Playing With Fire: Pakistan’s Unintended Strategic Challenge in India’s Homeland

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 32

The Babri Mosque, which was destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992 (AFP)

Having examined India’s Afghan policy as a challenge meant to undermine Pakistani security (see Terrorism Focus, August 12), this article examines Pakistan’s low-intensity war against India which, while long ongoing, has been effectively broadened since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and India’s expanding presence there. Pakistani covert operations alone would never have posed a threat to Indian security and stability, but rising anti-Hindu sentiments among India’s 150-million-strong Muslim community have complemented Pakistani operations and enhanced the threat posed to India’s communal harmony and economy, a result that likewise increases the chances of an unintended India-Pakistan war.

Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, a central goal of Pakistani governments has been bringing an end to New Delhi’s political control of the Muslim-dominated Kashmir region of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state (J&K). Pakistani policy has tended to look toward eventually annexing the region to the Pakistani state, while the sentiments of India’s Kashmiri Muslims have shown no unanimity on the issue, with some supporting annexation and others preferring the formation of an independent Muslim state. Islamabad’s support of Kashmiri separatists has included political support, agitation at the UN, funding for separatist organizations, and – especially since General Zia’s tenure as Pakistan’s president – the training and arming of Kashmiri Islamist insurgents.

Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has never been framed as an effort to “defeat” India. The policy has rather been a combination of religious obligation – helping to free brother Muslims dominated by polytheist Hindus – and overall defense policy, with the latter probably being the dominant motivation. Islamabad’s support for the Kashmiris provided an outlet for the free-Kashmir ardor of the country’s Islamist political parties and served to tie down an inordinate number of India’s military forces in J&K. Faced with India’s overwhelming superiority in military manpower, Pakistan believed that its interests were favored by a military equation that saw the largest possible number of Indian troops diverted away from a possible Indian strike force aimed at Pakistan and toward internal security operations. Islamabad also believed that it could calibrate and control this policy, thereby avoiding a situation where Muslim dissident activities in Kashmir might lead to a conventional war between Pakistan and India.[1]

The above policy formulation largely met Islamabad’s goals until the Afghan jihad ended with the fall of Muahmmad Najibullah’s communist regime in Kabul in April, 1992. Thereafter, Islamabad’s policy remained more-or-less constant, but several other influences made J&K an increasingly dangerous Indo-Pak flashpoint. For one, the Afghan mujahideen’s victory over the USSR inspired Islamists across the Muslim world; for Kahsmiri militants it suddenly became conceivable that – if Moscow could be beaten – perhaps New Delhi was not invincible. Second, a moderate number of Pakistani and Indian Kashmiris received training and combat experience in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet war and believed they were ready to fight Indian forces. Third, Islamist NGO’s from the Arabian Peninsula looked for post-Afghan jihad causes to support and fund, with Kashmiri separatism near the top of their agenda. Fourth, al-Qaeda, after its formation in 1988, took a strong interest in the fortunes of Kashmiri Islamists and sought to assist them after the Soviet withdrawal.

Each of these factors lessened Islamabad’s ability to effectively regulate the violence in Kashmir and thereby limit chances for a military confrontation with India; other forces – some richer and more influential than Pakistan – provided the Kashmiris with other support options if Islamabad tightened the spigot. This less predictable but still manageable situation was dramatically worsened, however, by the mid-1980s rise of a force entirely beyond Pakistani control; that is, Hindu nationalism and cultural chauvinism – termed Hinduvatu in India. The formation and rapid growth of Lal Krishna Advani’s Indian People’s Party (Bharatiya Janata Party -BJP) and the simultaneous expansion of the Mumbai-based Shiv Sena (Army of Shiva) organization’s political power and influence began to challenge the secular nature of the Indian state in a manner that was unabashedly anti-Muslim. The turning point in India’s Hindu-Muslim communal relations began in 1990 when Hindu fundamentalists occupied the ancient Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodha and then destroyed it 1992. This event was followed by a Shiv Sena-led anti-Muslim pogrom in Mumbai in December 1992 – January 1993, which was responded to by the serial bombings of predominantly Hindu targets in Mumbai by Dawood Ibrahim’s D-Company criminal organization – assisted by Pakistan’s ISI – in March, 1993.[2] Thereafter, and certainly by the late 1990s, India’s response to Kashmir’s Islamist insurgents and Pakistan’s support for them took on the more bellicose tone pressed on New Delhi by the Hindu fundamentalists. Hindu-nationalist leaders also effectively pushed for the imposition of domestic policies – especially in the area of counterterrorism – that widened the Hindu-Muslim communal divide and created fertile ground for the growth of anti-Hindu Islamist militancy and organizations in India.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan has continued its covert operations in J&K and – probably as a response to India’s greatly expanded Afghan presence – has sought to simultaneously create an insurgent/terrorist capability across India, attack the booming Indian economy, and better hide its hand while doing both. ISI has long worked with several Islamist insurgent/terrorist groups that are active in Kashmir and Bangladesh – especially the Lashkar-e-Tayiba (LeT), Jaysh-e-Muhammad (JeM), and Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Banglasesh (HUJI-B) – but these organizations lacked both an all-India presence and the ability to build one. According to Indian security officials, however, Pakistan and the ISI have used Dawood Ibrahim’s Karachi-based D-Company and the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) to provide the contacts, safe houses, and front organizations needed to allow LeT, JeM, and HUJI-B to become all-India threats. The recent terrorist operations in Bangalore, Ahmedabad, and Surat (July 25-27), for example, are thought by Indian security officials to have been made possible by the support of D-Company and SIMI for the aforementioned terrorist groups (, August 11-17).

