A ghastly terror attack shook Kashmir Valley late Thursday after an explosives-laden SUV ripped through a paramilitary convoy on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. Touted as one of the deadliest attacks in the disputed region in recent years, it killed nearly 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans.
Earlier, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had told CNN that 37 soldiers were dead and five wounded. Two days ago, the Kashmir Police had reportedly shared intelligence inputs with all security agencies of a suspicious video carrying the threat of such an attack.
The government has blamed a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation for the attack. “This heinous and despicable act has been perpetrated by Jaish-e-Mohammed,” the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement.
Here’s what happened
More than 2,500 CRPF personnel, many of them rejoining duty after leave, were in the convoy of 78 vehicles when the attack took place. It happened 25 km from Srinagar, at Latoomode in Awantipora, around 3:15 pm.
“One vehicle bore the brunt of the blast, resulting in multiple casualties,” a police statement said. Mutilated body parts were strewn on the road; as a result, it was difficult to ascertain the death toll, at first.
Experts of anti-terror commando force National Security Guard and investigators of the National Investigation Agency left for Jammu and Kashmir on Friday to join the probe into the attack.
Perpetrator(s): Suspects and claims
JeM, an proscribed by the UN, has already claimed responsibility for the attack, according to local media reports based on a video statement circulating online. However, CNN has not been able to independently confirm the video’s authenticity thus far.
The clip, uploaded on a private Twitter account under the username
‘313_get’, allegedly bore footage of a similar militant attack on troops in Somalia.
The Kashmir Police have identified the suicide bomber as Adil Ahmed, who reportedly joined JeM in 2018.
What is JeM?
JeM, which operates on both sides of the border, is a terrorist the US State Department designated it thus, and banned it, in 2001. It is reportedly keen on uniting India-controlled Kashmir with Pakistan.
The group has regrouped and revived in the past few years under Masood Azhar’s tutelage; he had founded it in 2000 with help from Pakistan’s intel agency ISI, then Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as well as Osama Bin Laden.
In December 1999, India had released Azhar in exchange for passengers of Indian Airlines IC-814 that was hijacked and flown to Kandahar.
Bloodshed in the past
News18 says this is the worst ever attack security forces on a single day since a separatist campaign broke out in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989, and the bloodiest strike since the May 2002 attack at Army Cantonment in Jammu.
It also comes close to the strike on the Legislative Assembly in 2001, which left 41, including three suicide attackers, dead. However, the scene of Thursday’s attack is more like that at the Commando Training Centre, Lethpora, in 2017, where JeM militants had killed five CRPF personnel.
Notably enough, the Pulwama attack comes more than two years after armed militants entered an army base in the garrison town of Uri, about 102 km from Srinagar, killing at least 18. Eleven days after the attack, the Indian Army conducted retaliatory “surgical strikes” on what it termed “launch pads” used by militants in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Repercussions: India’s response
Thursday’s attack will likely result in retaliation from India, as words like “surgical strike” and “revenge” have already started making the rounds. Furthermore, in view of nuclear arsenal for both nations, India’s next step will have to be strong yet calculated.
Following a high-level meeting in the aftermath of the attack, India revoked Pakistan’s Most Favoured Nation status in condemnation.Regardless of whether military reaction follows such diplomatic sanctions, the political significance of this attack just months ahead of crucial polls will determine India’s next response, especially since the Narendra Modi government has always adopted firmer stances towards terrorism.
In 2018 alone, Indian security forces killed 253 terrorists, more than double the number killed in 2015, according to the MHA, becoming one of the ruling party’s major planks for re-election this year.
At the same time, it has attracted severe criticism for demanding that Pakistan be isolated internationally for its continued support to terror groups but continuing trade relations with it in the wake of the Uri attack.
Taking stern action
By revoking the MFN status, awarded to an international trade partner to ensure non-discriminatory trade between all partner countries of the WTO, India has asserted its commitment “to take all necessary measures” for national security this time.
According to BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav, “Withdrawal of the Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan was an important tactical step by the government. MEA will undertake major diplomatic initiatives to ensure Pakistan is brought to justice.”
Lt General (Retd) DS Hooda, who oversaw the surgical strike in Uri, told the press, “It’s a big tragedy and Pakistan’s hand is clear in it. There needs to be a response to this. But let’s have a more consistent and long-term policy.” He further told News18 that India “will not be able to surprise Pakistan like in 2016 (surgical strikes) … but we cannot rule out a cross-border strike”.
