Kashmir attacks mean crunch time for India-Pakistan relations

India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, must carefully weigh his options in choosing how to respond to a deadly army base attack in India-administered Kashmir, as his decision will hold enormous consequences, writes Samanth Subramanian
Relatives of Indian soldier Sunil Kumar Vidyarthi, who died in a gun battle in India-administered Kashmir, attend the funeral in his hometown of Gaya on September 20, 2016. Eighteen soldiers died two days earlier, during a raid on an army base, in the worst attack of its kind to hit the divided Himalayan region in more than a decade. AFP
Relatives of Indian soldier Sunil Kumar Vidyarthi, who died in a gun battle in India-administered Kashmir, attend the funeral in his hometown of Gaya on September 20, 2016. Eighteen soldiers died two days earlier, during a raid on an army base, in the worst attack of its kind to hit the divided Himalayan region in more than a decade. AFP

NEW DELHI // Indian troops killed ten gunmen in north Kashmir on Tuesday, even as prime minister Narendra Modi pondered his government’s response to a surge of attacks on Indian-held territory in the region.

The exchange of fire between troops and militants, which continued through the afternoon, came two days after four militants killed 18 soldiers in an Indian army base in the same region of Kashmir. India blamed Pakistan for harbouring and backing the militants in Sunday’s attack.

During his election campaign in 2014, Mr Modi had promised that India would never appear soft in the face of Pakistani aggression under his leadership. Now, he must weigh diplomatic and military options in choosing how to respond.

His decision will carry enormous consequences. A military response runs the risk of escalation into a full-blown war. The Kashmir dispute has already triggered three out of the four wars between India and Pakistan.

But in choosing the more pacifist option of diplomacy, Mr Modi may dent his own image as a strong leader who tolerates no attacks on India.

Soon after Sunday’s attack, Mr Modi said: “I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished.”

Home minister, Rajnath Singh, said on Monday that he was “deeply disappointed with Pakistan’s continued and direct support to terrorism. Pakistan is a terrorist state and it should be isolated as such.”

Pakistan has denied all knowledge of the attack, insisting that India had jumped to conclusions before a full investigation was complete.

The chief of Pakistan’s army, Raheel Sharif, said that India was propagating “a hostile narrative” and warned that his forces were “fully prepared to respond to the entire spectrum of direct and indirect threat”.

On Monday, Mr Modi called a high-level meeting to formulate his government’s response to the attack.

Media reports have indicated that India is preparing for a hectic round of diplomacy at the upcoming meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Sushma Swaraj, India’s foreign minister, will speak on behalf of her government on Sunday, and is likely to raise cross-border terrorism in her speech.

The meeting will also give India the opportunity to conduct a series of bilateral engagements with the leaders and foreign ministers of other countries, in a bid to solicit multilateral support for any diplomatic measures — such as sanctions — that Mr Modi’s government may be considering.

Several governments have already expressed criticism of Sunday’s attack. UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson said his country “stands shoulder to shoulder with India in the fight against terrorism, and in bringing the perpetrators to justice”.

The French government said: “France most firmly condemns the terrible terrorist attack perpetrated against an Indian Army camp in the region of Kashmir.”

But Mr Modi’s greatest challenge will perhaps lie in finding a course of action that will keep his constituents at home happy.

Hardline supporters of Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who have traditionally been advocates of emphatic military action against Pakistan, took to social media to call for war and even for nuclear strikes.

Running a poll on Twitter, Sanjay Dixit, a bureaucrat in the government of Rajasthan, claimed that of 4,040 Indians who surveyed, more than 80 per cent favoured a nuclear war against Pakistan as a way of “finishing Pakistan as a country”.

BJP leader Subramanian Swamy advised India to launch “surgical bombardments” on terrorist training camps in the section of Kashmir that is presently occupied by Pakistan.

Ram Madhav, another BJP leader, said India should set restraint aside and seek revenge: “For one tooth, the complete jaw.”

On Monday, the results of a new survey by the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Centre revealed that 62 per cent of Indians think that military force is the best way to respond to terrorism.

“Just 21 per cent [of Indians] say relying too much on such force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism,” the survey said.

Further, only 22 per cent of Indians approved of Mr Modi’s Pakistan policy, which has thus far been pacifistic and diplomatic. Crucially, 54 per cent of BJP supporters said that they disapproved of how Mr Modi was handling Pakistan.

But military retaliation against Pakistan would snap the tenuous ceasefire that has been in place between the two countries since 2003, and it risks drawing both nuclear powers into a dangerous war.

For this reason, Indian leaders have always been wary of allowing conflicts to escalate.

Even after eight Indians died in a January 2 attack on an air force station, near the border between Pakistan and the Indian state of Punjab, Mr Modi’s government adopted a cautious and ambiguous tone.

“Pakistan is our neighbouring country,” home minister Mr Singh said at the time. “We want good relations with not just Pakistan but with all our neighbours. We also want peace, but if there is any terror attack on India, we will give a befitting reply.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

Published: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM

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