Updated at 10:01 a.m. ET on 2019-03-01
Protests calling for a full-blown military offensive against Pakistan erupted across India on Friday as Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned that terror groups would pay “a heavy price” after suspected militants killed at least 40 Indian troops in one of the deadliest attacks in volatile Kashmir.
On Thursday, a suspected Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant rammed a bomb-laden vehicle into a 78-vehicle convoy ferrying more than 2,500 paramilitary personnel on the Srinagar-Jammu highway.
The Pakistan-based JeM claimed responsibility for the bombing, according to local media, which said the vehicle was driven by a 22-year-old militant.
“I want to tell the terrorist groups and their masters that they have committed a big mistake,” Modi said after an emergency cabinet meeting. “They have to pay a heavy price.”
Demonstrators took to the streets of several Indian cities, shouting anti-Pakistan slogans and burning Pakistan’s national flag while calling on India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to retaliate for Thursday’s bombing.
“How long will we silently tolerate martyrdom? We want our government to attack Pakistan with all its military might,” Gopal Pandey, a protester from Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi town, told BenarNews in a phone interview.
In Jammu, anti-Pakistan protesters turned violent and set ablaze a dozen vehicles, prompting authorities to fire teargas to disperse the crowd, deputy city commissioner Ramesh Kumar told BenarNews. “A curfew has been imposed throughout the city,” he said.
An all-out military offensive against Pakistan, which denied any involvement in the attack, was “neither desirable nor the answer,” analysts said.
“There is a window of punishment short of all-out war. We need to exploit that. In addition to that, there are diplomatic and non-military actions that can be taken,” retired Brig. Anil Gupta, a Jammu-based defense analyst, told BenarNews, adding that Delhi had made a move in the right direction by withdrawing Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation status.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told reporters that New Delhi would isolate Islamabad in the international community, but the Pakistan foreign ministry issued a statement rejecting “any insinuation by elements in the Indian government and media circles that seek to link the attack to the State of Pakistan without investigations.”
The White House, in a brief statement issued Thursday, called 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 counterterrorism cooperation and coordination between the United States and India,” it said.
Pakistan previously denied allegations from India that it gives material support to armed groups operating in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Analysts expect retaliation from India
Home Minister Rajnath Singh flew to Srinagar on Friday morning to attend a memorial ceremony for the slain soldiers.
“Some elements are hand-in-glove with militant groups and ISI across the border,” Singh told a news conference, referring to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. “They are involved in conspiracies too.”
Aside from isolating Pakistan diplomatically, the Indian government would be expected to retaliate against the attack, especially with the general elections – due in April – right around the corner, said Kabir Taneja, a security expert at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation.
“National security is sacrosanct for the BJP,” Taneja told BenarNews. “So, losing face just before the general elections is not an ideal situation for the party.”
But the military options, he said, resides only around the Line of Control (LoC) – a de facto border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. “Right now, obviously Pakistan will have its guard up, expecting retaliation from India. India may respond militarily, but obviously at the time and place of its choosing, like it did after the Uri attack,” Taneja said.
In September 2016, four JeM militants stormed an army base in Uri town near the LoC in Baramulla district, killing at least 19 soldiers in a pre-dawn attack. India responded by launching what it called surgical strikes in Pakistan that inflicted significant casualties. Indian newspapers reported the Pakistani casualty figures as between 35 and 50.
Muslim-majority Kashmir, a scenic valley in the Himalayan Mountains, has grappled with a separatist insurgency that has killed more than 70,000 people since the late 1980s. The region is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, who have fought two wars over it.
Meanwhile, Indian Kashmir’s former police chief, Kuldeep Khoda, said New Delhi’s approach to solving the problem of militancy in the insurgency-ravaged region was flawed, inspiring a growing number of Kashmiri youths to join rebel groups.
Khoda was referring to Adil Ahmad, alias Waqas, 22, who was identified by JeM as the militant who carried out Thursday’s suicide bombing.
Widespread protests against Indian rule also took place in the Kashmir valley after security forces killed Burhan Wani, a young commander of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, in what authorities described as a gunbattle in July 2016.
“The government still believes that security forces alone can restore peace by eliminating terrorists. But it has completely ignored the increasing number of youths joining militant ranks because they feel a sense of alienation,” Khoda told BenarNews.
“The government must create an atmosphere that addresses the sense of alienation among Kashmiri youths and engage them in job-oriented courses in order to prevent them from being vulnerable to radicalization,” he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version reported incorrectly that at least 46 troops were killed in the car-bombing.