MEA issues statement
The first official statement from the MEA condemned the “cowardly terrorist attack” in the “strongest terms”.
“This terror group is led by international terrorist Masood Azhar, who has been given full freedom by Government of Pakistan 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,” the statement said.
Urging Pakistan to list Azhar as a UNSC-designated terrorist, India launched a tirade against the neighbouring nation, accusing it of harbouring militant groups and giving them “full freedom” to operate on its territory. China, a veto-wielding member of the UNSC and a close ally of Pakistan, again refused to back India’s bid to list Azhar as a global terrorist, saying there is no consensus in the top organ of the world body on this issue.
Who said what
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his support for all soldiers: “Attack on CRPF personnel in Pulwama is despicable. I strongly condemn this dastardly attack. The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain. The entire nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the families of the brave martyrs. May the injured recover quickly.”
Without naming Pakistan, at a public gathering in Jhansi on Friday, Modi said the attack was an outcome of the country’s desperation. He added that it is in “a bad shape” and is forced to go to different countries with a “begging bowl” to meet even its daily expenses.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, too, condemned the attack: “Attack on CRPF in #Pulwama, J&K is & condemnable act of terrorists. Nation salutes martyred soldiers and we all stand united with families of martyrs. We pray for recovery of the injured. Terrorists will be given unforgettable lesson for their heinous act. (sic)”
He further said the MEA will launch an all-out effort to isolate Pakistan. Even as Jaitley said there was incontrovertible proof of Pakistani hand in the attack, Punjab cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu said terrorism has no country or religion.
State leaders Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah also issued strongly-worded tweets against the attack, condemning the attackers and urging the Centre to tackle terrorism, which continues to claim uncountable lives in the Valley. Solidarity also started pouring in from all corners as Opposition and regional leaders expressed their sympathies and shock.
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has thrown full support behind the government, while Modi in a historic first, called for an all-party meeting in the wake of the Pulwama attack on Saturday.
Response from celebrities
Calling the Pulwama attack a heinous crime, lyricist-screenwriter Javed Akhtar and wife, actor Shabana Azmi, have declined the invitation to appear at a Karachi Art Council programme on poet Kaifi Azmi in Pakistan.
Actor Akshay Kumar, who once ran an online crowdfunding campaign for the welfare of armed forces, said he was “numb beyond belief”. “May God give peace to their souls, and strength to their grieving families. Wishing the injured a speedy recovery. We can’t let this be forgotten,” the actor was reported as saying.
Actor Vicky Kaushal who played a leading role in the recently released Bollywood rendition of the Uri attack also tweeted: “Deeply saddened and shocked to hear the news of the terror attack in #Pulwama. My heart goes out to the families of the brave CRPF soldiers we lost today and praying for the speedy recovery of those injured.”
Pakistan and global community react
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement hours after the attack, describing it as “a matter of grave concern”.
“We have always condemned acts of violence anywhere in the world,” the statement said, further rejecting any insinuation by “elements in the Indian media and government that seek to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations”. The office of Pakistan PM Imran Khan has not an official response yet.
Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka, South Korea, China, the US have all expressed solidarity with Modi, condemning the attack.
What’s next and why that should matter to you
Every time militants stage an attack on Indian forces in Kashmir, it refreshes memories of the tumultuous history between the two nations, dating back to the Partition.
Kashmir remains as bitterly contested by India and Pakistan now as it was back in 1947; there have been three wars in the intervening period and several skirmishes, standoffs, stalemates, and a frequently violated Line of Control. Tensions between both nations have grown more volatile in recent times.
Separatist violence in the region has killed more than 47,000 people since 1989, not including cases of missing persons or disappearances. Rights groups and NGOs have put the death toll at double this number, with the UNHRC sounding an ultimatum for India and Pakistan to resolve the border dispute.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the attack, Jammu is tense after massive protests broke out, injuring 12; some parts are currently under curfew for fear of communal backlash.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba, and Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik met officials in Srinagar Friday evening to take stock of the situation and formulate an adequate response to the attack.
Besides this, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale summoned Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan Ajay Bisaria and his Pakistani counterpart Sohail Mahmood for consultations.
Meanwhile, the CRPF has submitted a report to the MHA citing several grievances—its buses offer no protection from bullets or IEDs and traffic for civil vehicles is allowed during movement of CRPF convoys.
Among the deceased were soldiers hailing from West Bengal, Kashmir, Punjab, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Odisha among others. The respective state governments have announced compensation for the bereaved families.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius