Home Retaliation As Response To Terrorist Attacks : India's New Normal

Retaliation As Response To Terrorist Attacks : India's New Normal

हित-वचन नहीं तूने माना, मैत्री का मूल्य न पहचाना,
तो ले, मैं भी अब जाता हूँ, अन्तिम संकल्प सुनाता हूँ।
याचना नहीं, अब रण होगा, जीवन-जय या कि मरण होगा।

Neither did you pay heed to sagacious advice nor did you value friendship,

so now I leave, telling you of my final resolve.

 No more supplication, now there will be war, it will be either victory or death.

The lines above by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar from his poem Krishna ki Chetawani (Krishna’s Warning)[i] best explain recent happenings in the Indian subcontinent. Since 2015, there has been a significant resolve shown by the Indian Government wherein perpetrators of major terrorist strikes have been attacked across the border in retribution. This started with the Myanmar Surgical Strikes on 10 June 2015 in the aftermath of the deadly ambush by insurgents on an Indian Army patrol in Manipur six days earlier. Thereafter, when the Uri Garrison of the Indian Army was targetted on 18 September 2016, reprisal by the Indian Army took place 11 days later, in the form of raids across the Line of Control (LoC). In the latest instance, in response to the terrorist bombing in Pulwama (Jammu and Kashmir) killing 40 Indian Security personnel on 14 February 2019, the Indian Air Force bombed a terrorist camp at Balakot, within Pakistan on 26 February 2019[ii]. Three retaliatory attacks across the International Border/ LoC in four years, coupled with the fact that the Government has been re-elected, compels one to think that is cross border/ LoC retaliation the new normal in India’s war against terrorism? If yes, then what does it imply for the Indian Armed Forces? Just to add, there has been talk of retaliations across the LoC even prior to 2015, but presently one can say that retaliation is to some extent, stated national policy. Therefore, hereafter in this article, unless stated otherwise, the word ‘Retaliation’ implies overt retaliation.

 Why retaliate?         The simple answer to this question is that India is a democracy where public opinion and perception matters. Why democracies, even dictators spare no effort to keep public opinion on their side. In popular opinion, countries like Israel, Russia and the USA have been viewed as good examples of how to fight terrorism i.e. taking the fight to the terrorist’s doorstep. Since the 1980s, lack of demonstrated response against the sponsors of terrorism led to India being tagged as a ‘soft state’, much to the consternation of the population. In the earlier days a citizen would express dismay/ anger through a ‘Letter to the Editor’ in a newspaper, which was read by very few. Today, with the advent of social media, every citizen’s opinion expressed online, has real time global reach. There is no choice but to take notice of it. No wonder that after the Balakot strikes, Shekhar Gupta stated on Twitter that ‘The subcontinent has pulled back from the brink of war on two occasions after nuclearisation (Kargil, 1999 and Parliament attack 2002). This time, weaponry more destructive than nukes is in the air: social media.’(sic)[iii]. It would be worth analysing and comparing how social media opinion (both quantum and content) manifested in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai Attacks and the Pulwama Bomb Attack – events separated by more than a decade. With not one, but three precedents, it will be difficult for any government to eschew retaliation. Retaliation will be a political venture, as much, if not more, as it would be a military venture.

 What makes for successful retaliation? : A Google search of the word ‘Military Retaliation’ throws up about 27300000 results[iv]. In other words there exists a large amount of knowledge on the subject. However staying clear of academics and given that retaliation may also be termed as a political venture executed by the Armed Forces; the success of such an operation will be determined by what the man on the street thinks about it. To the common man, retaliation needs to be swift and the damage inflicted upon the adversary should be substantial and visible. Swift retaliation is important because the attention span and memory of the average citizen is limited. After the customary bout of outrage, people get on with their lives and any retaliation at a later stage may not establish any connect with them. Substantial and visible damage will among other things, give a sense of closure even if it doesn’t desist the adversary from carrying out similar acts in the future. Therefore any planning for retaliation needs to ensure speed and lethality.

Method(s) of retaliation? : Going by recent events and given that retaliation has to be seen, it will involve application of military force which will manifest from land, sea or air. Terrestrial and sea borne retaliation will involve hot pursuit or punitive strikes (as the case may be). Retaliation from the air will involve air strikes or even missile strikes. Military attacks may be coupled with cyber attacks, economic actions like blockades et al. Retaliation may or may not lead to escalation resulting in an all out war. At all times, the Armed Forces need to be ready with options and contingency plans as far as retaliatory operations are concerned.

