Over the last decade, the threat scenario in South Asia has particularly been impacted by three developments—the rise of faith-based extremism in the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt, unbridled patronage extended by the Pakistan army-ISI combine to Islamic militants of all hues, and the shadow of China- Pakistan military alliance on the region. For India, they presage a distinct likelihood of a stepped up targeting of this country by Islamic terrorists, an aggravation of domestic conflict caused by Pakistani proxies and fanatics on communal lines, and an aggressive attitude of China under Xi Jinping, reflected in its activities on the Sino-Indian border. Fortunately, some factors are weighing in positively for India—the firm convergence of the democratic world in general against violence in the name of Islam, a deepening bond between India and Donald Trump’s United States in the matter of jointly handling global conflicts, and the geo-political ascendancy of India as a regional power at a time when the predatory designs of China in the Indo-Pacific are causing concern to all stakeholders there.
The situation calls for a recheck on the long term strategy of India in matters of defence and security and a retuning of our foreign policy to strengthen the same. An assessment of what lies ahead in the Pakistan- Afghan region, what approach the Trump administration would adopt towards the Muslim world in the long run and how would the Sino-Pakistan axis affect India’s other neighbours, will be pivotal to this review. Equally relevant would be an evaluation of India’s vulnerability to internal destabilisation because of the cumulative effect of manoeuvrings of Pakistan agencies, anti-India activities of some elements opposed to the Narendra Modi regime and the doings of pro-Pakistan groups influenced by radical indoctrination.
The environment in the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt is deteriorating because of the spread of faith-based extremism. The Pakistan army is being soft towards Islamic radicals affiliated to the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine and is fostering militants of LeT, JeM and HuM who solely target India. It is also giving leeway to Sunnis—also called Barelvis—as was seen in the episode of anti-blasphemy protests by the Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan at Islamabad.
Incidentally, Barelvis get their name from the 19th century madrasa called Manzar-e-Islam started at Bareilly by a cleric named Ahmad Raza Khan, who propounded that Muslim Nabis and Walis also deserved respect and adoration. Barelvis thus follow the Sufi tradition of Muslims visiting the graves of their “saints” for seeking the fulfilment of human wishes. To cope with the “revivalist” influence of Deobandis representing the Wahhabi thought and the Salafis constituting the Saudi-funded Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Sufism is driven to competitively demonstrating its commitment to the two fundamentals of faith in Islam—“Unity of God” and the finality of the message of God given to Prophet Muhammad. Any hopes of return of Ijtihad or independent reasoning have clearly receded, as both Al Qaeda and LeT push the community towards Islam of the period of the Pious Caliphs.
The Pakistan-Afghanistan region is where this rapid shift is taking place and it is India, and no other country in the short term, which is going to bear the adverse consequences of this transformation because of its “cause and effect” relationship with the happenings on our own soil. What makes this serious is the fact that the army in Pakistan is on the same page as the militants across the Islamic spectrum in that country.
An external parameter presently working for India is the fact that President Donald Trump, unlike his predecessor, has little tolerance for Islamic militancy anywhere and has administered a clear warning to the Muslim and Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia to put it down firmly. Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is in line with this disposition. The Americans, however, continue to focus only on radical forces like the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine, its affiliates like the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and of course the ISIS. What is disquieting from India’s point of view is that in Pakistan the hard-liners of LeT, who follow the Hanbali line of Saudi Arabia, and who had come to the forefront in the victorious campaign of jihad against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, have achieved a newfound dominance.
As a result, even the indigenous Jamaat-e-Islami in Kashmir—which is of Hanafi persuasion—finds its militant fronts HuM and Dukhtaran-e-Millat, taking orders directly from Hafiz Saeed. This visible deepening of extremism in Pakistan, and its impact on Kashmir, is a development of great concern for India. And since Saudi Arabia heading the OIC is presently trying to look totally aligned with the US in confronting Islamic radicals, Pakistan—enjoying the full trust of the Saudis—is in a position to use OIC as a protective shield for keeping up its own proxy war against India with the help of LeT, JeM and HuM. The Pakistan ISI is now also in a position to manipulate the radical organisation, Al Qaeda for Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), based in Pakistan, against India. It has already raised many radicalised youth in Kerala and elsewhere through the Islamic Research Foundation of Zakir Abdul Karim Naik, a Salafi preacher enjoying a big following in Pakistan. Pakistan’s deep state, thus, has all the wherewithal to continue churning out militants against India in the months to come.
The Sino-Pakistan axis, meanwhile, is in a collaborative play against India as the issues of CPEC, Doklam and the exercise of veto against the listing of Masood Azhar as an international terrorist, amply proved. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has successfully used forums like SAARC, BRICS and ASEAN to build a united voice in the democratic world against the Chinese roguishness in the maritime region. India’s main challenge, however, is to counter the aggressiveness of China on the border. India’s defence forces are rightly keeping in their calculus a possible “jointness” that China and Pakistan might resort to in their anti-India operations.
The external threat to India is compounded by our domestic scene, where many in the Opposition were unwilling to keep national security above politics. The issue of terrorism was getting enmeshed in the communal divide, and the determined bid of Pakistan to influence India’s Muslim minority was creating further complications. Assam, West Bengal and Kerala are witnessing Islamic militancy of extremist groups, and illegal migration from Bangladesh and infiltration through the India-Nepal border are adding to the vulnerability of many of our states. The attempts of Pakistan’s ISI to revive militancy in Punjab with the help of Babbar Khalsa and other Khalistan protagonists given shelter by it in Pakistan, too deserve mention. At present, the prime threats to India’s national security revolve round Pakistan. The challenge for India is to give a befitting reply to Pakistan, while keeping the world opinion in our favour.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director Intelligence Bureau