Tensions Rise Between Pakistan and India after a Suicide Bombing in Kashmir
Tensions are rising between India and Pakistan following a suicide car bombing on February 14 that left 40 Indian soldiers dead in the Pulwama District of Indian-controlled Kashmir. Jaish-E-Muhammad, a terrorist organization that raises funds in Pakistan despite being formally banned, claimed responsibility for the attacks. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a “befitting reply” to Pakistan’s attempts to “destabilize” India.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan responded to Modi, promising that “any sort of investigation you wish carried out regarding this incident about the involvement of any Pakistani, we are ready.” However, Khan warned that, if attacked, “Pakistan will not just think about retaliating, we will retaliate.” Since the initial bombing, violent exchanges continued with a shootout between Jaish-E-Muhammad militants killing four Indian soldiers and two senior militant leaders. Waves of internal violence against Kashmiris, arrests of Kashmiris suspected of inciting insurgency, and unrest fueled by Indian jingoism have followed the attacks.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars over disputed territory in Muslim-majority Kashmir. Kashmir remains one of the most militarized zones in the world, with about 250,000 Indian military personnel posted in Kashmir, as well as thousands on the Pakistani side. After a 1948 ceasefire, India retained control of two-thirds of the valley and granted Kashmir a special status with relative autonomy and a plan for an eventual referendum that would allow Kashmiris to choose which nation to be a part of. Since then, Pakistan and India have fought two more wars over Kashmir, and Pakistan has supported Islamic militant and separatist groups that believe Kashmir should be governed by Muslim-majority Pakistan.
At the same time, the Indian government has stripped away many of the measures that make Kashmir independent and resisted calls to hold the said referendum. India’s Supreme Court will be hearing a case this week that could potentially allow outsiders to own land in Kashmir, a privilege previously reserved for Kashmiris. The ruling could cause widespread protests to erupt in the region. Delhi’s policies and Indian Hindu nationalism have alienated many Kashmiris and led to the growth of an enduring insurgency. Professor Happymon Jacob of Jawaharlal Nehru University explains that the insurgents “aren’t joining the militants from Islamic seminaries, but they’re fresh graduates from engineering schools, or they hold jobs. For an entire generation to be so angry with India says Delhi’s policy has been a failure.”
Since the collapse of the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) and the Indian Prime Minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) coalition government in 2018, the central government has had to assume greater authority in the region, to the distaste of many Kashmiris. The Indian armed forces have provoked widespread criticism for their heavy-handedness during protests and widespread detentions. In particular, many criticize the Indian army’s use of force and pellet guns when faced with protestors who pelt rocks at them, similar to criticism of the Israeli military’s use of force during the Intifadas or even France’s use of pellet guns to break up the Gilet-Jaune protests. At the same time, Indian Hindu nationalism is on the rise, and many Kashmiri students are being threatened and attacked, further compounding the alienation that many Kashmiris feel from the Indian state.
The suicide bomber, Aadil Ahmad Dar, was a disenfranchised high school dropout who joined Jaish-E-Muhammad last March. He is suspected to have had help from other militants in making the bomb. The owner of the car, another Jaish-E-Muhammad militant, Sajjad Bhat, was recently identified and has evaded arrest. Because of Pakistani intelligence’s efforts to cripple India’s human intelligence network, the Indian government has struggled to identify insurgents and correctly account for the number of militants in the Kashmir Valley. Counterinsurgency efforts have been hindered by the Pakistani-backed militants; according to Times of India, they have killed 180 civilians in the last three years, many of whom were informers. Intelligence reports estimate that after having killed 240 militants last year, only 300 militants remain in the valley, but exact recruitment and border infiltration numbers are unreliable.
The bombing has exacerbated tensions in the conflict-ridden area. India has withdrawn its preferential trade with Pakistan and increased troop numbers in Kashmir as both sides prepare for conflict and shell the border area. Indian voters will be going to the polls in a few months, and Narendra Modi wants to avoid looking weak ahead of the elections, but there are few feasible military options, as any conflict between the two nuclear states could prove to be devastating.
In 2016, after Jaish-E-Muhammad militants killed 19 Indian soldiers at the Uri base camp, Indian special forces carried out retaliatory surgical strikes in Pakistan. However, military options are limited because of the unfavorable weather and high alertness of Pakistani troops. India and the U.S. have tried to place Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-E-Muhammad, on the UN’s terror blacklist to significantly lower the group’s access to funding and weapons, but these efforts have been blocked in the UN Security Council by Pakistan’s ally and creditor, China. Though the Financial Action Task Force says that Pakistan could face sanctions because of its support of terrorist organizations, Pakistan has normally made temporary and “cosmetic” changes to its policies that still largely allow it to fund insurgency groups to leverage situations in foreign countries. In particular, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban has led to negotiations between America and Taliban leaders about their status in Afghanistan.
Even India’s more unorthodox diplomatic pressures against Pakistan may prove futile. Though Nitin Gadkari, India’s transport minister, has threatened a diversion of eastern rivers into India, India has struggled to divert the water from these rivers in the past. Pakistan responded by saying it has neither “concern nor objection” to this measure if India chooses to take it, since it does not violate the Indus Water Treaty. Though such an action could raise the precedent for a future water war in a water-stressed region, it will have no significant diplomatic effect on Pakistan’s decision to fund terrorist organizations that seek to destabilize Kashmir.
India’s diplomatic options are limited, though the UN passed a resolution sympathetic to India, and domestic pressures seem to be pushing the nation to war with its rival. However, it is neither in Pakistan’s nor India’s interest to enter a full-scale war. Although it would be ideal for both nations to look to diplomatic recourse before resorting to violence, this remains exceedingly difficult as long as Pakistan’s continued support for terrorist organizations destabilizes Kashmir. Moreover, India’s domestic rhetoric is, as Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta describes it, “corrosive” and calls for large-scale intervention, with 36 percent of respondents to an India Today survey saying that they would prefer a full-scale conflict with Pakistan.
No military conflict will permanently solve the complicated issues of identity and government that are all-pervading in Kashmir, and the rising tensions between India and Pakistan only serve to further divide the deadlocked region.