Yashaswi Bagga

On the seventeenth of December, 2016, the Indian government designated Lt. Gen. Bipin Rawat as the new Chief of Army Staff, the most senior position in the Indian Army. The appointment itself was controversial, and since it was announced Lt. Gen. Rawat has already made a series of pronouncements which are of immense interest. One of the most important of these was the first official recognition of the existence of the Cold Start doctrine which is a strategy regarding rapid and small-scale war with Pakistan that has been more-or-less accepted to exist for over a decade. 

While it may have been drowned out by the noise over Trump’s inauguration and the surrounding protests, not to mention the Syrian conflict and the associated refugee crisis, this was a significant appointment, not just for India, but also for Asia as a whole. It may have significant consequences for Sino-Indian and India-Pakistan relations and hence on the stability of the Asian Subcontinent. The importance of the appointment stems from three reasons.

The first is that this appointment offers a unique opportunity to understand the approach of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to India’s often conflict-ridden civil and military relations with India and China. A primer to these:

 The BJP, whose electoral appeal and ideology are centred to large extents around a more aggressive nationalism, is known for its relatively hardline stance on these conflicts, especially on ending Pakistani state-sponsored terrorism. One of the justifications given for the recent withdrawal of high-value notes was that these were faked and put into circulation from Pakistan in order to weaken the Indian economy, and to fund terrorism.

Initially, after coming to power in 2014, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi made several efforts to improve relations with Pakistan, including a highly publicized visit to the his opposing number on the Pakistani side, Nawaz Sharif, on his birthday. However, there were several terrorist attacks in 2016, including the Pathankot attack in January and the Uri attack in September, both on military bases. The latter was especially significant, being on a base that is placed within the controversial territory of Jammu and Kashmir, contested territory (including Chinese claims to some parts) since the two countries attained Independence in 1947. After this, relations fell apart, as they have rather depressingly tended to. This tendency was enhanced by the BJP’s more aggressive ideology itself, and political and electoral compulsions to keep its core demographic happy. In his speech on August 15th, India’s Independence Day, PM Modi upped the ante by indirectly thanking the people of Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for their support. Balochistan is a region in Pakistan, which has long had movements for autonomy and even Independence. This statement was widely seen as support for these independence movements, and elicited angry reactions from Pakistan, which described them as evidence that India had been supporting these movements in order to weaken Pakistan. Pakistan has since responded by increasing their statements in condemnation of Indian actions in Kashmir.

After the Uri attack in September, India launched a cross-border strike on terrorist camps based in Pakistan. These camps were considered to be staging camps for militant preparing to infiltrate India, and to exist with the complicity, if not support, of the Pakistani authorities. The strikes were seen as a departure from a usually more cautious approach to the use of direct military action, which resulted from hesitance to escalate conflict between two nuclear powers. It was also often considered that this reluctance used to use force was seen as a carte blanche by the considerably more aggressive, impulsive, and military-dominated Pakistani establishment.  The so-called ‘surgical strikes’ were greeted with considerable enthusiasm by the Indian public.

However, this was all only a direct function of the politicians heading the government. The opportunity to appoint a new Army Chief after the scheduled retirement of the previous one gave the BJP a chance to directly influence the military through its choice.

Secondly, the controversy surrounding the appointment also holds valuable information. In the Indian military, such appointments are done on the basis of seniority, i.e. length of service. However, in this case, two senior personnel were superseded. This is a rarity; the last time it happened was in 1983. The appointment of the new Chief of Air Staff followed this principle. This led to protests by opposition parties, who accused the government of politicizing the military. Due to the government’s willingness to weather this opprobrium, which they surely knew had to come, we have reason to believe that the government specifically wanted Lt. Gen. Rawat, and nobody else. This indicates that this appointment is not a mere formality, and will have tangible effects.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the statements made by Lt. Gen. Rawat give us reason to pay attention to him.

Immediately after his appointment, he said that the Army would not "shy away from flexing its muscles, if the need be", indicating the possibility of a more proactive army. While this could be passed off as a rather generic statement holding no new information, it was the Chief’s comments regarding Cold Start doctrine that are the most significant, and may mark a shift in Indian attitudes to both, preventing and engaging in conflict, along with a willingness on the part of the government to square up to both, Pakistan, and the flipside of the coin, a possible increase in the likelihood of nuclear war. He said in an interview with India Today, that ‘’The Cold Start doctrine exists for conventional military operations.’’

What is the Cold Start doctrine? It originated in 2001, when the Indian Parliament was attacked by Islamist terrorists, from groups believed to be supported, if not funded, by Pakistan. India initiated a full mobilization along the border. However, this mobilization took a whole month, and illustrated the weakness of India’s strategic practices, which were obsolete and based around the concept of large 'holding corps', intended to halt hostile advances. It was slow and insufficient for offensive purposes, especially because the possibility of nuclear retaliation necessitated speed. The slowness of Indian action allowed Pakistan time to counter-mobilize, the international community to intervene, and allowed Pakistan to make public statements against terrorism, thus reducing Indian justification for military action. As such, India did not attack, and withdrew after a lengthy standoff. It was unable to prove to Pakistan that it was both capable and willing to resort to war.

After this strategic failure, India initiated a reformulation of battle plans. Instead of three large strike corps located in the centre of India in many individual blocks reminiscent of German Blitzkrieg tactics and with their own associated air support and artillery they were to be placed at the border itself. No doubt  with the aim of decreasing Pakistani confidence that India couldn’t respond. The fact that this change made ‘small-scale’ war a prospect effectively reduced the threshold for India military action to begin, with the intention that Pakistani confidence in its ability to engage in asymmetric warfare be reduced. The overall goal is to ‘inflict significant harm on the Pakistan Army before the international community could intercede, and at the same time, pursue narrow enough aims to deny Islamabad a justification to escalate the clash to the nuclear level.’

Pakistani military personnel and politicians have responded by claiming to have reduced their own threshold, or ‘red line’ for the use of nuclear weapons, making repeated statements about their willingness to initiate nuclear war. This has led to an atmosphere of reduced stability.

However, despite the fact that the Cold Start doctrine is well-known, it’s existence has never been officially admitted- until now. In fact, it has been denied by a former Defence Minister and by a sitting army chief (who now happens to be Minister of state for defence, a role somewhat like an assistant Defence Minister). This was led perhaps by 'Indian security managers who might have believed that the ambiguity surrounding the concept’s status and the Indian Army’s ability to implement it had generated enough uncertainty in the mind of Pakistani decision-makers to deter their support for militant attacks within India', according to an article in The Hindu by Vipin Narang and Walter C. Ladwig. It is also quite possible that they did so to limit the risk of Pakistan lowering its nuclear threshold.

Coming back to the present, Lt. Gen. Bipin Rawat’s open acceptance of the existence of such a doctrine seems to indicate a recognition of the fact that the above hypothesis seems not to hold in the face of brazen attacks from Pakistani territory, and a de facto refusal by the Pakistani government to eliminate terrorists conspiring against within its borders. This is likely also a product of the aforementioned aggression of the current government. As such, this represents a momentous shift in the dynamic of India-Pakistan relations, with consequences for the whole world, by having effects on the prevalence of Islamic terrorism and risking the first use of nuclear weapons since the Second World War. What exactly these consequences will be, only time will tell.