New Delhi was well prepared by informing its position to countries before the Balakot action. Pakistan’s duplicity has been exposed to the world. The manner in which the situation was handled gave New Delhi support and space necessary for the retaliation. The next important issue was the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit at the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) in Abu Dhabi from 28th February to 1st March, immediately following the IAF strikes in Balakot. Pakistan did its best to cancel the OIC’s invitation to Swaraj, to which the Organisation did not succumb to. This episode is seen as a major achievement of Indian diplomacy.

Let us understand the full impact of the IAF strikes. No doubt that a single retaliation cannot uproot terrorism. But it is a setback for Jihadi elements. More importantly, it has sent a strong message - that New Delhi has new strategies against terrorism, and that it would not withhold from retaliation unlike in the past. As much as this was a signalling to Pakistan, it was also for the world to see. Previously, India has refrained from retaliation, be it due to lack of the political will or concerns about international reaction. That predictability of Indian response, or the lack of it, to state-sponsored jihadi terrorism, has been broken. The new Indian response to terrorism was thus seen during the ‘surgical strikes’ in Myanmar in 2015 and in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) after the Uri attack in 2016. The IAF strikes of 2019 have raised India’s threshold of the retaliatory measures.

India undertook a slew of other measures as well. It revoked the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to Pakistan. This move increased the customs duty on imports from Pakistan by 200 per cent. There is a caveat to this move. MFN is revoked as a punitive measure against unfair economic practices, not as a political tool. If used as a political tool, it is generally rebuffed internationally. India not only revoked the MFN for non-economic measures, but also did not face any international reaction to it.

A section of politicians and population have been raising questions over the impact of the IAF air strike - as to the number of terrorists killed or debates over which precision weapon was used. Such debates are of little value. Whether the Balakot strike killed 300 or three or even zero terrorists, it is irrelevant. What matters is the message that New Delhi has sent across that India will retaliate, and retaliate boldly henceforth. She will not be constrained by consideration of international pressure or Pakistan’s nuclear card. The entire episode has demonstrated New Delhi’s diplomatic success and political resolve. The value of strategic signalling is high in diplomacy. The post-Pulwama actions need to be seen through this lens for an accurate grasp of its impact. As proud as we are of our armed forces and the paramilitaries, our sharp, sophisticated and deft diplomacy should be also be noted.

Pakistan’s asymmetrical war against India goes beyond packing its jihadis across the Line of Control - it is also a psychological warfare on India’s political establishment. For better part of the time, New Delhi’s response was hesitant due to the psychological barrier of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the threat of its use in the event of India’s military retaliation. But after the Balakot strikes, this nuclear bluff has been called out. Islamabad can continue to carry out terror attacks in India, nor that the nuclear threat is eliminated - it would remain a plausible scenario - but India’s military action against state sponsored terrorists cannot be constrained any more. The mind game is now reversed.

End Notes
  1. “Statement by Foreign Secretary on 26 February 2019 on the Strike on JeM training camp at Balakot” at (Accessed March 18, 2019).
  2. “Statement by Secretary Pompeo: Concern Regarding India-Pakistan Tensions” at (Accessed March 18, 2019).

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Great article Madam


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