India stands up to Pakistan
A Delhi less patient with Islamabad is good for regional stability.

Reuters

An Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldier patrols near the fenced border with Pakistan in Suchetgarh, southwest of Jammu January 12, 2013. At least four soldiers, two each from India and Pakistan, have been killed in clashes since last Sunday in disputed Kashmir, where the nuclear-armed enemies are separated by a Line of Control (LoC) set up in 1948.

Article Highlights

  • As cease-fires go, the one between India and Pakistan on the Line of Control isn’t the most rigidly observed.

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  • A vocal & growing Indian middle class doesn’t want peace in South Asia to come at the cost of endless Indian forbearance.

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  • Even if the current India-Pakistan crisis fades, middle-class India’s more hawkish bent will likely persist.

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As cease-fires go, the one between India and Pakistan on the Line of Control, the de facto border that divides the disputed territory of Kashmir, isn't exactly the most rigidly observed. In 2012 it was breached on average about every three days, and over the course of the year eight Indian soldiers died in sporadic fighting that went largely unnoticed.

A recent flare-up between the two countries, however, has ended Indian indifference. Since Jan. 6, five soldiers have died in fighting—two Indians and three Pakistanis.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, about as dovish a leader as India has known, declared that "it cannot be business as usual" between the neighbors. The previous day, army chief Gen. Bikram Singh announced that he had ordered commanders at the border "to be both aggressive and offensive in the face of provocation." Both men were reacting to a chorus of outrage accompanying reports that one of two Indian soldiers killed in a raid Jan. 8 was decapitated, and his head carried back to Pakistan as a trophy.

As anger in India continues to rise, Pakistani singers have canceled concerts in Delhi and Mumbai, Pakistani field hockey players scheduled to participate in a private league have returned home, and a question mark looms over the participation of the Pakistani women's cricket team in a tournament in India later this month. Delhi has postponed implementing a program to ease visa restrictions on elderly citizens.

On the face of it, India's decision to suspend outreach to Pakistan, a centerpiece of Mr. Singh's foreign policy, seems inexplicable. Why crash a promising peace process—including the prospect of trade normalization—on the rocks of a relatively minor incident? Especially when Pakistan's civilian government, rocked by a popular cleric's call Monday for the government to dissolve parliament and all provincial assemblies, appears ready to tamp it down.

However disproportionate India's reaction to this incident seems, the larger shift in attitudes it underscores ought to be welcomed. Simply put, a vocal and growing Indian middle class does not want peace in South Asia to come at the cost of endless Indian forbearance.

Increasingly aware of their country's relative economic success and global ambitions, many Indians seek payback before accommodation. The rise of often-shrill 24-hour cable news channels and social media platforms such as Twitter gives this brassy strain of nationalism a prominence it lacked before. During the current crisis, for instance, TV studios in Delhi were filled with an endless parade of impressively moustached former generals demanding that Pakistan be taught a lesson.

This makes India's traditional policy toward Pakistan, to absorb attacks rather than retaliate against them, hard to sustain. And that is probably a good thing for the cause of lasting peace on the subcontinent.

In the short term, departure from India's habitual posture of restraint may increase instability by raising the prospect of a war between the nuclear-armed neighbors. But the sooner Pakistan's generals and their jihadist proxies learn that violence against India carries unpleasant consequences, the more likely they are to abandon a nearly 25-year-old strategy to bleed their larger neighbor through the proverbial thousand cuts.

Once this elementary lesson of good neighborliness is learned, the two countries can build a wide-ranging, mutually beneficial relationship without constantly fretting that it will be derailed by the next terrorist outrage or atrocity at the line of control.

To be sure, rewriting the rules of peace in the subcontinent will require India to shed bad habits acquired over the years. Typically, the Indian response to Pakistan has resembled the child who thinks he's teaching the schoolyard bully a lesson simply by refusing to talk to him. For instance, after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which Pakistani terrorists killed 166 people, India eschewed even token military retaliation. Instead, New Delhi's tone of injured outrage and temporary withdrawal from talks has become its diplomatic hallmark.

As for the prospect of nuclear war, the only sensible way for India, and indeed the world, to deal with it is to assume that Pakistan too has an interest in avoiding it. (Arguably, an even more pressing one than India given its smaller size.) This means rejecting the false binary that India's only options when attacked are either a full-scale war or a reliance on diplomatic measures alone.

Instead India should explore a range of military options, from drone strikes against terrorist kingpins, to air raids against training camps, to limited retaliation against Pakistani border posts. Rather than urging restraint on India after every fresh outrage, the international community should lean on Pakistan to accept retaliation as the logical price of misadventure. The principle: Punish those responsible for violence, rather than ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom seek peace as much as Indians do.

Even if the current India-Pakistan crisis fades, as appears likely given that neither side wants war, middle-class India's more hawkish bent will likely persist. According to a Pew survey last year, only about one in eight Indians holds a favorable view of Pakistan. Four years ago, before the Mumbai attacks, that figure was closer to one in five.

The survey also found that nearly six in ten Indians view Pakistan as a serious threat, a greater proportion than those concerned about a violent Maoist insurrection that has claimed many more Indian lives in recent years than either Pakistan-backed terrorism or stray border clashes. (Nearly the same proportion of Pakistanis feel similarly about India.)

Both India and Pakistan have an interest in pursuing peace. But in the long term expecting only one side to exercise restraint in order to achieve it is not viable.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01

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