Analysis & Opinions

Revisiting India's Restraint in Response to Mumbai

Dec. 04, 2013

Just over five years ago, ten assailants launched coordinated attacks across downtown Mumbai that held India’s commercial capital hostage for three days. As the world watched the tragedy unfold in real-time via Indian news channels, terrorists killed over one hundred and fifty people. From a Karachi safe house, the assailants’ handlers used the news channels’ video to direct their well-trained and powerfully armed foot soldiers to inflict even greater casualties.

Not surprisingly, the attacks outraged the Indian public. A few days later, then Indian foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon told US Ambassador David Mulford that he had "never seen levels of anger like this." Though few would have condemned the Indian government for a robust military response, none was forthcoming. Instead India lobbied the United States to pressure Pakistan to take action against Islamist terrorist groups in Pakistan and attempted to frame the attacks to the Indian public as primarily a domestic security issue.

Five years after the Mumbai attacks -  commonly referred to in India as 26/11 -  we should consider the reasons for the remarkably restrained reaction of the Indian government to this terrible and brazen assault. After all, we cannot assume that the government of India will not take military action in response to similar terrorist attacks in the future. Three months after 9/11, militants from Lashkar-e-Taiba, the same Pakistan-based terrorist organization responsible for the Mumbai bombings, attacked the Indian Parliament, leaving seven dead. In response, the Indian government mobilized the Indian Army (codenamed Operation Parakram), which nearly led to all-out war between India and Pakistan.

Much of the credit for the restrained reaction to the Mumbai attacks rightfully goes to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Singh’s birthplace stands today in eastern Pakistan and many believe his policy towards Pakistan is guided by a profound desire for India and Pakistan to reconcile. During his first term Singh famously commented that he looked forward to a day when he could have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. While many doubt Prime Minister Singh’s power and see Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi as the true arbiter of decision-making in Delhi, Singh seems to take the lead on India’s policy towards Pakistan.

The second actor often credited with de-escalating the crisis is the United States. While undeniably important, the United States’ role in South Asia is not inherent and India and Pakistan are too proud to tolerate much US meddling. In my view, the Indian government first decided not to use military force, and then invited the United States to use its influence over Pakistan to compel the dismantling of Pakistan’s terror infrastructure, a goal shared by the United States and India.

A third actor shaping India’s foreign policy is the Indian strategic community, comprised of academics, journalists, and retired officials who all participate in the public discourse on Indian foreign policy. While this community is neither as large nor as influential as its counterpart in the US, its importance is increasing as public interest in foreign policy issues rises in tandem with the growth of India’s middle class.

The growing importance of the Indian strategic community is reflected in the debate  between 2002 and 2008 over the “Cold Start” doctrine. In light of Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf’s failure to honor his pledge to end militant infiltration into India, which brought Operation Parakram to an end, the Indian foreign policy community began searching for options to affect a change in Pakistan’s policy towards India. “Cold Start” called for a quick, punishing strike against Pakistan by India’s conventional forces, which Indian foreign policy hawks argued was necessary to coerce Pakistan into changing its behavior. Opponents countered that Pakistan would dissuade any possible Indian attack by changing its military readiness and, in particular, its nuclear posture. Ultimately, then, the debate hinged on the question of whether conventional forces could be used in a nuclear neighborhood. When the Indian foreign policy community concluded that this risk was too high, the “Cold Start” doctrine became impotent and, by default, strategic restraint the preferred policy option.

To what degree India’s restraint was the result of individual actors or a broader consensus is unclear because it is difficult to know how much influence the Indian strategic community has on the country’s government. What is clear is that the evolving Indian strategic community is yet another important example of democratic India’s vibrant civil society. That most of India’s foreign policy community understood and supported Prime Minister’s decision not to respond militarily to the Mumbai attacks is a healthy sign for India’s imperfect but laudable democracy. International observers would be well served to pay closer attention to the growing public discourse in India on foreign policy issues.

For more information on this publication: Please contact India and South Asia Project
For Academic Citation: Lamont, Ben.“Revisiting India's Restraint in Response to Mumbai.” , December 4, 2013.