India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a “strong response” to a car bombing in Kashmir that killed at least 42 troops, with New Delhi calling for “the complete isolation of Pakistan” for harbouring the armed group behind the devastating attack.
“We will give a befitting reply,” Modi said in a speech on Friday morning, soon after he called his security advisers to consider a response to the worst attack on security forces in decades.
“Those who committed this heinous act will pay a heavy price. Those who supported it will definitely be punished,” he was quoted as saying by the Indian Express newspaper.
“If our neighbour thinks it can destabilise India, then it is making a big mistake.”
Thursday’s attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), an armed group that has carried out a number of suicide and other attacks against Indian security forces since it’s formation in 2000.
India blamed Pakistan for Thursday’s assault on the military convoy, accusing it of letting armed groups stage attacks from its soil – a claim Islamabad denies.
Arun Jaitley, India’s foreign minister, promised all steps “to ensure the complete isolation of Pakistan from the international community”, saying there was “incontrovertible evidence” that Islamabad had a “direct hand in this gruesome attack”.
This would include India removing most-favoured-nation privileges given to Pakistan under World Trade Organization rules, Jaitley said.
Kashmir is a Muslim-majority region at the heart of decades of hostility between the two South Asian nations, who rule parts of the region while claiming the entire territory as theirs.
Senior police officials earlier told Al Jazeera the suspected suicide attacker rammed his explosives-laden car into a bus carrying personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) along a highway in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
Images from the blast site showed dozens of bodies strewn around the mangled bus. At least 42 people were killed.
Thousands of people across India paid tribute to the slain paramilitary troops on Friday.
In southern Kashmir, protesters held anti-Pakistan demonstrations, while in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party burned symbolic effigies of Pakistan.
Islamabad said it rejected India’s suggestion it was linked to the attack.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the attack a matter of “grave concern”.
And in a brief statement early on Friday, it added: “We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian government and media circles that seek to link the attack to the State of Pakistan without investigations.”
Islamabad has previously denied New Delhi’s accusations that it gives material help to armed groups fighting Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir.
It said it gives only moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmiri people in their struggle for self-determination.
Hours after the attack, the Indian government urged the UN to list JeM chief Masood Azhar as a designated “terrorist”.
“We demand that Pakistan stop supporting terrorists and terror groups operating from their territory and dismantle the infrastructure operated by terrorist outfits to launch attacks in other countries,” the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement.
It also accused the Pakistani government of giving JeM free rein in Pakistan, saying it has allowed the group’s leader, Azhar, “to operate and expand his terror infrastructure in territories under the control of Pakistan and to carry out attacks in India and elsewhere with impunity”.
‘This could get bad’
Sreeram Chaulia, professor of international relations at the Jindal School of International Affairs in India, said the Kashmir attack strains already “rock-bottom” ties between India and Pakistan.
India will look at a “whole gamut of retaliatory measures, including military options, diplomatic isolation” and even cross-border raids, Chaulia told Al Jazeera from Sonipat, a city in central India.
However, revoking trade privileges will not “hurt much”, he said, as “Pakistan exports less than $1bn worth of products to India because of strained relations”.
Chaulia, who backed India’s claim that Pakistan harbours armed groups, added: “We need to lobby China and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, we need to turn to Western countries, to try and create a regional consensus that this is not acceptable and change Pakistan’s behavior.”
China, a key Pakistani ally, has blocked Azhar’s listing on the UN Security Council’s sanctions list.
The JeM leader’s whereabouts remain unknown; he has not been charged with a crime in Pakistan and has not made any public appearances since he was detained there in 2016.
Pakistan had outlawed JeM as a “terrorist organisation” in 2002.
Moeed Yusuf from the US Institute of Peace said the “current situation has all the making of an India-Pakistan crisis”.
The next 24-48 hours will be crucial, he told the AFP news agency, warning, “This could get bad.”
He added: “The hope was that India and Pakistan will get back to talking after the Indian elections later this year. I think the hawks on both sides are going to make it very difficult for that to happen now.”
Guns and social media
Meanwhile, the White House urged Pakistan in a statement “to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil”.
The attack strengthens US resolve to step up counterterrorism cooperation with India, it said.
Kashmir has experienced renewed rebel attacks and repeated public protests against Indian rule in the past few years as a new generation of Kashmiri rebels, especially in the southern parts of the region, has revived an armed struggle and challenged New Delhi’s rule with guns and social media.
The anti-India unrest grew significantly after a popular rebel leader, Burhan Wani, was killed by security forces in 2016.
The Indian government responded with stepped-up anti-rebel operations, leading to more protests.
Kashmiris have tried to protect rebels by hurling stones and abuse at Indian troops entering their villages in pursuit of the fighters.
Last year’s death toll was the highest since 2009, including at least 260 rebel fighters, 160 civilians and 150 government forces.
About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown since 1989.
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