Pakistan’s economic undermining of India’s economy also seems to be executed by the same set of organizations. Islamabad’s major tool for this aspect of its low-intensity campaign is counterfeit Indian currency, what New Delhi calls Fake Indian Currency Notes or FICN. The FICN are printed on high-quality security paper similar to that used by New Delhi; is all-but indistinguishable from genuine Indian currency; and is moved into the country by LeT, JeM, HUJI-B, and D-Company members before being distributed across India (Times of India, August 29). Some current estimates show that up to a quarter of the Indian currency in circulation could be FICN, and Indian officials worry that this fact may account for part of the country’s high inflation rate and may lead to decreased confidence in New Delhi’s ability to protect the credibility of its currency. Indian officials also believe that the profits derived from the sale of FICN are being used to fund Islamist activities in J&K and perhaps elsewhere in India (Kashmiri Herald, July 10; Asia Times, August 25).

Finally, Pakistan clearly has been able to better hide its hand in its operations inside India. Indian security officials term the process by which Islamabad has accomplished this goal as “indigenization,” meaning that more and more terrorist, insurgent, and economic-sabotage operations in the country are being carried out by Indians and not by Pakistanis or Bangladeshis sent across the border by ISI (, July 27).

The difference between the attacks by Islamists in Kashmir and the more recent attacks in India is that, whereas the former involved either foreigners or “hardcore” locals, the latter involve individuals and cells from a broader section of India’s Muslim population (ISN, Zurich, June 13).

While all intelligence agencies try to hide their hand in covert operations – that is, after all, what makes them covert – Pakistan’s ISI should not be given too much, or even a majority of the credit for indigenization. Much of that dubious honor probably should be awarded to the rising power and influence of the Hindu nationalist parties in India politics. Muslims have in recent history been second-class citizens in India, but since the rise of the Hindu chauvinists their marginalization has deepened. India’s Muslims are less educated, less employed, less healthy, and – in the last decade – less protected than Hindus; after an Islamist attack in spring 2002, for example, more than 2,000 Muslims were killed in Gujarat state by rioting Hindus as police and local government officials stood by and watched (Guardian, August 7).

So far in 2008, the radicalization of anti-Muslim Hindu politics in India has increased, and most terrorist attacks have occurred in Indian states ruled by the Hindu-nationalist BJP party (, July 31). After last July’s terrorist attacks, for example, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray – the man who managed the above-noted 1993 anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai – called on Indian authorities to use an “iron hand … this kind of barbarism was characteristic only of the Moghul [Muslim] invaders.” Vaguely urging a violent Hindu response, Thackeray added that “Hindus will be digging their own graves if they remain defensive in the face of these attacks” (Times of India, July 30).

Then, perhaps unwittingly, New Delhi added fuel and credibility to Thackeray’s incendiary statements. On August 12, India’s National Security Adviser, M.K. Narayanan, told the media that there are “800 terrorist cells” operating in the country, each with “external support” and “almost all of the terror cells being headed by Muslims” (Times of India, August 12).

Islamabad and the ISI now seem to be riding the tiger they created, rather than controlling it. The cost of success in hiding Pakistan’s hand in operations in India is Islamabad’s growing lack of control over the targets, scale, and pace of attacks by its Islamist and criminal allies in that country. Pakistan probably can still exert some control over these factors among Kashmiri Islamist insurgents in J&K, but Islamist activities, violent and otherwise, elsewhere in India appear to be beyond Pakistan’s full control and ISI’s leash.

In India, the piper’s bill appears to be coming due for New Delhi’s attempts to appease growing Hindu chauvinism, the net impact of which appears only to have made the BJP a likely partner in the national government formed after the next parliamentary elections. The response of New Delhi to terrorist attacks and the growing popularity of the Hindu nationalists’ anti-Muslim agenda are resulting in a greater “communal polarization,” enraging Muslim Indians and making their support for Muslim “self-defense” more likely (Indian Express, July 21, 2006). “The indigenous Islamists,” Indian social scientist Pradip Bose recently wrote, “have thrived on Muslim alienation since the phenomenal rise of the Hindu right in the country in the mid-1980s … so there is no use blaming the ‘foreign hand.’ We in this country have created this problem” (BBC, May 14). There is little doubt, however, that for the foreseeable future, and no matter which party or parties govern India, New Delhi will allot the major share of responsibility for Islamist-conducted domestic terrorism to Pakistan and ISI.

Thus, the traditional measured, tit-for-tat intelligence struggle between Pakistan and India is being eclipsed by a scenario in which neither Islamabad nor New Delhi can be certain of controlling post-terrorist-attack events. If Islamist terrorists/insurgents – whether acting alone or with Pakistani aid – strike an Indian target of heretofore unprecedented economic importance or one that produces huge and mostly Hindu casualties, the road to war may be quite short. For two nuclear-armed and mortal antagonists, this is a new and very dangerous level of unpredictability.


1. A detailed analysis of Pakistani policy and ISI actions can be found in Shaun Gregory’s, “The ISI and the War on Terrorism, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30, pp. 1013-1031.

2. The events of this period are recounted and incisively discussed in S. Hussain Zaidi, Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts, New Delhi, 2002.