Tensions between nuclear-armed neighbours Indian and Pakistan mounted over the weekend as New Delhi’s security forces weighed options for a military response to a suicide car bombing that killed 44 paramilitary police officers in its restive Kashmir region.
In a series of public speeches while inaugurating a new public works project before upcoming parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, continued to express fury at last week’s attack. He vowed to “avenge every tear” and said that India’s military had been given a free hand to decide on an appropriate response.
“The fire that is raging in your hearts is in my heart too,” Mr Modi told a huge crowd in Bihar on Sunday. The previous day, Mr Modi declared that “how, when, where and who will punish the killers and their promoters will be decided by our forces, who are capable of dealing with the situation”.
Indian security forces are reportedly considering potential responses, including “stand-off” strikes which involve using air force planes to fire missiles into Pakistani-held territory from across the line of control that divides Muslim-majority Kashmir between the two countries.
Analysts warn that such unprecedented moves risk a dangerous escalation.
“He is basically promising a pretty significant retaliatory strike,” said Vipin Narang, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “All the signs are that they are considering some sort of stand-off strike from across the LOC into Pakistani targets. The risk is that Modi miscalculates how far he can go without provoking a significant Pakistani response.”
Pakistani troops are on a heightened state of alert along the de facto border even as a senior Pakistani foreign ministry official said diplomats were lobbying western countries to “restrain India from a military offensive”.
In the deadliest militant attack in Kashmir’s three-decade separatist insurgency, a suicide bomber on Thursday drove an explosives-packed vehicle into a military convoy, destroying a bus packed with troops returning to duty from home leave. Pakistan-based terror group Jaish e-Mohammad has claimed responsibility for the incident.
New Delhi has accused Pakistan of providing “full freedom” for JeM to operate and plan attacks on India, and demanded that Islamabad take “immediate and verifiable” steps against the group. Islamabad has rebuffed the claim that it bears any responsibility and on Sunday called on India to “introspect and respond to questions about its security and intelligence lapses that led to this attack”.
But after a telephone call with India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval, John Bolton, the US national security adviser, tweeted that “Pakistan must crack down on JeM and all terrorists operating from its territory”.
New Delhi also said that Mr Bolton had “supported India’s right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism”, suggesting a tacit acceptance of a potential military response.
In 2016, India launched what it called “surgical strikes” in which ground troops made a brief raid across the line of control to destroy “terror launch pads” in Pakistani-held territory, after a militant attack on an Indian army base. However, Pakistan denied that the incursions had taken place, and tensions then abated.
The latest attack has come at a sensitive and potentially volatile time for India, just months ahead of national elections in which Mr Modi, who fiercely criticised his predecessors’ restraint in the face of previous terror provocations, is seeking a second term.
Since the attack, India has stripped Pakistan of “most favoured nation” status, so Pakistan’s limited exports to India will now face new import duties of 200 per cent. It has also launched a diplomatic offensive to isolate its neighbour.
But analysts say that Mr Modi will feel compelled to respond militarily to reinforce his own reputation as a strongman tough on terrorism ahead of the upcoming polls. “The election puts pressure on him to definitely do something,” Mr Narang said.
Meanwhile, some Indians were reportedly taking out their anger on Kashmiri students and business people living in different parts of India, with reports of harassment and evictions and some fleeing out of concern for their safety.
India’s home ministry has issued an alert to all states to ensure the safety of Kashmiri students in their areas.
Additional reporting by Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad