Situation today is worse than Kargil, not the subcontinent we want: Retd admiral Ramdas on Balakot strikes

Elections 2024
28 February, 2019

Laxminarayan Ramdas, a retired admiral of the Indian Navy, served as the chief of naval staff between 1990 and 1993. Over a phone conversation with Surabhi Kanga, the web editor at The Caravan, Ramdas discussed India’s response to the militant attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Pulwama, in Jammu and Kashmir, on 14 February, in which over forty personnel were killed. Twelve days after the Pulwama attack, the Indian Air Force carried out an air strike in Jabba, a village near the Balakot town in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, followed by a dogfight with Pakistan’s air force the next day. Ramdas described India’s actions as ill-considered and called on the Indian government to de-escalate tensions. “Wars never produce answers,” he said. He added that only arms suppliers stand to gain from war. “We have become puppets in the hands of the big warmongers ... who sell us our weapons and equipment.”

I am very disappointed with what is happening in India at the moment. It is not that the government lacked understanding about the cost of this retaliation when we went ahead with our aerial strike on Balakot, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on 26 February. This entailed crossing the Pakistani border, into its territory, and not in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. We started the whole escalation process actually, nothing to do with [Pakistan]—no amount of whitewash will change that.

We struck Pakistan using the justification that we had incontrovertible intelligence that more strikes similar to Pulwama, by the Jaish-e-Mohammed, were imminent. Similarly, Pakistan can strike any target in India giving reasons why they had to take anticipatory measures based on their own intelligence. What is the guarantee that tomorrow they will not come and strike XYZ in Mumbai or Delhi or any other place of their choosing?

The Pulwama attack was tragic and should never have happened. The culprits must be brought to book. But using Pulwama as the rationale, we are now extending the blame to Kashmiris as a whole—especially Kashmiri students, in many parts of the country. Soon after the Pulwama attack, on 20 February, I wrote a letter to the president of India, suggesting that we take the “high moral ground” by declaring “an unconditional Hold Fire” pending a detailed enquiry into the attack. My letter also recommended immediate action by the prime minister and top leaders to halt the media war against innocent Kashmiris across India.

I also added that India should initiate a dialogue with Pakistan, and with the people of Jammu and Kashmir. We claim Jammu and Kashmir to be ours—that is perfectly alright, that is what our legal accession document states. But the legal accession document also says many other things on which we have reneged.

Seventy years down the line neither India nor Pakistan have been able to settle this issue, so there must be something wrong with us or something wrong with them. If you ask me, both of us are stupid to spend so much money on this conflict and to achieve nothing. And these fights have continued for three or four generations. The suicide bomber, Adil Ahmed Dar, who is allegedly a Jaish-e-Mohammed operator, is a clear indicator of the levels of anger and alienation that the youth of Jammu and Kashmir are experiencing today. We claim the whole area to be ours but we do not treat the people with the same kind of love and affection as we should, as we do in the rest of the country. This is the reason for the continuing tensions and growth of militancy—be it in Kashmir or in the northeast.

Wars never produce answers. I have been in two wars myself—a small action we carried out in Goa, in 1961, and then in 1971, in the Bangladesh operations against Pakistan—and I should know. Right now, the situation is serious because escalation is dangerously simple. It can just keep spiralling upwards until you reach the very top of the ladder—India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons. One cannot say, “Well, I will just use tactical weapons.” What is the guarantee that the other will not retaliate with a bigger weapon, or vice versa? In battle, we say, if you throw a stone at me, I will shoot you. That is the thing we are saying even now—if children throw stones at me in Srinagar, I will shoot them with pellets and blind them for life. This is no way to win the hearts and minds of our own people.

The fact that we are soon heading into a national election in the country is very critical to understanding the many factors at play today. If I were to advise the government on the next few steps, the first thing that should be done is to blow the whistle and say, “I am going to declare a unilateral ceasefire,” and then, for God’s sake, let us get around a table and talk.

This situation is worse than during the Kargil war in 1999. In 1998, both sides had demonstrated their nuclear capability—India in Pokhran, and Pakistan in the Chagai hills. But today, the scene is very different. We have more weapons on both sides and each one believes that they are very strong. Meanwhile, the United States president Donald Trump, whose country has the largest number of weapons, met Kim Jong-un, his North Korean counterpart, in an attempt to sign a peace agreement. Why? Because North Korea has shown that it has nuclear-weapon capability. Yet, we are gung-ho and encouraging the mindless celebration of the strikes.

You cannot carry on this cat-and-mouse game. We need to ask the question: who benefits from keeping the hostilities alive and the pot boiling? The arms lobby, the suppliers and dealers at home and abroad. They find a profitable market in India and Pakistan, and one which can be easily milked. By keeping us as permanent enemies, it is they who reap the benefit. If Pakistan wants arms, it gets them from China and various other Western countries. We are buying sophisticated weaponry from Israel, America, Russia and France for huge sums of money, while the poorest of both countries remain poor. We have become puppets in the hands of the big warmongers, the chaps who sells us our weapons and equipment. Then they blame our neighbour, he blames us, and we blame him. It is a great strategy that they have going on. We must understand who are pulling the strings and raking in huge profits. Let us be clear, it is neither India, nor Pakistan nor the Kashmiris. This is not the subcontinent we want.

India cannot be dragged into a war with all the dangers of escalation by a so-called “popular” demand by the people. The top leaders of the country have failed in their responsibility to educate, explain and inform the people of the real dangers of inciting two nuclear-capable neighbours to war. It is even more important to reign in the TV anchors and social media, to emphasise that war is not something to celebrate. As a former chief of the navy and proud member of our armed forces, it has not been easy to advocate peace and dialogue in this belligerent atmosphere. I, too, have been trolled and accused of being a deshdrohi, or anti-national, for my views in favour of nuclear disarmament and regional peace.

The social-media trolls and the anchors are not those who will lose their lives. It appears that we are witnessing the whipping up of an ultra-nationalism and an ugly form of political manipulation to serve immediate electoral mobilisation. This is the most dangerous undermining of democracy, and it is letting down the armed forces and those soldiers, sailors and airmen who have put their lives on the line every time. Let us respond positively to all possibilities of dialogue, which may enable long-term solutions in a calmer and less inflammatory environment.

Working for peace requires a different kind of courage, commitment and following the dictates of one’s conscience. To quote my friend and mentor, the late social activist Nirmala Deshpande, “Goli Nahin, Boli Chahiye”—Dialogue, Not Guns.

As told to Surabhi Kanga. The account has been edited and condensed.