India-Pakistan: Talking in Different Tongues

India and Pakistan, since their partition have remained embroiled in a seemingly unending acrimonious relationship. This remains so, despite periodic efforts undertaken at the governmental and the non-governmental levels. The overt introduction of nuclear weapons in 1998 added a new dimension to the Indo-Pakistan relations, which continues to evolve till date. Glancing at the contemporary academic or think tank discourse on the issue, it becomes evident that while both the countries seem to be looking at the same picture, their interpretations seem very different. While this is natural for any two countries with varying national security interests or priorities, there is a need to ponder over what is exactly different in the way New Delhi and Islamabad perceive the role of nuclear weapons and its relation with the spectrums of conflict.

Pakistan’s asymmetry with the Indian military was a pressing issue for its decision-makers. To address the conventional gap, Islamabad chose to take the sub-conventional route by employing state-funded non-state actors and bleeding India by a thousand cuts. It is worth noting that sub-conventional activities (terrorism) in Kashmir were initiated and carried out by Pakistan-based and supported terror groups against the nuclear backdrop. To understand this better, let us look at the figure below with Triangle 1 (which denotes India’s focus) and Triangle 2 (which denotes Pakistan’s focus). The Triangles are divided into Sub-conventional (Level 1), Conventional (Level 2) and Nuclear (Level 3) Conflicts.

Diagrammatically, Pakistan opted for actions at the sub-conventional level (Level 1) in the triangle to address a gap in conventional capability (Level 2). Over time, Pakistan remained unsatisfied with its success in Level 1 and was consternated by its widening military and economic gap with India. New Delhi’s response to Pakistan’s sub-conventional activities was confined to counter-terrorism (CT) operations and in extreme cases (such as attack on Indian Parliament in 2001) resorted to the use of conventional strength (as denoted by the arrows in the diagram). This implies that New Delhi responded to Pakistani challenges at Level 1 through CT operations and at times by action at Level 2. The Triangles also depict how India separates the nuclear level of conflict from non-nuclear levels of conflict. On the other hand, Pakistan has tried to blur the distinctions between all the levels of conflict.

Needless to say, the South Asian geopolitical scenario changed drastically with overt nuclearisation in the sub-continent. Since then, a major divergence has always been the way India and Pakistan have viewed nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. India views its nuclear weapons as political weapons, i.e. that they are not war-fighting weapons but considered a capability to deter any nuclear attack on India (threat perception from China acting as an important motivating factor). India separates the Level 3 from Level 1 and 2.

Contrastingly, Pakistan considers its nuclear weapons as possessing the capability to deter a conventional war with India, while continuing with sub-conventional operations. Pakistan’s continuous support of terror groups to attack India, in turn results in a conventional response from India. India attempts to deter Pakistan’s sub-conventional activities by threatening a strong conventional response. Pakistan hopes to deter Indian conventional response by threatening to take the war to the nuclear level. Consequently, Pakistan removes the distinctions between all the three levels of conflicts by indirectly connecting Level 1 to Level 3.

To illustrate, the 2004 Indian Army Doctrine popularly referred to as the Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) is Indian Army’s attempt to reduce the time taken for mobilisation and undertake operations below Pakistan’s red lines. Even with the possession of nuclear weapons, India has stuck to the non-nuclear domains of conflict, starkly in contrast with Pakistan which prefers to do away with the distinction between non-nuclear and nuclear levels. Moreover, the introduction of HATF IX/tactical nuclear weapons as a response to CSD is yet another attempt by Pakistan to undo the distinctions between the conventional and nuclear conflict. HATF IX also makes one wonder if Islamabad has changed its earlier stance of First Use (which was strategic in nature) to First Strike (which is tactical in nature). Pakistan is threatening to lower its threshold for nuclear use which implies that it would escalate any conventional war to the nuclear level, thereby attempting to take away any space for conventional action by India.

With the spiraling evolution of actions and response, the lines between all forms of conflicts are seemingly getting blurred in the Indo-Pakistan context. This can be majorly attributed to India and Pakistan’s different interpretations of deterrence and nuclear deterrence. Without doubt, this poses a danger to the stability in the region. The analysis only goes to show that India and Pakistan are speaking in different tongues when it comes to nuclear issues. Although India released the Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs (CCS) approved nuclear doctrine in January 2003, Pakistan has offered no such precedent. There are also growing uncertainties about the technical capabilities of both the countries coupled with misinterpretations regarding their nuclear signaling. At this juncture, there is a strong need for greater interaction and transparency between Indian and Pakistani officials. The need of the hour is to establish platforms where both sides can address their concerns and address misperceptions on a timely basis. This will surely make a positive contribution to Indo-Pakistan deterrence stability.


Image: Sam Panthaky-AFP, Getty


Posted in , Deterrence, Doctrine, Escalation Control, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Peace, Security, TNWs, Uncategorized

Aditi Malhotra

Aditi Malhotra is a Co-Editor for the Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Muenster, Germany and an MA in International Studies from the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. Her research interests include Indo-Pacific security and geopolitics, nuclear proliferation and strategy. Follow her on Twitter @aditi_malhotra_ and read more of here writing at:

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3 thoughts on “India-Pakistan: Talking in Different Tongues

  1. Aditi:
    Fine analytical piece.
    Reading it, I got to thinking about the frayed relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Here’s why: Washington and Riyadh were on the same page in helping Pakistan mobilize “subconventional” counters to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. And this strategy ‘worked’ in the short run. We made life miserable for Soviet troops, and the Kremlin, under Gorbachev’s direction, decided to pull up stakes.
    But then Rawalpindi decided to use the same tactics against India. Again, there was ‘success’ in the short run, at least as measured by ‘a thousand cuts.’ Ever since, however, these investments have proven ruinous for Pakistan. US and allied troops in Afghanistan have also felt this blow back.
    Getting back to Saudi-US relations: Riyadh now seems to be applying the same approach to Syria, perhaps seeking Pakistan’s collusion, as in the past. But the Obama administration is no longer enthusiastic about this game plan. Riyadh isn’t happy about Washington’s second thoughts.

  2. To find a Solution; dialogue is a must… but, also decision making capability. Pakistan Govt is so vulnerable; that any stand good/bad can result in “New Head of State”…
    Govt, Army, ISI & “Sub-Conventional Groups” are similar to UN Security Council as each is having a VETO Power (with Govt being the weakest section). Because of so evenly distributed Power sections, they are forced to take “Appeasing Actions” thereby keeping their Political Equation stable. Its like every Political Party talking (even if its nuisance) just to keep their Vote Bank intact.

    On the other hand; India has a stable govt to follow “Conventional” approach. To have a greater degree of Sensible Interaction, the decision making powers are required!!!

  3. @MK: Thank you for the very interesting and insightful comparison. Indeed, some great powers realised the folly of employing sub-conventional strategies to further their own geo-political interest albeit at a cost. If only South Asia and other countries learnt from others and did not fall into the same trap, lest they should regret later.

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