What has the retaliation paradigm changed? : For decades, India’s principle adversary Pakistan has waged what can be called a proxy war. This has continued for such a long time because Pakistan was perhaps convinced that by calibrating terrorist initiated violence, it could prevent India from ‘upping the ante’. However, the latest incidents have shown that between peace and full scale war, there does exist a zone where the nation can retaliate without serious escalation – at least till now. It is now time to analyse what the retaliation paradigm has changed.

  • Nuclear Weapons. :There has been this assumption that two nuclear weapon powers will never go to war and extending the argument, two nuclear weapon powers will never do anything which may lead to war. This was disproved by the Kargil War in 1999. The latest strikes have however proved it beyond doubt that retaliation can take place – nuclear weapons or not.
  • Sanctity of the International Border (IB). Generations of military officers have been taught that crossing the IB means war. In the latest air strikes, the Indian Air Force struck targets beyond PoK, within the territory of Pakistan. This perhaps proves that while choosing targets for retaliation, any place is fair game. This could however also mean that future strikes may be launched across the IB at any place and will just not be restricted to Jammu and Kashmir.
  • War and Peace – blurring difference.  :Earlier, war and peace were in two watertight compartments with nothing common between them. In the retaliation paradigm, the fight can take place even without declaration of war. This calls for a de-novo look at the concept of readiness at all levels.

 The Way Ahead for the Indian Armed Forces. : The recent retaliatory strikes have been a watershed for the Indian Armed Forces. The rules of the game have changed and therefore the Indian Armed Forces need to get back to the drawing board and devise plans to stay ahead of the adversary.

  • Unpredictable Retaliatory Options.  :India needs to have in place multiple options for retaliation. This should meet the twin requirements of being speedy and inflicting substantial visible damage. The options need not necessarily involve application of force only. Non kinetic options like economic measures, cyber attacks et al may also coupled with military action. This calls for a high level of planning between the Services and other agencies of the Government.
  • Readiness and Training. :The two retaliatory strikes on targets in PoJK materialised after 11 and 12 days respectively. This may not be the case in the future since the enemy would be prepared. Therefore, forces earmarked for retaliation should be ready at all times. Only then will it be possible to retaliate within the smallest possible time frame. This calls for creating tri-services force structures tailor-made for launching retaliatory operations. The importance of extensive training for the same is well understood and needs no elaboration.
  • Prepare for Escalation.: The latest retaliation saw Pakistan responding tit for tat. In the ensuing air combat, India lost an aircraft and one pilot was taken prisoner. Any such operations in the future will also invite response from the adversary and may also lead to escalation. India should be prepared for this and should be able to transition from a retaliatory posture. As stated above, since the IB may not be a restraining factor, the enemy may decide to strike at a place other than where Indian forces have launched retaliatory operations. The requirement to retaliate at the earliest combined with the need to be prepared along the entire front (LoC and IB combined) makes it imperative to rework the mobilisation matrix. Apart from this, the Border Guarding Forces need to be adequately equipped and trained to counter any such strike by the enemy.
  • Don’t take it too far.: One of the main reasons why the enemy will choose to escalate is the loss of face due to retaliation. Before launching into operations, there is need for a clear end-state with regards to the intended target and also ‘lines not to cross’. This requires precision operations combined with deft diplomacy.      

Recent happenings have made it quite evident that retaliation will now be the new normal as far as Indian response to terrorism is concerned. While in the initial operations, the Indian Armed Forces took advantage of the surprise factor; this will not be the case in the future. Retaliatory operations have significant military, political and diplomatic ramifications; therefore every step taken by India should be sure-footed. On its part, the Armed Forces need to plan, equip and train for retaliation to ensure that they deliver everywhere and every time.




[i] Dinkar, Ramdhari Singh, Krishna ki Chetawani accessed at  https://bit.ly/2Zadd0D..

[ii] Statement by Indian Ministry of External Affairs, accessed at https:https://bit.ly/2SNk7kO

[iii] https://bit.ly/2zhSOHy accessed on 13 July 2019.

[iv] Google Search Results, On 19 July 2019 at 11:59 pm..


Views expressed are of the author in their personal capacity and doesnt have an official endoresement, the article do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS, Indian Army or of the Government of India

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