On the morning of 13 December 2001, Shekhar, the driver for the Vice President of India, was at the Parliament parking lot waiting for his boss. The Rajya Sabha, which his boss chaired, had been adjourned forty minutes ago, but the Vice President was still inside the building. At around 10:00 am, Shekhar heard someone shouting and suddenly a white Ambassador rammed into his car. By the time he got out of his car to have a word with the Ambassador’s driver, five men armed with AK-47s had poured out of it and begun shooting indiscriminately. Shekhar ducked for cover as other members of the Vice-Presidential security detail begun shooting back. A fire fight had broken out a few feet away from the heart of the Indian Government. In thirty minutes, it was over. All five attackers, who will be later linked to Pakistan, were dead. So were six of the policemen and security guards and a gardener who tended the Parliamentary gardens. The Parliament Attack was one of the deadliest terrorist strikes India had suffered through since its independence. In response the Indian Government started off the first nuclear crisis of the twenty-first century. A ten-month stand-off, where they stood precariously on the brink of an all-out war, was the closest India and Pakistan had come to nuclear annihilation. This is the story of that crisis.
The Parliament Attack had touched off one of the most difficult puzzles that the Indian leadership had been struggling with for more than a decade – how to handle a nuclear-armed Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in late 1980s, it had grown more and more aggressive in pushing terrorism and the Kashmir Insurgency. As Pakistan’s leadership had calculated, the bomb gave them a cover against India’s superior military forces. They could bleed India by supporting the insurgency and be assured that India would not retaliate, for a retaliation could mean escalation to an all-out war and a nuclear annihilation for both countries. It was a game of perverse logic much like living next to a crazy neighbour (or a very smart neighbour pretending to be crazy) who keeps stealing from your house. Should you ever retaliate, he threatens to burn down both your houses.
All through the 1990s, while Pakistan continued to train and send increasing numbers of insurgents into India, New Delhi remained stuck in a strategic paralysis. While retaliations like air bombings or commando raids were considered, the risks were too great for India to ever go through with them. With the nuclear threat, coupled with the weak leadership that India suffered through during the decade of fractured politics, Pakistan seemed to have hit upon the perfect solution for its own security. The continued insurgency meant that the Indian Army remained occupied in Kashmir and thus not free to threaten Pakistan. It also meant that the Indian Government had to bear the crushing cost of securing India-Pakistan border against infiltration and the counter-insurgency campaign as opposed to Pakistan’s extremely cheap expense of running a few terrorist training camps.