BLOW FOR BLOW
On a day when the world celebrates love, India saw one of the most gruesome acts of hatred on its soil – a suicide bombing in the Valley, the deadliest ever on the country’s security forces since militancy erupted in the state of Jammu and Kashmir three decades ago.
A 78-vehicle convoy carrying more than 2,500 Central Reserve Police Force troopers was heading from Jammu to Srinagar on National Highway No. 44 when a vehicle loaded with more than 300 kilograms of explosives rammed into one of its buses in Pulwama district’s Lethpora village, some 30 kilometres away from the state’s summer capital.
The deafening explosion killed 40 CRPF personnel on board that bus, along with the assailant.
Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed promptly and proudly claimed responsibility, releasing a video of Adil Ahmad Dar, a 22-year-old local from Pulwama district’s Kakapora tehsil who had joined the militant group last year and serving as a “commander”, which was said to have been shot just before he left for his suicide mission.
Reactions to this dreadfully unfortunate incident were multi-faceted, as would be its ramifications.
The first reaction, of course, was one of unqualified condemnation. As a wave of anger and indignation swept through India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: "The attack ... is despicable. The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain. The entire nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the families of the brave martyrs.”
The world, including major powers such as United States, the European Union and Russia and neighbouring nations such as Bhutan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka expressed solidarity with India in its moment of tragedy and universally denounced the bombing incident as a dastardly act of terrorism.
Most notably, US President Donald Trump asked Islamabad to immediately stop supporting all terrorist groups operating in Pakistan.
"The US calls on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence and terror in the region. This attack only strengthens our resolve to bolster counter-terrorism cooperation and coordination between the US and India," Trump's Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
That day, Prime Minister Modi also issued a stern message to Pakistan, saying the terrorists had committed their "worst mistake" and their backers would pay "a very big price" for it.
"We have given complete freedom to the security forces. We have full faith in their bravery and valour," he stated.
Thanking all nations that supported New Delhi in condemning the incident, Modi reiterated that “a strong reply will be given to this attack”, which was all too reminiscent of the surgical strikes that India had done on terrorist camps across the Line of Control in Pakistan after the Uri attacks in 2016.
But the Modi government had a far more comprehensive strategy up its sleeves.
On the diplomatic front, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale met at least 24 envoys in the national capital as part of India’s efforts to begin the process of isolating Pakistan on the international stage.
On the trade and economic front, India withdrew the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status given to Pakistan, raising taxes on Pakistani imports by 200 per cent. This decision, many experts agreed, would adversely impact Pakistan’s economy.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, also revealed that India would make a push at the United Nations for early adoption the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT).
Meanwhile, US National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton extended full support to his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval for India's bid to designate JeM chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. Washington also expressed support for India's right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism under the 1267 Committee of the UN Security Council.
Four days later, Islamabad responded to these developments in a manner that surprised few.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said his country will certainly retaliate if India declares war after the suicide bombing in Kashmir but also pledged to act against Pakistanis found involved in the attack if "actionable intelligence" was provided.
"If you (Indian government) attack us, we will not think of retaliating; we will retaliate. We will have no other option other than retaliating. We all know starting a war is in the hands of humans, where it will lead us, only God knows," a sombre-looking Khan said in a nationwide broadcast.
Denying Islamabad’s role in the Pulwama attack , Khan assured that his government was ready to investigate the bombing and take corrective measures if India provided "actionable intelligence".
"India accused Pakistan without any evidence and without thinking how this (attack) would benefit us... This is Naya Pakistan. We have a new thought... Why would Pakistan do it when it's moving towards stability?" Khan asked, adding that as India was in an election year, speaking against Pakistan was a smart strategy.
The Tehreek-e-Insaf chief also urged New Delhi to introspect.
"You want to remain stuck in the past and each time an incident happens in Kashmir, you want to hold Pakistan responsible. Instead of trying to resolve the (Kashmir) issue, starting a dialogue or moving forward, (you) make Islamabad your whipping boy again and again.
"India should reflect why people in Kashmir are so angry with India. Kashmiris are not afraid of death any more. There must be a reason for that. Should there not be a discussion in India on this?" he asked.
Even as his speech was being broadcast nationwide, Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that Indian armed forces were ready to retaliate "against the enemy squarely".
A promptly released MEA statement pointed out that Khan had conveniently ignored the claims made by the JeM as well as by the suicide bomber.
"It is a well-known fact that the JeM and its leader Masood Azhar are based in Pakistan. These should be sufficient proof for Pakistan to take action. The Prime Minister of Pakistan has offered to investigate the matter if India provides proof. This is a lame excuse," MEA said.
It sought to remind Islamabad that after the Mumbai terror attack of 26/11 which killed 166 Indians and foreigners, proof was provided to Pakistan, but precious little was done about it.
"The case has not progressed for the last more than 10 years. Likewise, on the terror attack on Pathankot airbase, there has been no progress. Promises of 'guaranteed action' ring hollow given the track record of Pakistan."
Responding to Khan's remarks about a new Pakistan under his rule, New Delhi said: "In this `Naya Pakistan', ministers of the current government publicly share platforms with terrorists like Hafiz Saeed who have been proscribed by the UN.”
