Revisiting Pulwama

Frosty relations with Pakistan after the Pulwama terror attack

Print edition : March 12, 2021

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman in the custody of the Pakistan Army. The Pakistan Air Force dropped its payload on an unpopulated area in a retaliatory cross-border day-time raid. Not only did it accomplish its mission, but the operation led to the capture of the Indian pilot and the downing of his MiG-21 fighter plane which had crossed the LoC in pursuit of the PAF planes. Photo: SOCIAL MEDIA

Masood Azhar, founder of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Soon after the Pulwama attack, the U.S. tabled a resolution in the U.N. Security Council to list the JeM leader as a terrorist. Photo: AP

Post Pulwama, India-Pakistan ties took a nosedive with the Modi government claiming that its hard-line tactics made Pakistan bend to its will when the reality was that international diplomacy helped ease tensions.

The terror attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Pulwama in February 2019 by a Kashmiri Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) operative has, in retrospect, had a significant impact on domestic and regional politics. The Indian government had immediately suspended several travel and trade agreements with Pakistan. There have been no signs of improvement in relations since then. There is regular and heavy firing across the Line of Control (LoC) between the two armies with residents along the de facto border bearing the brunt. After the attack, Pakistan was once again put under the international scanner for its continued tolerance of Kashmir-centric terror groups.

Soon after the attack, the United States tabled a resolution in the United Nations Security Council to list the JeM leader Masood Azhar as a terrorist. This was a long-standing demand of the Indian government. Pakistan continues to be under the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) “grey list for failing to implement effective measures to curtail terror financing”. In the past couple of months, Pakistan has arrested more than 750 people, including Zaki ur Rahman Lakhvi, the leader of the Lashkar-i-Taiba. Pakistan hopes to get out of the “grey list” by the middle of this year.
Also read: 11 intelligence inputs warning of Pulwama attack were ignored

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre used the Pulwama incident to further hype up its nationalistic credentials and deepen the polarisation among the Indian electorate. For the first time since the 1971 war and for the first time since the two countries went overtly nuclear in 1998, the Indian government ordered the Indian Air Force (IAF) to bomb a target inside Pakistan on February 26, 2019. The military situation between the two countries had escalated to the most dangerous level after the Pulwama incident since Operation Brass Tacks in 1987 and the Kargil crisis two decades ago. In September 2016, the Indian government launched what it described as “surgical strikes” across the LoC following the terror attack on the Indian Army base in Uri. The Pakistan Army chose not to respond militarily in 2016.

The Indian side thought that the Pakistani side would react in the same way three years later. Many Western governments had sent signals that they could live with a limited military response from the Indian side after the Pulwama terror strike. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, tweeted after Pulwama that Washington “stands with India as it confronts terrorism”. The then National Security Adviser, John Bolton, said that the U.S. supported “India’s right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism”.

The Pulwama incident was the fifth major crisis that had erupted between the two countries since 1998. In all the four previous occasions, it was the U.S that had stepped in diplomatically to defuse the situation between the neighbours when it threatened to go out of hand. Washington, as well as the rest of the international community, continues to view Kashmir as a tinderbox. Two decades ago, President Bill Clinton had described Kashmir “as the most dangerous place in the world”.

Cross-border raid

The two countries were seemingly on the brink of another confrontation two years ago after the Indian military claimed that it had “successfully targeted” one of the JeM terrorist training camps in Balakot situated in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. The Narendra Modi government claimed at the time that it had eliminated more than 200 people, including trainers and senior commanders of the terror group, in the attack. The IAF had dropped its bombs on an isolated stretch. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) dropped its payload on an unpopulated area in the retaliatory cross-border day-time raid. Not only had the PAF accomplished its mission, but the operation had led to the embarrassing capture of an Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, and the downing of his MiG-21 fighter plane which had crossed the LoC in pursuit of the PAF planes.
Also read: Modi's jingoistic politics post Pulwama

In order to avoid a further escalation in tensions and to lessen the pressure on Prime Minister Modi, the U.S. persuaded the Pakistani authorities to release the Indian pilot within a day of his capture. Before the pilot’s release, the Indian government had reportedly threatened to launch multiple conventional missile strikes against targets in Pakistan. In response, Pakistan had promised an immediate scaled up response. But the situation thankfully calmed down within a few days after the Indian pilot’s release, with Washington once again playing an important role in the de-escalation of tensions. Mike Pompeo made urgent phone calls to New Delhi and Islamabad and President Donald Trump once again offered his good offices to find a solution to the Kashmir problem.

This did not stop the Modi government from claiming that it was the Indian government’s hard-line tactics that made Pakistan bend to its will again. The Indian government had also wrongly claimed that the IAF had shot down a PAF F-16 fighter.

Pakistan had taken the violation of its territorial sovereignty by the IAF seriously. With its response, Islamabad signalled that it would from now on respond forcefully to any cross-border military attack. The response from Pakistan was also to drive home the point that as there was nuclear parity between the two countries, India could not win a conventional war.

But the Modi government was able to sell its version of the Pulwama attack and the Balakot incidents to the Indian electorate. It insisted that Pakistan had been taught a lesson. The propaganda generated by Pulwama and Balakot contributed massively to the sweeping victory of the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The party construed it as a mandate for its majoritarian agenda.

International blow-back

The dismantling of Article 370 followed by acts of imposing collective punishment on the people of Kashmir has now resulted in an international blow-back. Prominent politicians in the U.S. and Europe are once again highlighting the issue of human rights and freedom in the Kashmir valley. Two years after Pulwama, the international consensus continues to be that the root cause of militancy in the Kashmir valley is because of internal factors.

China is angry with the abrupt change in the status quo of Jammu and Kashmir from a State to Union Territory and detachment of Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir. Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement in Parliament pledging to retake parts of Aksai Chin, which is under Chinese control, and Gilgit Baltistan through which the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes, did not go down well in Beijing. The long face-off of the two militaries in eastern Ladakh could be partially attributed to the post-Pulwama events in Jammu and Kashmir.
Also read: Pulwama and new world order

On the first anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370 in August last year, activists belonging to Black Lives Matter, Palestinian and other suppressed minorities called for “a global spotlight” on the suffering and resistance of the Kashmiri people. “I am sending this strong word of deep solidarity with my precious brothers and sisters in Kashmir facing a vicious Indian occupation, social misery and suffering,” the Princeton historian Cornell West said. “Let’s cast a national global spotlight on both the suffering and the resistance.”

The Joe Biden administration has made human rights a priority. The New York Times, quoting experts, has said that the new administration would pay more attention “to the increasing hostility towards Muslims” and minorities in India.

U.N. human rights experts released a report in the third week of February, voicing their concerns over India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s constitutional special status. The U.N. special rapporteurs urged the Indian government to ensure that the social, economic and political rights of the people there are protected.

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