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Why India is Not an Existential Threat to Pakistan

India is portrayed as a mortal enemy—an existential threat—waiting to destroy Pakistan at a moment’s notice.  Most knowledgeable policy makers and analysts have repeatedly made the argument that the “India threat” is singularly the most important factor in Pakistan’s refusal to support the American strategic and policy objectives in Afghanistan.  A careful analysis however reveals that the narrative of India as an existential threat does not match the history of aggressive relations between these two states.  Since the partition of India into Pakistan and India in 1947, Pakistan has been the aggressor in each and every instance.  All three major wars and the Kargil war in the summer of 1999 following the retaliatory nuclear tests in May 1998 were initiated by Pakistan without exception.

In 1948, tribal lashkhars and army irregulars crossed from Pakistan, precipitating the first India-Pakistan war.  Pakistan launched the 1965 war in the hopes that India would not be able to put up a good fight because of its loss to China in the 1962 border war.  The 1971 war started by Pakistan in its vain attempt to prevent Bangladesh from declaring independence; in fact Pakistan launched a veritable genocide in Bangladesh in 1971.  While India’s aim was very limited to prevent inflow of refugees into Eastern India and to stop the launch of cross-border attacks from Indian soil, the initial foray quickly escalated into a full-blown conflict.  After the 1971 war, India repatriated 92,000 Pakistani POWs and returned territory that India had captured as per the Shimla Agreement.

Pakistan opportunistically sought to influence the Sikh militancy movement in India, which led to the complete mobilization of the Indian military in an exercise known as Operation Brass Tacks apparently to test the electronic warfare capability, but the Indians did not cross the Line of Control (LOC)—the de facto boundary—separating India and Pakistan.  Since the mid-80s Pakistan has followed a strategy of training militants and sending them across the border to commit acts of terror in Kashmir and other parts of India, to which India has not responded by using force against Pakistan.  In 1999, a year after the retaliatory nuclear tests, at the instigation of Chief of Military Staff General Prevez Musharaff, Pakistani forces attacked Indian military positions in the high mountains of Kashmir.  In this brief and highly tense Kargil war, the Indian military made a determined attempt to not to cross the LOC.  India lost 527 soldiers during the Kargil war, which ended only after President Bill Clinton aggressively interceded in the conflict.  In 2001 Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament; in 2002, a Hindu temple was attacked, killing over 30 and injuring 80.

Dawood Ibrahim, a noted figure in the organized crime syndicate with connections to the Pakistani intelligence community, allegedly masterminded the Bombay (now Mumbai) serial blasts in which 13 bombs ripped through the city killing 257 and injuring 713.  After the bombings Dawood Ibrahim is said to have absconded to Karachi in Pakistan from where he leads a global crime syndicate and enjoys a lavish life, but officials in Pakistan deny this allegation.  A series of bomb blasts occurred from March to August 2003 that targeted key locations in Mumbai such as the Zaveri Bazaar and the Gateway of India.  This was followed by the July 2006 train bombings in Mumbai in which seven bombs exploded within a span of 11 minutes in seven different locations killing 181and injuring 890.  Lakshar-e-Taiba (LeT) was the prime suspect in the 2003 and 2006 bombings and the Indian government also fingered the Pakistani intelligence agency for providing logistical support, which the ISI and the Pakistan government vehemently disputed.

India did not respond to any of these attacks with force, only with bluster; and, finally, capping global attention, Lashkar-e-Taiba launched spectacular attacks on Mumbai (often referred to as the 26/11 attacks) in 2008 that killed 172 and destroyed several iconic buildings.  The Manmohan Singh government showed extraordinary restraint despite very strong domestic pressure to launch raids on terror camps in Pakistan.  Of course, pressure from the United States and the Indian business community wary of an escalation counseled the Indian government from any military adventures.

Let us turn to the state of Kashmir.  What is not commonly understood about Kashmir is that the region of Jammu and Kashmir is already partitioned among three states: Pakistan, China, and India.  So when discussions turn towards Kashmir in the popular media they are referring to the Kashmir that is in India’s control, which Pakistan badly wants to secure.  So how is India an existential threat to Pakistan?  Is India a threat to Pakistan because Pakistan launched four major military attacks on India and it lost badly?  Is India an existential threat to Pakistan because several jihadi groups that train and seek refuge in Pakistan launch attacks on India and in return India did not respond militarily?  Is India an existential threat to Pakistan because the Indian economy is growing at an average of eight percent every year with an expanding middle class of 400-450 million?  Is India a threat to Pakistan because its gives economic and medical aid to Afghanistan?  Does India’s sheer size make it a security threat?  Does the size of the Indian military make Pakistan insecure?

