India has one of the world’s biggest armies; why doesn’t it use it?

Members of Tehreek-e-Sirat-e-Mustaqeem burn an Indian flag as they protest against brutality by the Indian Army over the Muslims of Kashmir during a demonstration at the Lahore press club on Sept. 27, 2016 in Lahore, Pakistan.


By SHASHANK BENGALI AND PARTH M.N. | Los Angeles Times | Published: September 27, 2016

MUMBAI, India — Following a raid that killed 18 Indian soldiers at an army base in Kashmir, some commentators bayed for a thundering retaliatory strike against neighbor and rival Pakistan.

A “jaw for a tooth,” said one member of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party. “Wipe off Pakistan from the world’s map” with a nuclear strike, said another.

Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi has steered a course of caution, disappointing hawks in his party who blame Pakistan-based militants for the Sept. 18 attack but pleasing those who feared another destabilizing conflict in South Asia.

In a speech over the weekend, Modi challenged nuclear-armed Pakistan — with which India has fought three wars since 1947 — to battle poverty and unemployment instead. At the United Nations General Assembly, he and his deputies called on the world community to isolate Pakistan and other nations that “export terrorists.”

The diplomatic approach has surprised observers who expected Modi to take a tougher line against Pakistan and the Islamist militant groups that regularly strike India from across the border, allegedly with the support of the Pakistani intelligence establishment.

The Indian leader spent decades in a hard-line Hindu nationalist organization before entering politics. After the Pakistani-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba killed more than 160 people in Mumbai in 2008, Modi criticized the government at the time for failing to strike back, saying Pakistan needed to be dealt with “in a language they understand.”

But as prime minister since 2014, Modi has hewed to India’s decades-old policy of “strategic restraint,” opting not to deploy one of the world’s largest military arsenals even when directly provoked.

“If India’s strategic restraint policy was to be amended, Narendra Modi would be the person to do it,” said Sunil Dasgupta, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and co-author of a book about India’s military policy titled “Arming Without Aiming.”

“He has the background, the ideology, the attitude. … He would be the person to break through that. But even he has been restrained. It begs the question: What is underneath it?”

The answer, some analysts say, is that India’s reticence to use force has largely served it well.

While China’s military rise has caused jitters across the world, India over the past decade has been the world’s No. 1 importer of military hardware and has built a growing defense relationship with the United States.

Its pacifist image helped secure a 2008 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation with the U.S. that cemented India’s status as a nuclear power even though it has not ratified an international nonproliferation treaty.

Restraint also has helped mask shortcomings in India’s 1.3 million-strong armed forces, which are plagued by an inefficient bureaucracy, strained civil-military relations and hardware problems.

When India has displayed aggression, the results have disappointed.

In 2002, following a deadly attack on the parliament building in New Delhi that was blamed on Pakistani militants, India deployed half a million troops along the border. While outright war was averted, nearly 800 Indian soldiers lost their lives, many in mine-laying operations.

Yet there are growing calls inside India — now the world’s fastest-growing large economy, with world-power aspirations — to flex its might. Mint, a business newspaper, called strategic restraint a “losing game.”

“What have we got out of this policy, besides more death and more killing?” Vikram Sood, a former Indian spy chief, said in an interview. “We’ve gotten the ‘good boy’ tag in the world, but that’s it.

“We Indians continually say war is not an option. We have to say war is an option, however ugly it is.”

But the prospect of tit-for-tat attacks between two nuclear-armed countries terrifies many.

Even if Indian forces could execute a pinpoint strike, experts say it could provoke further aggression from Pakistan and allow it to portray India as an aggressor in Muslim lands — as it has done during the recent unrest in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan territory claimed by both countries.

Indian forces have been accused of excessive force in quelling protests over the past two months in which more than 80 civilians have died. Pakistan even accused India of staging last week’s attack — in which four assailants opened fire on a brigade headquarters as soldiers slept — saying it “has all the hallmarks of an operation designed to divert attention from India’s atrocities” in Kashmir.

“Which country benefited from the Uri attack?” said Nafees Zakaria, spokesman for Pakistan’s foreign ministry. “Definitely, India is the beneficiary.”

But Pakistan’s international standing is fraying, as is its longstanding alliance with the United States. The Obama administration withheld $300 million in support for Pakistan’s army this year over its failure to rein in militant groups staging attacks in next-door Afghanistan.

“When you don’t have any short- to medium-term options, then you present yourself as the country that is hurt by Pakistani aggression,” Dasgupta said. “That creates a certain kind of momentum in the international system.”

Seeking to exact diplomatic revenge, India said this week that it would boycott a summit of South Asian nations scheduled for Islamabad in November, and that other countries might follow suit. That followed an announcement that India would suspend further talks with Pakistan on a water-sharing treaty that governs six rivers that flow through both nations.

A former army colonel, Ajai Shukla, said other nonmilitary options also could serve India well, including calming tensions among Muslim demonstrators in Kashmir.

“Modi has the option to escalate the situation” with Pakistan, Shukla said. “It is just that he chose the most prudent option, which is that this incident is not worth getting into a possible military exchange. He chose the de-escalatory option.”


Special correspondent Aoun Sahi contributed to this report from Islamabad, Pakistan.
©2016 Los Angeles Times
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