The Modi government’s blank cheque to the army to respond to any cross-border firing along the border and line of control with Pakistan with double the force is a step in the right direction.

“Noted with satisfaction the decision-making & its execution, the considerations that went into our tactical response.”

The tweet mentioned above came from the PMO after the Prime Minister’s visit to the Pathankot airbase, which was attacked by jihadis from Pakistan on 2-3 January.

Tactical or not, it is deeply humiliating for a nation to accept that an airbase, that too one near the border with Pakistan, is not secure from an attack by a handful of terrorists who killed six people before being taken out by Indian forces.  Add to that reports that our security agencies had prior intelligence about the attack, and it becomes a total cringe, heightened by the smirks not just in Islamabad, but in other important capitals of the world.

Then came the predictable mix of futile fist-shaking, condescending commiserations and promises of swift retribution, and some hand-wringing references to ‘non-state actors.’ These were followed by sanctimonious appeals from all around, including Indian media, that such incidents should not derail the peace talks.

This cycle has been repeated so often that the players involved can do it while asleep.What does it take to start a new one? Here are a few possible steps, in random order:

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Launch the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC)

Spawned by the massive gaps in intelligence exposed by the siege of Mumbai in November 2008, this centre was expected to collect, collate and act on all terrorist-related intelligence. Modeled on the lines of the American National Counter Terrorism Centre and the United Kingdom’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, it would be the go-to point for all anti-terrorist activity across the nation.

P Chidambaram and MK Narayanan, Home Minister and National Security Adviser in the previous Congress-led UPA government, visited the US to study their NCTC, and subsequently tabled a proposal detailing out an Indian avatar.

The opposition, including the BJP, as well as some senior Congress leaders like Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, cried foul, mainly over a clause that allowed officers of the NCTC to interrogate and arrest suspects from any state without informing the respective state intelligence or security heads.

Other objections included the NCTC being placed under the Intelligence Bureau, which has famously been described as “the lapdog” of the regime in power at the Centre, used to harass and hound opposition leaders.

Chidambaram then submitted a reworked proposal, which makes the agency a separate outfit under the home ministry and mandates consultation with the respective state police and intelligence chiefs (except in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases), before the Cabinet Committee on Security, which is headed by the Prime Minister.

Then the UPA got routed in the April-May 2014 general elections. However, that report still exists.

Given that we can safely predict that this terrorist act was not the last, it is critical that we have one nodal agency clearly tasked with and accountable for dealing with such acts.

It would also have to formulate and deliver a standard operating procedure for dealing with potential and actual acts of terror, with a clear and transparent chain of command and control.

Getting state intelligence units on board will also allow joint as well individual accountability and hopefully, transparency. Tweak it, rename it, but launch it.

Clearly draw and enforce Red Lines

If there’s one thing that has always confounded me, it is the lack of red lines drawn by any government since Independence.

Our territorial and sovereign rights are constantly being challenged by foreign intrusions, both by terrorist scum from Pakistan, and militarily by China in the North-East.

We do not have a clearly defined set of lines, on a map or otherwise, crossing which constitutes an act of war.

Was the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament an act of war? Was the attack on Mumbai one?

If, as we continue to insist, all these attacks were coordinated and conceived by Pakistani state organs like the ISI through their Jihadi cut-outs like the Jaish-e-Muhammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, how can we still accept them as ‘non-state actors,’ thereby absolving the state of involvement?

Unless we clearly define and articulate our non-negotiable red lines, and then assert the ability to defend them, impotent fist-shaking will continue to dominate the discourse.

Re-jig our military doctrine

‘Pathankot attack aimed at probing Modi Government’s red lines’ says the Business Standard headline of an interview with C Christine Fair, associate professor at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, and the author of many seminal books and articles on South Asia.

But it was the blurb that startled me: “There is a consensus within the Indian security establishment that India lacks the offensive capability to defeat Pakistan in a short war,” it said. Here’s the full quote:

Pakistan has called PM Modi’s bluff. Despite all the rhetoric, there is a consensus within the Indian security establishment – at least among those who draw their conclusions from data instead of speaking from nationalist sentiment – that India lacks the offensive capability to defeat Pakistan in a short war. That is important because there will only be a brief war between India and Pakistan, due to the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides, if the former responds to such a provocation.

It is true that the advent of nuclear weapons has made our conventional superiority (regarding sheer numbers) somewhat redundant, but I refuse to accept that our forces have lost the war before even fighting it, based on some general data. I suspect Ms Fair might have been talking to the wrong people in India.

I do, however, agree with rest of her train of thought. “I do not see too many options that India has,” avers Fair.

