On October 1, 2001 the Kashmir State Assembly in Srinagar faced a daring terrorist attack. A suicide attacker drove a jeep loaded with explosives to the assembly’s main entrance and exploded it. Meanwhile, two militants in police uniform fired and threw bomb grenades at the security forces. 38 people were left dead at the end of this lethal attack orchestrated by Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Little did we know, this attack on Srinagar Assembly was just a precursor to something bigger in the coming months. On December 13, five gunmen in commando uniforms rammed into the main entrance of the Parliament building in New Delhi in a white car carrying grenades, Kalashnikov rifles and explosives. The ensuing gun battle between the attackers and security personnel lasted half an hour at the end of which lay dead all the militants and eight security personnel. The terrorists had failed in their plan to attack the members of Indian Parliament including the then Prime Minister Late Sh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The government described the attack as “an attack on not just the symbol, but the seat, of Indian democracy and on the sovereignty of the Indian people.” The attack left the whole country fuming. The Indian government blamed JeM and LeT for the audacious assault and called on the then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to outlaw the two organisations. Pakistan condemned the attack but claimed it never allowed its soil to be used for terrorism.
What followed next took the two neighbouring nations on the verge of a potential nuclear war. Following a full cabinet meeting, Vajpayee ordered the Defence Ministry to mobilize all three wing of the military for an all out offensive on Pakistan. On December 20, “Operation Parakram” was put in force and the Indian Air Force was asked to prepare itself for a strike at training camps inside Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
By early January 2002, India had mobilized some Five Hundred Thousand soldiers and three armored divisions along its 1875 mile border with Pakistan including Kashmir. Navy and Air Forces were placed on high alerts and nuclear capable missiles were placed closer to the border. In response, Pakistan mobilized over Three Hundred Thousand Pakistani soldiers leading to the largest buildup in the subcontinent since 1971.
The United States of America freshly wounded from the 9/11 attack determined to eradicate terrorism sided with India but at the same time didn’t get too tough on Pakistan either. The army buildup worried the US as it led to Pakistani troops being deployed along the Indo-Pak border in Kashmir instead of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where the US was on a hunt to capture Osama Bin Laden. Seeing the crisis deepening with every passing day and Pakistan not responding to India’s demand to hand over twenty terrorists living in Pakistan, the USA played the part of facilitating dialogue between the two warring nations.
However, to the surprise of many, Musharraf extended a hand of friendship to Vajpayee to commence a journey of peace in the Kathmandu summit of SAARC in January 2002. The Indian leader extended his hand to Musharraf to a thunderous applause and later in his speech called upon Musharraf to not permit any terrorist activity in Pakistan.
Vajpayee returned from SAARC summit to an irresolute cabinet on its decision to attack Pakistan. In the coming days, the then home minister LK Advani visited Washington where he was assured by the US that Musharraf is ready to accept India’s three demands – renunciation of terrorism, closing of jihadists training camps and ending assistance to terrorist and stopping infiltration of men and material into Indian Kashmir. Musharraf was to concede these demands in a speech to be delivered by him on television in coming few days..”
Musharraf did concede to India’s demand in his coming address to his nation. Delhi responded positively welcoming his closure of 390 of the banned organisations and detention of over three thousand activists athough in the end, none of them was charged and all were released within months.
The turn of events in the coming months ended the Indo-Pak thaw. However, on May 14 2002, in Kashmir, three armed militants dressed in army uniforms boarded a bus and sprayed it with gunfire killing seven people just before entering an army residential camp killing thirty more. The incident left the army and government furious like never before.
On May 19, 2002 COAS General Padmanabhan centralised the command of the paramilitary forces including the Border Security Force, posted along the international frontier, and the Central Reserve Police Force. The Navy took operational control of the coast guard and all merchant ships were placed on alert. Soon, the warships from eastern fleet home base were redeployed to Arabian sea closer to Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Vajpayee asserted that the time for a “decisive fight” has come and ordered the Indian Air Force to hit training camps inside Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Military’s request for laser guided bombs and night vision pods were realized with a fresh supply from Israel after US refused to oblige. Alarmed by India’s move, US President Bush publicly called upon Pakistan to stop infiltration into Indian Kashmir. Musharraf repeated his promise but by then India had lost trust on his words. By the end of the month, General Padmanabhan had moved eight of the ten strike divisions of the army to jumping-off points near the border. Pakistan too reinforced its troops along Indian border in Kashmir, Punjab and Sindh.
United States of America fearing that India’s attack on the training camps across the border might escalate into a nuclear battle between the warring neighbours asked its officials and citizens to leave India and Pakistan immediately. Britain followed soon. The exodus resulted in stock markets of India and Pakistan plummeting alarmingly.
War of words followed the next few days. However, its was later revealed by the then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra that the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to be remembered as a man of peace. Therefore, on June 15, the Indian government accepted Musharraf’s pledge to end infiltration on receiving confirmed reports of him closing some training camps in PoK and intercepting infiltration to the Indian side. India ordered its warships to sails away from Pakistani shoreline and reduced troop deployment along the Indo-Pak border. After peaceful elections and formation of new government in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Vajpayee signalled that the military could stand down, and finally Operation Parakram was called off.
The yearlong mobilisation cost India almost $3 billion. At the end of July 2003, the then defence minister George Fernandes informed the Lok Sabha that India had lost 798 soldiers – even without formally going to war. These fatalities were caused by ammunition-related accidents, mine-related fatalities and in some cases, ‘friendly fire’. In contrast, the 1999 Kargil War resulted in the death of 527 Indian troops.
Former NSA Brajesh Mishra claimed that Operation Parakram had instilled considerable caution in the behaviour of the Pakistani military, but this was short-lived, as the Mumbai attacks followed in November 2008.