A suicide bombing which killed 46 Indian soldiers in the Pulwama District of Indian-administered Kashmir on 14 February. This brought the two nuclear powered neighbours India and Pakistan almost to the brink of war, following a dramatic military escalation over Kashmir – a divided territory both nations claim is theirs.
The the countries have endured a prolonged animosity since Muslim majority Pakistan was partitioned from Hindu dominated India in 1947 at the end of the British rule. The nations have engaged in a total of four wars over the disputed territory, and continue to suffer strained diplomatic and economic relations due to rising militant and insurgent activities in the Kashmiri valley.
The Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) suicide attack was conducted and claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a terrorist group that operates out of Pakistan. The group has resolved to continue its “Ghazwa-e-Hind” (Holy War against India) irrespective of Indo-Pak ties. JeM had close links to Osama bin Laden and was formed after the release of Masood Azhar from an Indian jail as part of a hostage exchange, following the hijack of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999.
The Pulwama bombing incident proved to be the deadliest attack undertaken by militants during a three-decade insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir.
Following quick claims of Pakistan’s involvement, the initial reaction by the Indian administration was to take all possible diplomatic steps to isolate Pakistan from the international community. They began this by starting with the revocation of the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status from Pakistan, a special trading privilege granted in 1996, thereby increasing the import duty by 200%.
Renewing their diplomatic stance against Pakistan’s state support for terrorism, India has once more rallied for Maulana Masood Azhar to be designated as a global terrorist, a move that has been repeatedly blocked by China, a close ally of Pakistan. India has also linked Pakistan to its partners’ security challenges relating to North Korea. In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, three permanent members of the United Nations – US, UK, and France have moved a resolution supporting India’s claim, stating that not listing Azhar as a global terrorist would be a move against regional stability and peace. The UN Security Council has yet to make a decision on the matter.
The exploitation of the 56-year-old Indus Water Treaty as a diplomatic weapon was also considered. No action has been taken in this regard, with the treaty deemed to be the most successful agreement of its kind, and speculation that any step towards violating it would be considered very aggressive by Islamabad.
Despite many diplomatic efforts, and with general elections around the corner, the Indian government was under pressure to respond. On 26 February, India carried out an intelligence-led, non-military, pre-emptive air strike on what it said was a JeM militant camp in Balakot, Pakistan.
This one-upped the alleged surgical strikes carried out by India in the aftermath of the Uri attack in September 2016, as this was the first intentional crossing of the Line of Control, beyond the disputed territory and into Pakistan, since the 1971 war.
Pakistan – which denies any involvement in the 14 February attack and India’s claim that it hit the JeM training camp – says it felt the need to placate its domestic constituencies and had no choice but to respond. The day after the strike, a dogfight between the sides led to an Indian fighter jet being shot down in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Amidst fear and speculation of further retaliation and use of nuclear power, Pakistan returned Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to India as a ‘peace gesture’ urging India to settle differences with peace talks.
Considering India’s boldness in the IAF strike, Pakistan’s unexpected and passive reaction is proof of the tactful diplomacy India engaged in. Through India’s stance against state supported terrorism, it hit the right nerve in the international community by associating JeM with global terrorist activity. This, along with the occupation of higher moral ground because of its “non-military” strike without any civilian casualties, resulted in its action gaining sympathy, while Pakistan continues to face a lot of pressure to crack down on the militancy.
While it is safe to say that India’s tactful alliances prevented the expected escalation, both the nuclear powers understand that an all-out-war would not have been in favour of any party involved.
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Image courtesy of Central Intelligence Agency via Wikicommons