Tension between Pakistan and India is mounting after a suicide attack in occupied Kashmir, which killed 44 paramilitary personnel. The internal situation in India is also volatile after Kashmiri Muslims are facing a backlash. The situation has become ideal for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of elections in April and May but questions about a hard-line strategy in Kashmir have started rising in India and the bombing has highlighted the Kashmir cause in the whole world.
Indian leaders and media are threatening Pakistan with surgical strikes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country would give a “strong reply” to those behind the attack and withdrew the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trade status given to Pakistan. He also announced “all possible steps” to ensure complete isolation of Pakistan. In his stern response, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan warned India against any misadventure in the wake of the Pulwama attack and said “Pakistan would not think, but immediately retaliate.” In a televised address to the nation, he said, “No law in the world allows anyone or a country to be the judge, jury and executioner and if India provided proof, Pakistan would cooperate.” He advised the Indian leadership to break the shackles of its past mantra and refrain from targeting Pakistan for every incident in occupied Kashmir.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary General António Guterres to draw his attention towards the deteriorating security situation in the region after the threat of use of force against Pakistan by India. Expressing deep concern at the increase in tensions between India and Pakistan, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres asked both sides to exercise maximum restraint and offered his “good offices” to ease the crisis.
Communal tensions are rising in India as Kashmiris living outside held Kashmir are facing property evictions, job suspensions and attacks. They are facing a backlash in India, mainly in the northern states of Haryana and Uttarakhand, forcing the interior ministry to issue an advisory to all states to “ensure their safety and security and maintain communal harmony”. Local media reported that some Kashmiri students were assaulted by members of Hindu rightwing groups in Uttarakhand, while a Kashmiri man had been booked by the police in the southern city of Bengaluru under a colonial-era sedition law for a post allegedly backing Kashmiri fighters. Fear engulfed Kashmiri students in Haryana’s Ambala district after a video on social media showed a village headman asking people to evict Kashmiris in the area. “In case this is not done, the person in whose residence such students are living will be considered as a traitor,” the man says in the video. A Kashmiri employee of a pharmaceutical company was sacked for allegedly writing in favour of the attack.
The Indian media reported that the suicide car-bomber Aadil Ahmad Dar had used more than 750 pounds of explosives against the military convoy. As India blamed Pakistan for the suicide bombing, an Indian commander sabotaged its case. “It is not possible to bring such massive amounts of explosives by infiltrating the border,” Lt Gen D.S. Hooda told the New York Times. Gen Hooda, who commanded the Indian army’s Northern Command during a similar crisis in September 2016, said, “the material may have been taken from stashes of explosives” being used to broaden the Jammu highway where the attack occurred. The newspaper also noted that India’s options for putting diplomatic pressure on Pakistan were limited, so were its options for a military response. “India’s options for a military response are also limited, analysts say, with the disputed border blanketed in thick snow and Pakistani troops on high alert,” the report added. Diplomatic observers in Washington pointed out that the United States will also not like to isolate Pakistan, particularly now when it’s playing a key role in US-Taliban talks.
The NYT report also hinted that the bomber might have been motivated by domestic reasons to carry out the attack. “The nature of the bombing suggests the insurgency is adapting and becoming more homegrown, leaving observers to question how deep the links to Pakistan really run,” the newspaper observed. The report notes Kashmiris have become more disenfranchised and angry at the central government in Delhi and its use of force. Some of Dar’s friends told the NYT that he had turned to militancy after he was wounded at a protest in 2016, where his leg was struck by a bullet fired by the Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary unit. “Many Kashmiris loathe the paramilitary unit, viewing it as an occupying force recruited from across India to suppress them,” the report added.
Some security analysts fear the attack could force India to react militarily. With India set to hold a general election by May, the Modi government will be under pressure to show that it’s acting tough on Pakistan. The Indian prime minister will have to respond. Otherwise, he will appear weak, they argue. According to the CNBC, domestic pressure from his base could force Modi to retaliate but doing so risks aggravating Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. That could also trigger a new cycle of bilateral tensions, experts warn. They say India is exploiting the attack for its own domestic and international political purposes by blaming Pakistan. Though Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the attack, yet it was carried out by a native Kashmiri.
According to noted Indian journalist and writer Prem Shankar Jha, Indian Prime Minister Modi has found the trigger he needed for elections after the attack. “His verbal assault on Pakistan, his threats of retaliation at a time and place of the army’s choosing and his withdrawal of all security protection from Hurriyat leaders are designed to harden Kashmiri alienation and raise tensions with Pakistan to fever pitch. And as he has been doing ever since he came to power in 2014, he has been using his silences to send the message to Hindu vigilantes that the time has come to bait Muslims into acts of retaliation that will arouse fear and animosity in the Hindu majority and win the BJP the next election,” he wrote.
Analysts says India will not succeed in exploiting the global attention the attack generated for the Kashmiri cause, with the most likely political outcome being that New Delhi’s efforts to deflect the blame away from itself and onto Islamabad will boomerang and ultimately upset the country’s fragile domestic and “deep state” political balances.