Meanwhile, India had already begun cracking down on JeM militants. Just 10km from the terror attack site, Indian security forces on February 18 ringed a militant hideout in Pinglena village, triggering a gun battle that claimed the lives of an Army Major, three other soldiers and a civilian – along with those of three JeM militants, two of whom were identified to be Pakistani nationals.
By the next day, the Indian Army declared that all the top leadership of the JeM outfit had been eliminated by security forces in the Kashmir Valley within 100 hours of the terror attack.
“We have eliminated the top leadership of the JeM that was being directly handled by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistan Army. We were tracking the top JeM cadres ever since February 14. The Pulwama terror attack was coordinated by the JeM cadres in Pakistan and the Pakistan Army,” Lieutenant General, K.J.S. Dhillon, commander of the Chinar Corps, said during a press conference with the state police and the CRPF at the Badamibagh Cantonment Headquarters of army's 15 corps.
As the international community, led by the United Nations, urged both New Delhi and Islamabad to exercise restraint and take steps to defuse the rising tension between the nuclear-armed neighbours, India was already thinking of other alternative ways to punish Pakistan.
On February 21, India announced its decision to stop the flow of its share of water from the three eastern rivers of Beas, Ravi and Sutlej to Pakistan.
"We will divert water from eastern rivers and supply it to people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab," Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari said in a tweet.
In another tweet, he said construction of a dam had started at Shahpur-Kandi on Ravi river. Moreover, the Ujh project will store India's share of water for use in J&K and the rest will flow from the second Ravi-Beas Link to provide water to other basin states. All these projects have been declared as the national projects, he added.
Meanwhile, speaking at a public meeting in Baghpat, Gadkari said after partition India got three rivers but their water were flowing to Pakistan. "Water will be diverted to Yamuna. It means, there will be more water in Yamuna," he said.
Under the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, control over the water flowing in the three "eastern" rivers was given to India. While control over the water flowing in three "western" rivers of India -- the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum with the mean flow of 80 MAF -- was given to Pakistan.
Meanwhile, as the National Investigative Agency continued its probe into the Pulwama attacks, intelligence sources revealed that the terrorists had used women and children to ferry the military-grade RDX grade 5 explosives and ammonium nitrate that were packed into the car of the suicide bomber.
The Pulwama attack also once again put the spotlight how the internet was being used for rapid radicalisation of Kashmiri youth. Dar, who had recorded a video calling upon young Kashmiris to wage a war against India just before suicide-bombing the CRPF bus in Pulawama, was very much a product of e-jihad.
With global Islamic literature easily accessible on the Web, security officials revealed, terrorists in the Valley were being easily projected as freedom fighters and upon death celebrated as martyrs. This way Pakistan's ISI exploits sentiments and actively propagates religious terrorism.
The Pulwama attacks also resulted in a fallout or two emanating from within India itself.
With the last rites of martyred CRPF soldiers being conducted across India, public anger against terrorism in Kashmir was higher than it had been in a long time. Unfortunately, that anger got directed towards the Kashmiri students living in various parts of the country. Subjected to harassment, violence and eviction from their homes, hundreds of Kashmiris pursuing studies in various states had to reportedly flee from their bases. Even Kashmiri traders faced the heat in some parts.
However, much needed and timely relief was provided by the Supreme Court.
On February 22, the apex court directed Chief Secretaries and police chiefs of states and union territories to take prompt action to prevent threats, assaults, intimidation and boycott of Kashmiris, especially students, particularly in the northern states. The court also issued notice to the Centre and 11 states on a public suit by advocate Tariq Adeeb that focussed attention on the incidents, including Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy's widely condemned call to boycott Kashmiris in the aftermath of the terror attack.
With most such incidents of violence being attributed to right-wing Hindu activists, opposition forces – especially former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mehbooba Mufti – were quick to accuse the Modi government of not acting promptly to give Kashmiris a sense of protection.
However, Prime Minister Modi had been keeping his ear to the ground.
On February 23, he denounced the attacks on Kashmiris, saying that such things should not happen in the country as the fight is against the sponsors – not the victims – of terrorism.
"Our fight is for Kashmir, not against Kashmiris. We want our sisters and brothers of Kashmir to be rid of terrorism. Kashmiris have suffered the most due to terrorism, and the rest of the country must stand in their support," he said in his first response to the attacks on Kashmiri businessmen and students, while addressing a rally in the Rajasthan town of Tonk.
"We want our sisters and brothers of Kashmir to be rid of terrorism. Kashmiris have suffered the most due to terrorism, and the rest of the country must stand in their support. Our fight is against those who sponsor terrorism,” Modi said.
He also said that the armed forces have been given free hand to deal with terrorists and that the time has come to test if Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is a man of his word.
With India linking Pakistan with the Pulwama terror attack as the JeM is based there, Modi warned the neighbouring country that India would no longer "sit quietly".
Referring to his telephonic conversation with Imran Khan after his election victory last year, he said: "I did call Pakistan's new Prime Minister to congratulate him after his win, following the basic protocol.
