India-Pakistan tensions mount as Delhi mulls response to deadly Kashmir bombing

Public outrage puts Prime Minister Narendra Modi under pressure to take strong action

Indian demanestrators shout slogans against Pakistan during a protest in New Delhi on February 17, 2019, after an attack on a paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in the Lethpora area of Kashmir. India and Pakistan's troubled ties risked taking a dangerous new turn on February 15 as New Delhi accused Islamabad of harbouring militants behind one of the deadliest attacks in three decades of bloodshed in Indian-administered Kashmir. / AFP / Sajjad HUSSAIN
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India stands on the brink of another military confrontation with Pakistan over Kashmir after a suicide bombing killed 40 Indian troops in the disputed region last week.

The attack triggered a nationwide wave of anger towards Pakistan just months before a general election, placing pressure on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist government to react strongly. Some form of military action seems certain but the scale is likely to be limited, analysts say.

The government held Pakistan responsible for the bombing of a military convoy in the Pulwama district of Kashmir on Thursday, which was claimed by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. Pakistan denied any complicity.

Mr Modi promised a "crushing response" to the attack on Friday as politicians from all parties paid their respects to the fallen soldiers, whose flag-draped coffins were lined up in rows at a televised ceremony.

“The security forces have been given full freedom to decide," Mr Modi said. "I want to tell the terror groups and their sponsors that they have committed a grave mistake for which they will now have to pay a very heavy price."

His government immediately withdrew trade privileges granted to Pakistani goods and said it would seek to isolate Pakistan internationally, but faces calls for stronger action from mainstream media, on social media and at protests and soldiers' funerals across the country.

"I think the situation is extremely tense," Amitabh Mattoo, professor of international studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Associated Press. "The mood in the country is extremely angry at what has happened. And moreover, there are elections in the offing. No party could afford to neglect public opinion."

Mr Modi acknowledged the public anger on Sunday during a speech in Bihar, home state of two of the soldiers who were killed. "I salute and pay my tributes to Sanjay Kumar Sinha and Ratan Kumar Thakur," he said. "To the people who have gathered here, I would like to say the fire that is raging in your bosoms, is in my heart too."

India and Pakistan have already gone to war twice over Kashmir, with each controlling part of the Muslim-majority Himalayan region but claiming it in its entirety. An insurgency in the India-controlled area has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1989 and armed forces from both countries regularly exchange fire across the Line of Control dividing their respective territories.

India accuses Pakistan of training and funding the Kashmiri insurgents, who are seeking either independence for the region or for it to join Pakistan. Terror groups linked to Pakistan have carried out attacks elsewhere in India, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba that killed more than 150 people, and the 2001 attack on parliament by Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Another full-scale conflict between India and Pakistan would have much more serious implications now that both countries have developed nuclear weapons. However, any Indian military response to the Pulwama bombing is expected to be more along the lines of the "surgical strikes" India said it carried out against militant targets in Pakistan following the 2016 attack on the Uri army base in Kashmir that killed 19 soldiers.

Paul Staniland, a political science professor and South Asia expert at the University of Chicago, said the stakes were too high for India to do nothing at all.

"Modi is in a tricky position," he told Associated Press. "Indian forces are quite capable, but it's not obvious what kinds of strikes would accomplish the core goal. Kashmir and Pakistan are among the few foreign policy topics that have real electoral resonance."

Mr Modi's government may feel emboldened to act by the strong statements of support from the US. The Indian foreign ministry said the US "supported India’s right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism," while a White House statement called on Pakistan to "end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil".

US National Security Adviser John Bolton phoned his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval to express condolences and specifically urged Pakistan to act against Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The US under President Donald Trump has taken a hard line against Pakistan over what Washington says is Islamabad's failure to act against militant groups, cancelling $800 million in aid last year.