This too shall pass. Will it?

by Gautam Mukherjee

Apart from being a follower of ISKCON and a disciple of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, the spiritually inclined Beatle George Harrison, who died in 2001, is remembered for penning sublime songs. This despite being overshadowed by the John Lennon-Paul McCartney juggernaut of explosive genius that occasioned comparisons, and twentieth century parallels, with Mozart.

Harrison’s own reflective and melodious contributions include ‘While my guitar gently weeps’, in which he makes the all too human point that we don’t always do what needs doing and rarely learn from our mistakes.

Of course, in the Indian strategic context, we are generally oblivious to our mistakes; let alone bothering to learn from the success of others — including those whom we admire and, as some would say, even slavishly follow. For evidence, look at the recent India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary-level talks that took place in New Delhi at the behest of the US.

But just imagine the same talks taking place in the aftermath of an accurate Indian drone attack, American style and conducted likewise in darkness, at the recent jihadi jamboree at Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on the so-called ‘Kashmir Solidarity Day’ on February 4. Had it been so, we might have been referring to the infamous Lashkar-e-Tayyeba chief Mohammed Hafiz Saeed, ruthless mastermind of 26/11, as well as his brother-in-law, Hafiz Abdur Rehman Makki, a leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa’h, in the past tense now.

But of course, this is pure fantasy, on par with the doings of Spiderman. What is all too real, however, is that Makki named four Indian cities to be attacked afresh, including Pune, at that rally to express “solidarity with Kashmir”. But had there been a well-targeted drone attack, we might not have had to continue trying to convince the Pakistani Government to arrest Saeed, and put paid to Makki at the same time.

Instead, we had the dastardly bomb attack on the German Bakery in Pune as a backdrop to the Foreign Secretary-level talks. The ill-conceived talks are widely perceived to have gone in Pakistan’s diplomatic favour because India has come to the table under American pressure without Pakistan conceding anything, or delivering on any of India’s requests.

We are clearly not, as a state, inspired by the apostle of peace and non-violence Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, at the same time, we do not have the gumption to take on our foes by indulging in some derring-do. For instance, launch targeted surgical strikes or plan even less ostentatious ones like that which was used to eliminate Hamas leader Mahmoud Al Mabhouh in Dubai recently, allegedly by Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad. Such action is not even contemplated in India.

Israel, on the other hand, can even use state instruments in a highly secretive way without leaving a discernible trail, let alone proof. Mahmoud Al Mabhouh died apparently suffocated, but the death could have been natural as well if he was overwhelmed by the quantum of sedatives found in his body during the post-mortem. But did Mabhouh take it himself or was he administered the drugs? This could take years to unravel and, meanwhile, a potent threat to Israel has been rendered one with his maker.

For pacifist India, offence is not, as yet, considered the best form of defence. Not even with the flexible fig-leaf of plausible deniability included; and this policy squeamishness on our part is being exploited by our enemies and detractors alike.

India is perceived as a soft state that can be bullied to a considerable extent, particularly if the attacks and humiliations come in a seemingly sporadic manner, more so if from ‘non-state actors’, enabling the Indians to save face and convince themselves that their national honour has not been impugned.

So an Indian drone strike, American style, is in the realms of a pipe dream. The nearest possibility might be some kind of a fifth column along the lines of the ISI-induced Indian Mujahideen. But in this, we clearly have much to learn from the Pakistanis.

The jihadis in PoK, on their part, exhibited their contempt for India’s strategic resolve by not only assembling minutes of flying time away from Indian territory but using the occasion to spew undiluted venom against us. They also demanded concessions from the Pakistani Government, lifting of bans and the like, but that may have been no more than a camouflage for the cosiness of their actual nexus.

But then, the creation of such able ‘non-state actors’ is indeed a master stroke on the part of Pakistan’s military-political establishment, and the ISI. It definitely gives them strategic depth and manoeuvrability both in the AfPak arena and in dealing with India in a manner that Indians cannot, despite their military superiority.

Guerrilla warfare is what is truly difficult and intractable for any conventional armed force, however well equipped, to deal with. This has been proved again and again in different theatres of war. But used well, it can certainly help a nation further its strategic objectives. Even Elizabeth I of England, the ‘Good Queen Bess’ that put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain after her father Henry VIII broke with the Papacy, used a pirate like Francis Drake to harass and hijack Spanish ships returning with gold from the Americas.

And she certainly wasn’t above accepting a great deal of the purloined gold as tribute from the promptly knighted Sir Francis. Such tactics, followed by a frontal assault on the Spanish Armada by the British Navy, succeeded in eclipsing the power of Catholic Spain once and for all. We then see Protestant Britannia ruling the waves. It was a dominance of the high seas that saw Britain create a formidable empire that lasted right up to the end of the Victorian era.

This is not to suggest that the non-state actor is capable of delivering the whole or even part of a nation’s strategic objectives on its own, even with covert support and succour from the state. But, as a flexible, highly manoeuvrable, and swift tool of state policy, it has its definite uses.

Besieged as India is with challenges to its sovereignty and cohesiveness as a nation, it is very necessary to develop the capacity to nip insurgencies, sedition, and terrorism in the bud by means of pre-emptive attacks that may not always involve playing by the rules but act as a stern deterrent to those that may seek to take advantage of our plurality, diversity, and at the root of it, our inherent tolerance.

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