Violence can never resolve issues. It only creates uncertainty and promotes instability. It is unfortunate but that is exactly what is happening right now in the bordering regions between Pakistan and India. Radicalism and terrorism are also creating osmotic ripples in the territory of Pakistan's neighbour - Iran. The future of South Asia and its contiguous territories is at stake.
Evolving events have created their own unfortunate dynamics in India since mid-February. That is casting its own shadow on India's political as well as strategic horizons.
The final session of India's outgoing 16th Lok Sabha came through on February 13. It created its own priorities among political circles and electoral politics was in full play on that day as Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his final speech in the current House and also at the historic Jantar Mantar, Delhi's popular protest site near the Parliament House. What happened the next day, February 14, however changed the attention of the Indian population and also drew the attention of the world to a different horizon.
The devastating suicide bombing at Awantipora in Jammu and Kashmir inflicted the largest fatalities on the Indian Security Forces in a single incident during thirty years of insurgency in that State. It also raised critical questions and new challenges for India.
Since that fatal incident, the Indian media has revealed some of the gruesome details. Apparently, 2,548 members of the Indian Central Reserve Police Force armed personnel were travelling in a convoy of 70 vehicles towards Qazigund on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. Near milestone 272 it was attacked by a SUV vehicle that contained improvised explosive device driven by a suicide bomber associated with the terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), known to have close links with different quarters inside Pakistan. The SUV rammed into one of the buses travelling in the convoy. It resulted in the death of more than 42 ICRPF personnel and also Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide bomber.
With India's general election barely months away, Prime Minister Modi has quite understandably come under heavy pressure from his supporters to punish Pakistan for the suicide attack on the Indian paramilitary convoy. India has placed the blame for that bombing squarely on neighbouring Pakistan, which it accuses of supporting rebels in Kashmir, a charge that Islamabad denies. New Delhi, on the other hand, is insisting that "incontrovertible evidence is available of Pakistan having a direct hand in this gruesome terrorist incident". JeM, headquartered in Pakistan, has claimed responsibility for the attack, according to Indian media.
Modi has warned that those behind the gruesome attack would pay a heavy price and that security forces have been given a free hand to act against violence. The Times of India newspaper reported on February 16 that the military options - short of two nuclear-armed rivals going to war - could range from "shallow ground-based attacks and occupation of some heights along the Line of Control ceasefire line to restricted but precision air strikes against non-state targets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir".
As expected, India's Foreign Ministry on February 15, immediately after the attack, briefed New Delhi-based diplomats from key countries about the incident. This included China, which in the past had blocked an Indian proposal to list Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a "designated terrorist" by the United Nations. The Ministry has also demanded that Pakistan take "immediate and verifiable action against terrorists and terror groups operating from territories under its control to create conducive atmosphere in the region free of terror".
On February 16, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua not only rejected allegations about Pakistan's involvement in the attack but also noted that it was part of New Delhi's "known rhetoric and tactics" to divert global attention from human rights violations.
Analyst Paul Staniland, a political science professor and South Asia expert at the University of Chicago, has observed that Pakistan's army is now assuming that it might be attacked and that Indian forces are preparing for a serious incursion of some sort. Such an observation is probably arising from the fact that Indian political parties are watching public reaction closely ahead of India's election scheduled to be held in less than three months. Since the incident, Indian protesters have been chanting "attack Pakistan" and fiery debates on television channels have demanded retaliation. Quite understandably, Indian politicians of different denominations, film celebrities and the media have also shown unity in denouncing Pakistan and in some cases. Many are also clamouring to "avenge" the attack, using that specific word to express the response they want from the government.
Indian Home Minister, Rajnath Singh has reiterated that the country will come together to "avenge" the attack. The Central Reserve Paramilitary Force (CRPF), to which the soldiers belonged, has tweeted "We will not forget and we will not forgive. We salute our martyrs of Pulwama attack and stand with the families of our martyr brothers. This heinous attack will be avenged."
This has led Professor Amitabh Mattoo of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University to mention that the mood in the country is extremely angry at what has happened and no party can afford to neglect public opinion.
United States, consistent with its current format of transactional diplomacy has singled out Pakistan in a statement. It has condemned the attack and said this had strengthened US resolve to bolster counterterrorism cooperation with India. To improve India's military capabilities, the US has also offered to sell it unarmed Guardian surveillance drones, aircraft carrier technologies and F-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft.
It would be pertinent at this point to mention that Kashmir has remained a challenge for India's policymakers ever since the Himalayan territory was split between India and Pakistan shortly after the two archrivals gained independence in 1947. The territory has been at the heart of two of India's wars out of the four the country has fought against Pakistan and China. 2018 was the deadliest year of the past decade during which at least 160 civilians, 267 fighters and 159 army soldiers were killed within this sub-region.
Some human rights groups have noted that India has been responding to public protests within their territory of Kashmir with disproportionate force while treating the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination as Islamabad's proxy war against New Delhi. Such a response is being seen as different from the past when New Delhi responded relatively peacefully with anti-India protests in that area.
Whatever be the reason, no one can endorse or agree on terrorism, fundamentalism or suicide bombing as a way of resolving any political issue that has socio-economic and political connotations.
Some policy experts think that such an approach in recent times might have been undertaken to project that Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has toughened its stance both against Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists. The Indian response has been seen as strong and uncompromising. However, Modi's policies have also had the unintended consequence of strengthening the resolve of those fighting for an end to India's rule in Kashmir. This is now being taken advantage of by some fanatic and radical elements.
Unfortunately this suicide attack has triggered a wave of hate and revenge against Kashmiris residing in different parts of Kashmir as well as mainland India. Mobs in certain parts of the sub-region have attacked Muslim neighbourhoods and set their cars on fire. Since the attack, the media has reported that dozens of Kashmiris living outside the disputed Himalayan region have been threatened, assaulted or forced to vacate their residences.
One of the reasons behind this has been the misuse of the social media by right wing fanatics and zealots. This needs to stop. One needs to thank here the pro-active and positive role being played in this context by India's Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). While offering assistance to Kashmiri people who felt threatened, they have also pointed out that "fake news is being propagated by various miscreants on social media". The CRPF has issued an advisory that it has come to their notice that "some miscreants are trying to circulate fake pictures of body parts of our Martyrs to invoke hatred while we stand united."
In the meantime, India has scrapped the Most Favoured Nation status of Pakistan. It is anticipated that such a measure would affect the export of Pakistani goods worth nearly US$ 500 million to India. This will cover items like fresh fruits, cement, finished leather and cotton yarn among other products. India had granted this status to Pakistan in 1996.
In South Asia we have seen violence and terrorist acts more than once in different parts of this region. This has created instability and confusion.
There are different dimensions pertaining to conflicts. All of them need to be addressed. Public discussion in this context is important and better than muzzling voices. It is the only way to move forward. Any conflict that remains frozen in time robs millions of their basic human rights and takes away the opportunity for creating connectivity within that region or sub-region, eradicating poverty and ushering in development through good governance.
This constructive approach needs to be undertaken by both India and Pakistan. China, Russia and the United States also need to facilitate this paradigm. National security agencies and other relevant authorities of both these countries need to sit down and work together so that militant activities by terrorist groups can be pre-empted. There must be zero tolerance for them from both countries.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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