The suicide attack in Pulwama on February 14, 2019 that killed 42 Indian soldiers and wounded dozens sparked off tensions between India and Pakistan. Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), supposedly created by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), claimed responsibility for the attack. The developments that followed the incident are well-known.
India launched airstrikes on Balakot inside Pakistan-held Kashmir (PhK) on February 26. India claimed that the airstrikes killed 300 terrorists belonging to JeM. India also claimed that its jets shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet. Pakistan shot down one Indian jet and arrested its pilot. Pakistan then returned the pilot to India on March 1. Pakistan also made some outlandish claims. It said no one was killed by the Indian airstrike. It also claimed that there were no JeM bases in PhK.
The airstrikes by India and Pakistan actually bore the risk of flaring up a full-scale war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. While world leaders urged both Delhi and Islamabad to exercise restraint, people in neighbouring countries were deeply worried that things may go out of hands of the leaders of India and Pakistan.
The Pulwama incident and subsequent airstrikes have left many questions unanswered. Almost every Indian media outlet skirted the main issue of emergence of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). They failed to ask the questions: What explains the rise of insurgent groups in J&K? What do these terrorist organisations want?
The media in both India and Pakistan reeked of chauvinistic hyperbole. Naturally, no one in either country wanted to be seen as unpatriotic. Jingoistic demonstrations were held in both India and Pakistan. In the process, fake news and provocative propaganda emerged and have been doing the rounds in the electronic, print and social media in both countries. The Indian Lok Sabha elections are scheduled for May 2019, which explains why, for some, this fake news has become a convenient publicity tool for Narendra Modi's BJP to gain popularity. Pakistan's newly-elected PM Imran Khan also succumbed to this false propaganda to deflect world criticism. He released the Indian pilot ostensibly to show his country's moral high ground.
Watching and reading about these narratives make it extremely difficult to get to the truth. Neither the government in Pakistan nor in India has come out and given a truthful account of the airstrikes. The opposition parties in India have come down hard on Modi—demanding that he prove all the claims his government has made about the airstrikes on Pakistan.
Jammu and Kashmir is the most militarised state of India and frequent border skirmishes along the Line of Control (LoC) are routine occurrences. Pulwama was not an isolated incident. JeM has been responsible for several deadly attacks in the past: the attack on an Indian airbase in Pathankot in January 2016; the deadly raid on Uri army base in September 2016; the attack on an Indian army camp in Sunjuwan in February 2018. The list is long. Each of these attacks spurred India to launch military operations across the LoC and attack militant bases inside PhK. Some of these operations were designated as “surgical strikes”. These confrontations have repeatedly drawn the two countries very close to a full-fledged war.
But, at the end of the day, one has to trace the root causes of these terrorist activities in that state. The political setup and security situation in Jammu and Kashmir do not reflect the aspirations of the people of the state. The growing distrust between the people and the central government has resulted in gross violation of human rights in the state, which has been documented by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The political process in the state has stalled as the PDP-BJP coalition state government headed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti collapsed in June 2018. The state is currently under President's Rule. The persistent denial of basic rights of the Muslim-majority population of the state has fomented anti-Indian sentiments. This is where the roots of terrorism lie. Pakistan has conveniently exploited this situation and has been aiding and abetting terrorism in the troubled state through different militant outfits.
According to various reports, there are at least eight terror organisations operating in J&K. All these outfits are directly or indirectly supported by Pakistan, Taliban and al-Qaeda. Arms, ammunition and explosives are smuggled through the LoC from across PhK.
According to Indian army sources, about 450 terrorists are currently operating in the state. Some of these terrorists have infiltrated from PhK but most are local radicalised youth. The objective of all these organisations is either total independence from India or full autonomy under the Indian constitution. Not a week passes without some kind of military confrontation with terrorists leading to deaths of soldiers, terrorists and civilians.
What is significant is that there is no attempt by Delhi to meet the political demands of the people of the state or any effort to negotiate a peace deal with Pakistan. Delhi's persistent position has been that J&K is an “internal affair” and thus there can be no discussion with any country regarding the situation in the state.
However, it is clear that there is no military solution to this 72-year-old problem. Delhi's main diplomatic endeavour has been to isolate Pakistan—accusing the latter of breeding terrorism.
For its part, Pakistan has recently arrested dozens of banned JeM activists but it needs to take firm action against the militant outfit to prevent being indicted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
Fortunately, neither India nor Pakistan has broken off diplomatic relations—and this means that there is an opportunity for both countries to engage in negotiation for a resolution to the complex J&K problem.
If the current standoff between India and Pakistan continues, Pulwama will not be the last source of tension between India and Pakistan, rest assured (last week, we saw yet another attack in Indian-administered J&K which killed at least two people and injured more than 30 people). Continued terrorist attacks in J&K will definitely ratchet up further the jingoistic sentiments in both countries that can lead to disastrous consequences.
Mahmood Hasan is former ambassador and secretary of the Bangladesh government.