Millions of Indians will by now have seen the twisted wreckage of buses carrying dozens of Indian paramilitary soldiers from the Central Reserve Police Force, or CRPF; at least 40 of them died when a car loaded with explosives rammed into their convoy as it passed through Pulwama district of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. Jaish-e-Mohammed, a group of militant Islamic extremists who pioneered suicide bombings in the disputed region of Kashmir, claimed responsibility for the attack. As one Kashmiri politician wrote on Twitter, it was “reminiscent of the dark days of militancy pre 2004-05.”
Jaish-e-Mohammed is based in Pakistan. Its leader, Masood Azhar, gives speeches freely and the group has built a sprawling training complex in the city of Bahawalpur, which features a wall painting of suitably militant-looking horses bearing down on Delhi’s Red Fort. Periodically, the Pakistani government pretends to crack down on militant Islamists such as Azhar; in fact, the terrorists continue to raise funds, recruit and strike at will across Pakistan’s borders. Nor is it just India that suffers. The Afghan government tells all and sundry that it cannot defeat the Taliban as long as the militants are supported by Pakistan. Just a day before the Kashmir attack, the Pakistan-based Sunni extremist group Jaish al Adl killed 27 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, also using a car bomb.
Pakistani officials often like to say that their country is among the foremost victims of Islamist terrorism. Perhaps. But, their response has been at best to accommodate extremism, and at worst to try and convince terrorists that their efforts are best turned outwards, towards India, Afghanistan or Iran. Indian government officials — like the Afghans — are caught in a bind. They have little leverage over the militants’ patrons within the Pakistani military establishment. Nor are the Americans any longer influential enough to help: Jaish-e-Mohammed went quiet in the mid-2000s at American insistence but reemerged soon enough.
The Pakistani military has found a new patron: the People’s Republic of China. Beijing has repeatedly blocked attempts by India at the United Nations to declare Azhar a “global terrorist,” freeze his assets and prevent him from travelling. Nobody can quite understand why the same country that runs prison camps for ordinary Muslims in Xinjiang is protecting a self-confessed jihadi militant. Earlier, only the generals in Rawalpindi were held responsible for attacks such as this one in India. Today, Beijing’s leaders will have to accept their share of the blame.
The India of the past would grit its teeth and absorb a blow like this. But Indian public opinion is no longer as patient as it was during the attack on Parliament in 2001 or the siege of Mumbai in 2008. The big box-office success of the past year in India has been a dramatization of the cross-border strikes on militant camps in Pakistani Kashmir launched in retaliation for a similar (albeit less bloody) Jaish-e-Mohammed attack a few years ago. India’s ruling party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, won state elections following those strikes and it has adopted the movie’s catchphrase as its own. Modi faces reelection in a few months; he’ll be under tremendous pressure to respond as he did then.
Yet Modi’s government has a lot of introspection to do as well. The militants released a video of the man driving the explosive-laden car: He was a local, from Gundibagh village in Pulwama. In the decade before Modi took office in 2014, homegrown Islamist militancy in Kashmir had largely died out. In the past five years, it has tragically come roaring back, fed by a series of cynical moves by the government in New Delhi meant to shore up its popularity in the rest of India.
Modi’s colleagues in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have tried to paint other Indian politicians as being sympathetic to terrorists. The BJP formed an opportunistic alliance in order to enter Jammu and Kashmir’s state government for the first time, and then abandoned that alliance in a manner that further alienated Kashmiris from Indian democracy. Party supporters own television channels that regularly paint all Kashmiris, not just terrorists, as the enemy.
Crowd-control tactics in Kashmir have become ever more brutal, angering locals. And anyone who speaks up for the basic rights of Kashmiris under India’s liberal constitution is considered, in a delightful Indian neologism, “anti-national.” In the process, a once-quiescent Kashmir has been set alight once again.
It’s possible Pakistan may want to stir up trouble in Kashmir. But, if it succeeds, then it is New Delhi that will have failed. India’s prime ministers, of every ideology and party, have long sought to control anger in Kashmir and, in the long term, win the state back to the Indian mainstream. Modi abandoned that policy, making his successors’ task infinitely harder.