The answer to all these questions is a resounding NO!  None of these makes Pakistan insecure.  Pakistan’s military is 600,000 strong, it has advanced F-16 jet fighters, advanced early warning aircrafts in its arsenal, and it is sitting on a stockpile of 60-100 nuclear weapons; besides it has an unwavering ally in China and the support of its finicky benefactor, the United States.  Pakistan’s military can wreak havoc on major Indian cities within a matter of hours in the case of full-scale military combat.  Hence, the Indian military is not too eager to pick a fight with its Pakistani counterpart; a point also noted by the former Pakistani President, General Musharraf, in his memoirs—In the Line of Fire.

So why is it that India is the largest security threat to Pakistan?  This is because the discourse of “India is an existential threat” serves the purpose of allowing the Pakistani military to milk the American taxpayers for more expensive military hardware and financial aid so that it can continue to serve as the fulcrum of the Pakistani society.  The overarching theme of the Pakistani national identity narrative has been to demonstrate that Hindus and Muslims do not share a common civilizational identity and that Hindu India is determined to dismember Muslim Pakistan.  Therefore, the entire military and intelligence apparatus has been geared to seek parity with India because of the perceived threat from India.

U.S. support for Pakistan is highly understandable; however, India is not the existential threat that Pakistan makes it out to be and I think it would well serve analysts and policy-makers alike if they don’t base their reasoning on the assumption that India presents an existential threat to Pakistan at every level.  Analysis that begins with the assumption that India is a threat automatically leads one to conclude that Pakistan’s behavior is understandable because after all it is responding to the logic of security.  Any analysis that begins with the position that India does not pose an existential threat to Pakistan will arrive at an entirely different conclusion.


About the Author

Srini Sitaraman

Srini Sitaraman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the former Director of the Asian Studies Program at Clark University, and a Research Associate with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. He directs the Model United Nations Program at Clark University and teaches courses on Asian Studies, International Relations, International Law, United Nations, and Human Rights. He has published articles and monographs on international regimes and has written about South Asian security issues. His book State Participation in International Treaty Regimes (Ashgate Publishing) was published in 2009. Currently he is working on a book on the New Dynamics of South Asian Security. 
  • Rayriaz

    India a huge and mehmmath country comparing Pakistan in size. Four times in Area, six times in Economy,four times in Defence,seven times in Population.India exploted it`s first Nuclear Bomb test in 1974,Pakistan did its first nuclear test in 1998.India helped breaking Pakistan and started Bangladesh war on November22,1971 while Pakistan started same war on December 4,1971. India Started its occupation of Kashmir by droping its forces in October 1947 while pakistan started Kashmir war against India in 1948.Pakistan share its border with Afghanistan which is 2600 km long, while India has no border with Afghanistan.still India expending two Billions dollar in Afghanistan while there are 500 Millions of Indian living in poverty. stop spreading Propaganda agaist Pakistan.

  • Som

    its not so much a question of propaganda against Pakistan as is a depiction of what has actually occurred. We can go back and forth repeatedly on who started which war and who won what, but that does not change the situation as it stands today. the presence of nuclear weapons in both India and Pakistan means either will think twice about attacking the other on even the smallest scale and that has been evident from the response India has had over the terrorist attacks. It is important that the sensible and educated class of people in both countries realize that not long ago we were, in fact, one country and we share a common feeling of brotherhood which is showing increasingly in the rhetoric used by both countries.
    As far as the question of Afghanistan goes, it is agreed that India does not share a common border, but as you mentioned yourself India is a growing power with a need, like any other power to invest in projects outside its boundaries, the millions it is spending in Afghanistan is only a fraction compared to the billions it is spending at home to alleviate people from poverty – the bottom line is that it is just good business sense. This must not be considered as a threat in Pakistan no more than investments made by China or USA or any other countries. Pakistan cannot claim a country or sector of a country for its own just because it has a border or shares the same religion with it and it has no right to oppose any investments in it because it is not their country! It is however more than welcome to invest itself in Afghanistan and the rather unfortunate side of things is that wars have ravaged Afghanistan to the point that any form of aid from any country will certainly be appreciated.