The terrorist killing of sleeping soldiers at Uri on September 18 revolted me. It reminded me of Ashvatthama’s night-time massacre of the sleeping Pandava armies, which turned the mood of the Mahabharata from heroic triumphalism to dark, stoic resignation. Soldiers are ready to give their lives in battle but they don’t expect to die while asleep in peacetime. For ten days I felt uneasy and angry. On September 29, India retaliated with surgical strikes against terrorist camps across the border in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. With that I calmed down, feeling somehow that justice had been done and the nation’s honour had been restored. I am now convinced that India’s national interest was also furthered by the surgical strikes.
As I think back to my feelings during those intervening ten days, I realize that I was wrong in being guided by emotions of revenge, honour, and ‘justice’. Revenge is a sort of wild justice that runs in the human heart. If a good person suffers, then the bad one must suffer even more — this idea is embedded in our psyche. Consciously one denies it, proclaiming, ‘I’m not that sort of person.’ Yet unconsciously one applauds when a villain gets his due. We love happy endings in movies and novels for this reason. Revenge fulfils a legitimate human need, bringing profound moral equilibrium to our hearts.
But nations cannot afford to act like flawed human beings. Hence, political thinkers, beginning with Machiavelli, and strategists like Metternich in the 19th century, formulated theories of national interest. They argued that if nations were to act according to cold-blooded calculations of their own interest, adversaries could predict their reactions, and this would lead to a more stable, peaceful world. I learned this lesson as an undergraduate in college from Henry Kissinger, the keenest modern proponent of national interest theory.
Prime Minister Modi appears to act instinctively like a pupil of Machiavelli and Metternich. In an inspiring speech at Kozhikode, he presented a fine formulation of India’s national interest. He said that India’s interest lay in creating jobs, wiping out poverty and illiteracy. He told the people of Pakistan, “Let’s see who wins…who is able to defeat poverty and illiteracy first, Pakistan or India.” He offered a vision of the subcontinent as a developed, prosperous society. Considerations of national honour and izzat, he suggested, were against the national interest of both nations.
The September 29 surgical strikes have, indeed, furthered India’s national interest. They have smashed the conventional wisdom that crossing the line of control (LoC) would inevitably escalate into war, eventually a nuclear war. Pakistan has promoted this myth. India has bought it wholesale; hence, it becomes paralysed after each terrorist attack. Even after the terrible Mumbai attack in 2008, India responded only by cancelling talks, and this emboldened Pakistan to carry out more terror attacks. The surgical strikes across the LoC have given a different signal — there will be heavy costs to future terrorism.
By denying the surgical strikes, Pakistan, in effect, behaved rationally and de-escalated the conflict. If it had retaliated it would have led to a war.
India helped it by not making the videos public, letting the Pakistani public believe its government’s version, and reducing pressure on its leadership to escalate. This has broken a second myth — of an irrational Pakistani leadership itching for war. Modi’s other moves, prior to the surgical strikes — a rethink on the use of Indus waters, Most Favoured Nation trading status, and a Saarc without Pakistan — have all added to a sense of unease in a complacent Pakistan leadership. It has reinforced in Pakistani minds that they are dealing with a different India, which may not succumb to nuclear blackmail in the future.
This is not to say that Pakistan will not respond. It will and soon. But its response will be calibrated and rational — not mad escalation, as we once believed. Pakistan is a military state whose narrative of humiliation and hatred fuels its identity. It will always be tempted by bloodlust, revenge and national honour. India, however, must never stoop to its level. It must always choose national interest over national honour. This will not be easy because revenge and honour fulfil a legitimate human need, bringing profound moral equilibrium to our hearts. But India has no choice because it needs peace to fulfil its manifest destiny.