On February 14 a suicide bomber rammed his explosives laden vehicle into a convoy of a paramilitary police force returning to trouble-torn Kashmir valley. When the haze cleared after the earth-shaking blast, the survivors of the large convoy carrying 2500 soldiers found only the mangled remains of what was a bus carrying 41 of their colleagues.
The suicide bomber, a Kashmiri national, in a recorded video claimed to be a member of Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based militant organisation responsible for many attacks at Indian installations. Angry protesters baying for Pakistan’s blood have spilled over to many cities of the country.
Social media too is on fire. The general view was not whether there would be war between the two nuclear armed neighbours or not, but when.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has denied India’s allegations of his country’s involvement in the terror attack and promised to retaliate if India decides to attack his country. Khan promised to probe the attack from his side if any evidence was shared with his government by Delhi. He has accused Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of using the terror attack to win parliamentary elections a month from now.
Modi has handed over the responsibility of taking a decision on the time, place and scale of the response to the terrorist violence to the Indian defence forces. The big question is: can the armed forces really take a decision on attacking Pakistan, which would have serious geopolitical and domestic implications at a time the country is going for elections? Indian elections take place in April/May.
Tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated in recent years - aggravated after each militant attack in the violence-racked states of Kashmir and Punjab. Evidently, terror attacks are milestones of this blood-spattered journey of the ties between the two neighbours that couldn’t really reconcile to their post-partition identities. Pakistan decided to be an Islamic republic, and India chose to go secular - now being challenged by the Hindu right wing that is in power.
India and Pakistan have fought three big wars and hundreds of border skirmishes since the two countries were partitioned on August 15, 1947.
When they are not fighting, the two sides have played cricket, and Pakistani artists have sung together with Indians.
Many times in the 70 years post-partition history, there have been periods of peace and bonhomie. As Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, General V K Singh, candidly pointed out, there was peace in the Kashmir valley when the UPA was in power until 2013. When the BJP won the elections in 2014, there was initially a lot of hope in the valley, but thereafter the situation began to rapidly slide.
The nub of the problem is in the way the administration had been configured by the central government in Kashmir.
The BJP followed a two track approach, on the one hand they formed a coalition government with a regional party considered to be close to those who want freedom or azadi from India. On the other hand, they used the army and security forces to come down heavily on the restive youth. Pellet guns were used against the protesters that maimed hundreds of youth and caused international outrage. The reaction that followed saw a rise in homegrown terrorists with a leader of a militant outfit, Burhan Wani, getting killed in an encounter. Wani’s death is considered to be the turning point when it comes to the rise in homegrown militancy in recent years. Since then more and more young people have joined terror outfits with their bases in Pakistan.
In 2016, four armed militants attacked the Indian army’s cantonment at Uri in Kashmir, and 19 Indian soldiers died in it. Similar to the public protests that are sweeping the country now, at that time the BJP’s supporters demanded firm action against Pakistan for sending these terrorists to India.
A few months after the incident, the Indian army launched a surgical strike hitting at alleged terrorist bases across the border.
Pakistan again denied that the Indian special forces had attacked any installations on their soil. The terror attack was followed by a “surgical strike” which was converted into a Bollywood film that did very well at the box office, with many of the BJP ministers joyfully mouthing the film’s dialogue like “how’s the josh” (enthusiasm).
The success of the film Uri also reflected the nationalist fervour that the BJP and its front organisations had been able to create in the country. Quite expectedly, when the Pulwama attack took place, there was bewildering mobilisation of those who wanted Pakistan to be punished for the incident.
The Congress party, which is putting up a spirited challenge to the BJP in the last few months, was the target of the attack. Photoshopped images of Congress President Rahul Gandhi in the company of the Pulwama bomber and his sister Priyanka in the company of Pakistan army chief General Bajwa began to circulate on Facebook and WhatsApp. These images were challenged by fact checking websites.
In the coming weeks India’s election commission will announce the date of the elections. The ruling BJP will try to ensure that its supporters continue to have “josh” (enthusiasm) on issues of nationalism, and are not swayed by the opposition demanding answers on alleged corruption in the purchase of the Rafale jet fighter from France, or “ jobless growth”.
Modi was seen to be in a corner until the recent terror attack provided him and his party with an opportunity to shut the opposition up, and harp on the issue of the threat of terrorism from Pakistan.
Harping on Islamic terrorism is the BJP’s comfort zone, as it also brings about majority consolidation and dis-empowers the Muslim minority of 19% in the country, which traditionally supports the Congress party.
The BJP, which was on the threshold of losing the parliamentary elections, may have gotten a new lease of life after the Pulwama terror attack.
If India indeed goes to war during this electoral period, then opposition parties would be hard put to weave a narrative that gets them back into the reckoning.
Kapoor is the editor of Hardnews magazine, based in Delhi