It has not made the investments it needs to ensure deterrence against such acts by way of offensive superiority on its international border. India’s current conventional posture on the international border is of defensive competence instead of offensive superiority. Defence modernisation for such deterrence requires re-configuring your current military assets, which are bulky and easily detectable, into smaller units that can be forward-deployed much more rapidly without the intelligence footprint that Pakistan can easily detect. It is about personnel policies. India does not need a huge standing army for such purposes as much as it needs special operators to conduct hot pursuit missions into Pakistani territory without detection.

In other words: Make it expensive for Pakistan- militarily, economically, politically.

The Modi government’s carte blanche to the army to respond to any cross-border firing along the border and line of control with Pakistan with double the force is a step in the right direction.

Economically, I fail to see why we have given Pakistan MFN (Most Favoured Nation Treatment) status when it categorically refuses to reciprocate, linking it to political issues like Kashmir.

While this generous gesture seemingly allows us to take the moral high ground, in real terms, it encourages Islamabad to demand more without offering anything in return.

Let us officially link it to something else too, like transit rights to Afghanistan within a clearly defined time frame, failing which we revoke the MFN.

Politically, stop de-linking terrorism – and even cricket – from talks. Put out a timetable, saying we will consider talks only six months or a year after the last terrorist attack linked to any Pakistani citizen or outfit.

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Each attack thus irrevocably pushes talks away by at least six months.

At the same time, publicly put out humongous rewards and contracts, payable in USD, on the heads of Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar, Dawood Ibrahim and other attack dogs of the ISI. If nothing else, it will add to the pressure on the Pakistan forces guarding these “non-state actors”.

Do link terror strikes with the Indus Water Treaty, which guarantees that water from the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum, whose headwaters are in Kashmir, are not diverted for Indian use.

Using water as a weapon may sound repugnant, but all’s fair in love and war. Let us clearly define acts that could provoke us to revisit the treaty.

And to appease the World Bank, which brokered this treaty, we could always link it to issues like climate change and the impact it has on Kashmir’s power and water needs. And finally,

Change the narrative

Let us get one thing clear. Kashmir is not the issue. Terrorism is. Giving away Kashmir or any part of it to Pakistan will only encourage more such demands.

We keep hearing about something called the Chenab Plan, which essentially calls for the division of Kashmir along religious lines, wherein ‘the Muslim-majority areas of Kashmir join Pakistan while the areas where Hindus and Buddhists are in the majority would remain with India.’ Put simply, India gives away territory to Pakistan and gets nothing in return.

The reason this plan – that also sanctifies the abhorrent notion that Indian Muslims prefer Pakistan to India – has found takers even in the United States, is that India has never offered a counter-suggestion. It is Pakistan that defines the bilateral issues, and offers the so-called solutions, leaving India looking like the dog in the manger.

It is time to revive the Neelam Plan, so named by my friend Arindam Banerji, who describes himself as a scientist, entrepreneur, and political thinker on South Asian geopolitical issues.

Unlike the Chenab Plan, which is an extension of the vile two-nation theory, this addresses Indian security concerns. Here’s the proposal in a nutshell as defined by Arindam in an article in rediff.com, way back in 2003.

 Summary Of The Neelam Plan

1. Complete and balanced integration of J&K into India.

2. Freedom for Northern Areas and removal of all Pakistani garrisons.

3. No international charity for terrorists and permanent clamp down on the valley of death and hatred – the Neelam Valley (which is essentially most of what we call Pakistan Occupied Kashmir)

a. Incorporate Haji Pir into India.

b. Move the LoC from Gurais to Tithwal northwards until it covers the Neelam Valley all the way up to Muzaffarabad

c. Move Naushara LoC to New Mirpur;

d. UN monitoring in ‘Azad Kashmir’;

4. Renegotiate the Indus Water Treaty according to population distributions.

5. No pipelines through Pakistan without equal water shut off capabilities for India.

Reviving the Neelam Plan now will ensure further consternation in China, which has already expressed concern over the status of the Northern Areas, also known as Gilgit-Baltistan.

‘Administered’ by Pakistan since 1948 and claimed by India as a part of Kashmir, a chunk of this region was ceded to China by Pakistan for the construction of large-scale dams, telecommunication development, mining and port management and the construction of a highway and railroad systems between Xinjiang and the port cities of Karachi and Gwadar.

Given the bleak chances of this region being returned to India, it might even make sense to informally and privately inform China that we would tone down our objections provided it endorsed and guaranteed the other aspects of the Neelam Plan.

Because unless we change the narrative, we will continue to treat the symptoms rather than the disease, and remain locked in the meaningless two-step of talks and terrorist strikes.

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