The epoch-defining terror attack in New York 20 years ago reverberated around the world. It changed the definition of terrorism, the destinies of nations and their foreign policies. It redefined global power equations, and in many parts of the world the aftermath of that event redrew maps. India was profoundly impacted.
In the two decades since, the reverberations have reflected in India’s internal and external security policies, foreign policy and strategic outlook. Al-Qaida was responsible for 9/11, but it inspired an alphabet soup of Pakistan sponsored terror groups that targeted India in a series of terror attacks through the following decade.
The results were not always what Pakistan intended. The J&K assembly building was attacked in October 2001, but a bigger one was in store. On December 13, 2001, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists attacked India’s Parliament. India retaliated with Operation Parakram, a massive mobilisation of troops on the Pakistan border. It was the biggest exercise of coercive diplomacy. Pakistan was forced to move its troops from the Afghan border to the Indian one as, for the next six months, the two sides remained in a precarious standoff.
The US engaged in some serious shuttle diplomacy between the two, with the result that by June 2002, Gen Pervez Musharraf had agreed to stop cross-border infiltration by his terrorists into India, as a condition for a drawdown. Post 9/11, the global security discourse had changed. India was not untouched.
First, the international community no longer counselled “restraint” to India. The Bush administration made it clear to Islamabad that India was within its rights to retaliate to terror in any way it saw fit, a direct consequence of the events of 9/11. India was henceforth only hobbled by its meagre capacities and lack of political will, not by international strictures.
India’s definition of terrorism was no longer seen through the Pakistan-India “rivalry” prism, but as part of the ongoing global Islamist terror phenomenon. We saw terror attacks at the American Centre in Kolkata, Gandhinagar’s Akshardham temple, Mumbai (2002-03), Delhi (2005), IISc Bangalore (2005), and Varanasi (2006). Then came a series of synchronised terror bombings in Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Lucknow and Bangalore, culminating in what has been described as India’s own 9/11 — a three day assault by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists in Mumbai on November 26, 2008.
These were sensational terror attacks on soft targets. But after 2014, the scale of attacks went up several notches, as terrorists targeted security forces and defence installations. New Pakistani projects of creating Indian “home-grown” terror groups like the Indian Mujahideen, which was funded by Pakistan, or shifting terror targets to security installations under a weird belief that attacking defence forces did not constitute terror, had to be countered. It was over a decade after 9/11 that India began retaliating more robustly to terror from across the border, and after 2015, India openly took the battle into Pakistan. By this time, India too had evolved its own strategies.
Two of them stand out. By 2011-12, as Pakistan rolled out its tactical nuclear weapon Nasr (which India considers to have a terror edge), India indicated that even a midget strike would evoke a massive nuclear response. Second, after the Uri strike (2016) India amped up its response to terror with full military retaliation, as in Balakot in 2019. India’s repeated assertions that J&K was a cross-border terrorism problem also found international traction.
This goes back to 2002: after Musharraf reined in his terrorists from infiltration, the relative calm allowed India to hold its first free and fair elections in J&K. It was a reaffirmation of democracy, as the NC, then in government with the BJP, lost to the PDP-Congress combine. It broke the cycle of violent and rigged elections. India demonstrated political processes could function in the absence of a terror overhang. India also became more vigilant on terror financing.
Aftab Ansari, a Harkat-ulMujahideen (HuM) terrorist responsible for the American Centre attack, had apparently funnelled ransom money for the 9/11 effort from India. India began to use the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) institution more zealously to go after terror funding in Pakistan, which has stayed on the grey list. UNSC’s terror sanctions have also come in handy for India looking to choke off terror.
On the larger canvas, 9/11 accelerated the process of dehyphenation between India and Pakistan. The process had started after Kargil, but gathered pace. In the first few years this wasn’t easily apparent. The US made Pakistan a major-non NATO ally in 2003, a big setback. But the growing convergence between the US and India, and divergence between the US and Pakistan played their part. By the time the nuclear deal came through in 2008, that de-hyphenation was complete. On the foreign policy front, India had a 20-year stellar run in Afghanistan, a direct fallout of 9/11.
India became the premier development partner, squeezing Pakistan’s “strategic depth”. As the Taliban returned, all that went poof. The India-US relationship transformed in these 20 years, though it’s not solely attributable to 9/11. The China challenge has become more acute, and the Pakistan relationship is only based on terrorism. India reworked its relationship with Israel and the Islamic world on two seemingly parallel tracks. But there was a cost. As former diplomat TCA Raghavan puts it, “We embraced a securitised view of the world. We bought into it wholesale. We don’t do enough thinking outside the securitised atmosphere. National interest should not just be national security. Pakistanis have always made that mistake. We should not go down that path.”