India has clearly violated Pakistan's sovereignty but to what extent, is still unclear. What is clear is that the efficacy of the strike comes second to how the Indian media and the public perceive it.

India’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale announced on Tuesday to the media that the Indian Air Force had struck a militant target in Balakot.

“In an intelligence-led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated,” read his statement.

Gokhale added: “…this non-military preemptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp.  The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties. The facility is located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence. As the strike has taken place only a short while  ago, we are awaiting further details.” (Italics added)

The Indian media, predictably, have gone into jingoistic overdrive, with anchors and panellists declaring victory and the social media warriors acting like witches dancing maniacally around a cauldron brewing hate.

But conflict is not about misplaced passion. So, let’s cut through the noise and deconstruct this narrative.

A linguistic strike

On February 14, a local Kashmiri boy, Adil Dar, killed 44 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in a suicide attack. The CRPF is a paramilitary outfit, notorious, along with the Rashtriya Rifles, as the mainstay of India’s coercive and oppressive apparatus in Occupied Kashmir.

Immediately, India pointed the finger at Pakistan. 

This has become predictable and is part of a playbook whose script is well-known: If we have to ensure that the world does not get to the focal point of the problem, i.e., India’s occupation of Jammu and Kashmir and its denial to Kashmiris of the right to self-determination, Delhi must trot out a narrative that makes the issue an India-Pakistan problem and reduces any act of armed resistance by the Kashmiris to ‘terrorism’, preferably ‘Pakistan-sponsored terrorism’.

The additional problem with the current Bharatiya Janata Party government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is that he is looking at an election in May this year, an election which will be tough for him and his party.

The reaction after the Pulwama attack was, therefore, predictable: signal to the international audience by accusing Pakistan and to win over the rightwing, hardline constituency at home.

But let’s go back to the italics in the Indian foreign secretary’s statement. Incidentally, he refused to take any questions.

What exactly is a “non-military preemptive strike”, especially one that involves, by India’s claims, a sortie of 12 fighter jets intruding in Pakistan’s airspace and killing 350 ‘terrorists’?

It is one thing to conjure up success in one’s mind but quite another to take such liberty with language.

The statement then says “specifically targeted a JeM camp”. There is a desire here to make a claim which repeats the mantra of ‘terrorism’ and ‘JeM’ but also seeks to signal to Pakistan that India does not want this to go any further.

This is further consolidated by “our desire to avoid civilian casualties”. Once again, the sentence seeks to (a) present India as a responsible state targeting only a ‘terrorist camp’, (b) seeking to establish that it can make a clean strike and (c) signal to Pakistan that it did not intend to hit a military target.

Finally, the last sentence of the paragraph states, “As the strike has taken place only a short while  ago, we are awaiting further details.”

So, what was the presser about if further details were still being awaited? What was the hurry until all details were in unless the idea was twofold: to appease the rightwing BJP constituency and give the Indian media something to brag about and, two, to signal to Pakistan that India does not intend doing anything further.

This signal comes through, again, in the last paragraph of the statement, which talks about Pakistan’s “solemn commitment in January 2004 not to allow its soil or territory under its control to be used for terrorism against India” and then closes with the expectation that “Pakistan lives up to its public commitment and takes follow up actions to dismantle all JeM and other camps and hold the terrorists accountable for the actions.”

For a country that just attacked another state using its air force, whose fighter jets supposedly ingressed with impunity without being interdicted, destroyed a camp and killed, according to Indian media claims, over 350 people, and returned with greater impunity without being intercepted, the statement ends with a whimper.

Red lines

So, what might have happened?

The Indians tried to distract the Pakistan Air Force. First they approached Pakistan from Lahore/Sialkot and then did the same thing near Bahawalpur. The Combat Air Patrolling (CAP) teams challenged them immediately. While this was going on, the Indians sent a much larger mission from the Line of Control (LoC). This prompted another CAP to intercept them but by then they had crossed the LoC, approaching it from the Keran sector. However, when they realised that the PAF CAP had been scrambled, they jettisoned their payload and returned. They came up to Jabba Top, east of Balakot. A Reuters report corroborates with this version of events.

To think that 12 Mirage 2000s could have entered the airspace and gone all the way to Balakot, which is in mainland Pakistan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and returned, is high fantasy. I dare say that the Indians know this. But like the September 2016 ‘surgical strikes’, the Modi government, having locked itself in a ‘commitment trap’ needed to be seen as doing something. And since today’s conflicts are as much about media hype as what actually happens on the ground, or doesn’t, selling a narrative becomes important.

Did they not attempt at all? Yes, they did. That’s also clear. But they appear to have realised that they could not complete their mission and returned. One has to await details to know exactly what happened.

That said, and technicalities aside, India violated Pakistan’s sovereignty. That issue is not in dispute. Neither does it matter how and to what extent. The very fact that they tried to intrude is a very serious matter.

Pakistan, while showing restraint and even offering to investigate the Pulwama attack if India provided any evidence to Islamabad, a bad move, had nonetheless drawn a red line: if India aggresses, Pakistan will retaliate.

That’s the modus, the boundary. As the myth of the founding of Rome goes, Romulus killed his brother Remus for violating the modus by jumping over his wall mockingly. A red line, once drawn, must be enforced.

India has long been spoiling to find the space just below the nuclear threshold to ‘punish’ Pakistan. It claims to have done so. If Pakistan does not respond, the Indian planners’ takeaway would be that they have found the space in which they can play. That, if nothing else, dilutes deterrence.

So, yes, respond Pakistan must. Where, when and how are of course questions that must avoid emotion and feed on cold calculation. But the when cannot wait for long.

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