"I told him that we should join hands to eradicate poverty and to fight illiteracy. Answering this, Khan said that he's a Pathan's child and hence he never lies."
"There is need to test this. We will see if he proves true to his words or not," Modi said, adding he had conveyed that there have been enough fighting between India and Pakistan with India winning each of them with Pakistan getting nothing and the future too portends the same.
He also said "we shall never sit quietly as we are well aware of techniques to kill terrorism" and that peace cannot prevail in the world till the "factory of terror" In Pakistan continues running.
"This is the new India...There is consensus in the world against terrorism. We are moving forward with strength to punish the perpetrators of terrorism. Stern action against those who live in India and push separatism has been taken and will be taken," he said.
The next day, while speaking in his monthly radio programme 'Mann Ki Baat', Prime Minister Modi urged all Indians to forget their differences to make the government's steps against terror firmer – even as he revealed that the Army had resolved to wipe out "terrorists and their harbourers".
"This martyrdom will keep inspiring us relentlessly to uproot the very base of terrorism; it will fortify our resolve. We shall have to take up this challenge facing our country, forgetting all barriers of casteism, communalism, regionalism and other differences so that our steps against terror are firmer, stronger and more decisive," he said.
The Prime Minister said that the armed forces have consistently displayed unparalleled courage and valour in restoring peace on the one hand and on the other they have retaliated with equal measure, in a language the attackers understand.
"You must have seen how within a hundred hours of the attack, retributive action was accomplished. The Army has resolved to wipe out terrorists and their harbourers."
Another undesirable fallout of the Pulwama incident was the fear and speculation that the Centre might favour a petition before the Supreme Court seeking abrogation of Article 35A, the one that gives the state legislature powers to define the residents of the state and their privileges.
Many Kashmiri politicians warned that tinkering with the Article would be "playing with fire".
Reacting to speculations, National Conference (NC) vice-president Omar Abdullah said, "We owe it to our future generations to safeguard our political identity and special status that our ancestors and our founding leaders fought for. The forces that are sponsoring these elaborate assaults on the state's special status have been inimical to its interests and political identity from the very first day, but we fought them then and will fight them now."
Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti tweeted, "Article 370 is the constitutional connection between J&K & the Indian Union. Instrument of accession is contingent on Article 370, which is inextricably linked to Article 35A. Any tampering will render the Treaty of Accession null & void."
However, the strongest reaction came from former Minister and Peoples Conference (PC) president Sajad Lone. "Any tampering with the special constitutional character of J&K would mean the death of mainstream thought in the state. If the Centre wants to slaughter the mainstream thought they are most welcome, and that is what they will be doing by tinkering with Article 35A," Lone said.
However, as life in the Valley began limping back to normalcy amid lingering fears of a full-fledged war between India and Pakistan, the Centre had other more important promises to fulfil and plans to execute.
A couple of hours before sunrise on February 26, exactly a dozen days after the Pulwama attack, the Indian Air Force struck the JeM’s biggest training camp at Balakote in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, killing a very large number of terrorists and their trainers.
As the news was celebrated by Indians across the country, Foreign Secretary Vijay K. Gokhale revelealed: "In an intelligence-led operation … a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jehadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated," Foreign Secretary Vijay K. Gokhale told the media.
"This facility at Balakote was headed by Maulana Yusuf Azhar (alias Ustad Gauri), the brother-in-law of (JeM leader) Masood Azhar," Gokhale noted.
"The government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism. Hence, this non-military pre-emptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp. The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties."
Gokhale revealed that India had been providing Islamabad information about the "location of terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir" from time to time, but Pakistan had kept denying their existence.
Gokhale contended that such "massive training facilities capable of training hundreds of jehadis could not have functioned without the knowledge of Pakistani authorities:”, yet Pakistan never took any concrete action to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil, he added.
The Foreign Secretary also explained that after receiving “credible intelligence” that the JeM was planning more suicide terror attacks on India, and the fidayeen jehadis were being trained for that purpose, a “pre-emptive strike became absolutely necessary”.
While Pakistan admitted that the IAF planes had struck Balakot, it claimed (in what was seen as a face-saving exercise) that they hastily retreated when it scrambled its own war planes and that there were no losses on the ground.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the Indian jets were forced to return "owing to the timely response of the Pakistan Air Force" and warned that Islamabad has "the right to self-defence and (give) a befitting response".
Pakistan Army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor said earlier that the Indian intrusion in Muzaffarabad sector happened within "AJK" (Azad Jammu Kashmir), 3-4 miles from the LoC that divides Kashmir between the two countries.
"Under forced hasty withdrawal the aircraft released payload which had free fall in an open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties," he said following an uproar in Pakistan about Indian jets flying deep into its territory.
As India First went to press, there was no telling whether a war between India and Pakistan was imminent. But the Modi government had made good of its promise of giving Pakistan a befitting reply for its Pulwama misadventure. And while there were big questions of doubt over Imran Khan’s claims about a “Naya Pakistan”, there were none remaining about the notion of a new India – one that was not to be messed with.