In a new book, 'Defining India: Through Their Eyes' by Sonia Singh - a series of conversations published by Penguin India - Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has given exclusive insight into the Balakot airstrikes, the New Normal of India's strategy vis-a-vis Pakistan, and more. She decisively rejects reports that she was not part of the decision-making process on the airstrikes and also talks about why she feels that if decisive action had been taken after 26/11 by the then UPA government, Pulwama would not have happened. Here's an excerpt from the book:
"How has India's strategic defence changed after the Balakot airstrikes, marking the first time since the 1971 War that India has gone deep into Pakistani territory," I ask her. "Do you see this as a key defining moment for India?"
Measured in her response as always, Nirmala Sitharaman says, "I don't know if I want to call it a defining moment, but it has definitely reset the way with which India deals with its strategic independence. All these years, our approach was extremely calibrated in handling issues dealing with the strategic independence of India, that is even more pronounced now. In a multi-polar world, with so many countries, positioning themselves strongly, India has been strengthening its bilateral relations with many different countries, but we have ensured we keep our strategic independence at the core of every relationship. Now we have gone one step further to show that we are not going to be waiting forever to respond on terrorism-related matters."
On 14 February 2019, a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle packed with explosives into a convoy of CRPF jawans, killing 40 paramilitary soldiers in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir. The attack for which the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terror group claimed responsibility, was a red flag to India. "Was this the turning point that made the Indian government decide that enough was enough?" I ask.
"Post-Pulwama, we waited for ten days," Nirmala Sitharaman tells me, "and then the call was taken. It was a clear call-we were not attacking anyone; it was not a negative or military step, it was clear targeting of the nerve-centre of terror in Balakot, about which we had credible intelligence before we took this decision.
"Our decision came after an accumulation of efforts largely post the Mumbai attacks of 26/11, to get Pakistan to act against terror originating from their soil. There were dossiers of evidence completed even by the previous governments and submitted to Pakistan. Our diplomats repeatedly raised the issue at the United Nations, asking why some agencies in Pakistan were not being listed under terror networks. And the institutional memory we had, that despite all these efforts by India, since 2008 and Mumbai, a Pulwama still happened.
"It was clearly a significant point in the anti-terrorism narrative that India needed, to show the blatant abuse from the territory of Pakistan. So, despite all the years of accumulated efforts, bilaterally with Pakistan and at the UN and at other international forums, Pakistan did not show any credible intent to take action. We had often reached out to them, saying we want peace in the neighbourhood; if it's possible with everyone else, why don't you want to do it? There had been no positive response, and then Pulwama happened. So, this narrative was festering with Indian policy makers and people in the government. The responsibility for the Pulwama terror attack was also claimed by a group that was located in Pakistan, about which the previous government, as well as this one, had given evidence to Pakistan, yet no action was taken and now they've killed forty young men fighting for this country.
"More importantly," she continues, "there was palpable anger amongst the people, saying is this what we are going to live with, why are we not making Pakistan take necessary action?
"And now," Nirmala Sitharaman says, "I have an argument I would like to pose. After giving credible evidence and presenting dossiers, we needed to tell them [Pakistan], there we would wait up to a point. We were not going to sit back and watch them do nothing against terror. With the benefit of hindsight, I want to ask-would there have been such a major terror attack again had we taken a deterrent or punitive step after 26/11? Is it also a corollary for us to think that we didn't take substantive effort back then and therefore, terror attacks kept happening? These are only questions; I can't answer them. No one can answer them because we are trying to predict the mind of someone in Pakistan, whether it is the establishment, the military, or the ISI. Although, my mind tells me if we had taken substantive action after 26/11, terrorism probably would not have been so blatant today."
The fact, however, remains that after every terror attack, there has been the larger question of nuclear escalation which is at the core of determining the response from India and the global community response. "How far can things escalate between two nuclear nations? What happens now if another terror attack takes place?" I ask.
The Defence Minister responds immediately. "On 26 February, what India did post-Pulwama was neither for war nor military action. It was a clearly targeted attack on terrorism. Both the previous and current government has repeatedly told Pakistan that they are hosting terror centers, training terrorists on their soil. It's not a surprise to Pakistan, or the globe, that they are hosting terrorists. Even the ceasefire violations that happen across the Indo-Pak border and the LoC through non-State actors, happen with active support of their military. The terror attacks happen with the active support of the military there and we have evidence of this, tell-tale signs of who supplies the terror groups with material. This has been happening for the last twenty to thirty years. India can provide evidence for each cease-fire violation, for each terror attack on how the establishment in Pakistan is absolutely hand in glove with the terrorists. So, 26 February was more a surgical attack on a terrorist training centre, for which we had credible intelligence inputs that more suicide bombers were being trained to carry out more Pulwama-like attacks in India.
"Our fighter jets went precisely to the location of the terror centre, finished it and came back. The extent of damage is a different story. In fact, this was followed by Pakistan's military action, they came and bombed our front posts, our military centres. We had not even touched their military networks or their civilian centres. We had clearly focused on one of their terrorist camps. How can both actions be equated?
"When people ask us if we should not be de-escalating the matter, I tell them that I have not escalated things in the first place. War is what happens when we attack them and they do the same as per certain established institutional frameworks. But, in this case, they're constantly attacking us like guerrilla warfare with non-State actors."
"Has Pulwama and its aftermath been the most difficult time for you in your two and half years as defence minister?' I ask.
"Pulwama is an incident which shook the conscience of every Indian, not just me," she replies somberly. "I don't know how to describe the moment when I received the bodies of forty martyrs at the Delhi airport and waited for the Prime Minister and leaders from all the political parties to come and pay their respects. It cannot be described in words, Sonia, it just makes you feel hollow inside. Revulsion sets in when you think about the minds and hearts of the perpetrators behind these attacks..."
Nirmala Sitharaman also dismisses all reports that as Defence Minister, she was a token presence and not a core member of the inner team led by the Prime Minister, which was aware of India's air strike response.
"These are very odd statements that come from the media every time. Were the ministers kept informed? I can only say that I have been in the complete picture from the very beginning. I was completely in the know of things and participated with everyone concerned."
It wasn't just the Prime Minister who had a sleepless night during the operations, as he'd mentioned at an election rally. The IAF planes took off from India on the early morning of the February 26, hit the target at 3:30 am and were all back safely in the Indian airspace soon after.
The Defence Minister smiles as she says, "When I received the call at 4 am on the 26th morning, informing me that everyone was safe and all the pilots have come back, I heaved a sigh of relief. It was the other extreme of the emotion I felt after the Pulwama attack. When Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured a day later, I had monitored it very closely with the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, who was in Delhi for consultations, the foreign secretary, the defense secretary, and the three forces. The Cabinet Committee on Security was meeting, subsequently the national security council, so we were monitoring the situation non-stop and trying every measure we could to get him back safely. On the day of his return, there was intense coordination, there were certain ups and downs in the inputs that were coming in. But when he finally walked across the Wagah border, there was a great sense of relief. And when I met him the next day, it was very positive and motivating. I was very inspired by the Wing Commander, especially to see him keeping his spirits so high, he is an exemplary officer."
Excerpted with permission of Penguin India from 'Defining India: Through Their Eyes' by Sonia Singh. Pre-order your copy here.