With India’s general election barely months away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is under heavy pressure from his supporters to punish Pakistan for a suicide attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy that killed at least 42 soldiers in India-administered Kashmir.
India placed the blame for Thursday’s bombing squarely on neighbouring Pakistan, which India accuses of supporting rebels in Kashmir, a charge that Islamabad denies.
A look at some of the retaliatory steps India is likely to consider:
India’s first public reaction to the attack was to withdraw the most-favoured nation (MFN) trade status given to Pakistan and take all possible diplomatic steps “to ensure the complete isolation from international community of Pakistan”.
New Delhi insists “incontrovertible evidence is available of [Pakistan] having a direct hand in this gruesome terrorist incident”.
The Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that the armed group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), headquartered in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack.
India’s foreign ministry on Friday briefed New Delhi-based diplomats from key countries, including China, which has in the past blocked its proposal to list Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a “designated terrorist” by the United Nations.
The ministry demanded Pakistan take “immediate and verifiable action against terrorists and terror groups operating from territories under its control to create conducive atmosphere in the region free of terror”.
Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua rejected allegations about its involvement in the attack, saying on Saturday that it was part of New Delhi’s “known rhetoric and tactics” to divert global attention from human rights violations.
After a 2016 attack on an Indian army base that killed 19 soldiers, India’s army said it carried out a campaign of “surgical strikes” against fighters across the highly militarised frontier that divides the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan.
Pakistan dismissed reports that India’s military had targeted “terrorist launch pads” inside the Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Islamabad said that two of its soldiers were killed in “unprovoked” firing by India across the border.
Following the latest attack – the worst against Indian government forces in Kashmir’s history – Modi warned that those behind it would pay a heavy price and that security forces have been given a free hand to act against violence.
The Times of India newspaper reported on Saturday that the military options – short of two nuclear-armed rivals going to war – could range from “shallow ground-based attacks and occupation of some heights along the Line of Control [ceasefire line] to restricted but precision air strikes against non-state targets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”.
G Parthasarthy, India’s former high commissioner to Pakistan, said a possible military response can’t be discussed in public.
“We have said that Pakistan will pay a price,” he said. “For obvious reasons, we are not going to spell out how that cost would be imposed.”
Paul Staniland, a political science professor and South Asia expert at the University of Chicago, said Pakistan’s army is assuming it will be attacked and that Indian forces are preparing for a serious incursion of some sort.
Indian analysts say political parties will be watching public reaction closely ahead of India’s election. Already, protesters have chanted “attack Pakistan” and fiery debates on television channels demanded retaliation.
“I think the situation is extremely tense,” said Amitabh Mattoo, professor of international studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“The mood in the country is extremely angry at what has happened. And moreover, there are elections in the offing. No party could afford to neglect public opinion.”
Staniland said the stakes are too high for India to do nothing at all.
“Modi is in a tricky position,” he said. “Indian forces are quite capable, but it’s not obvious what kinds of strikes would accomplish the core goal. Kashmir and Pakistan are among the few foreign policy topics that have real electoral resonance.”
The general election is scheduled to be held in less than two months.
The United States singled out Pakistan in a statement condemning the attack and said it had strengthened US resolve to bolster counterterrorism cooperation with India.
To improve India’s military capabilities, the US has offered to sell it unarmed Guardian surveillance drones, aircraft carrier technologies and F-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft.
There are sticking points, however, including the purchase by India of Iranian oil and the Russian S-400 ground-to-air missile system, which could trigger US sanctions on India.
Kashmir has remained a challenge for India’s policymakers ever since the Himalayan territory was split between India and Pakistan shortly after the two archrivals gained independence in 1947.
The territory has been at the heart of two of India’s wars out of the four the country has fought against Pakistan and China.
Human rights groups say India has been responding to public protests with disproportionate force while treating the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination as Islamabad’s proxy war against New Delhi.
New Delhi initially grappled with largely peaceful anti-India protests.
However, a series of political blunders, broken promises and a crackdown on dissent led to Kashmir’s eruption into a full-blown armed rebellion against India in 1989 for a united Kashmir, either under Pakistani rule or independent of both countries. Indian forces largely crushed the rebellion in the mid-2000s.
But the conflict intensified after Modi came to power in 2014 amid rising attacks by Hindu hardliners against minorities in India, further deepening frustration with New Delhi’s rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has toughened its stance both against Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists.
Policy experts say such an approach is intended to project the party as strong and uncompromising.
But Modi’s policies have also had the unintended consequence of strengthening the resolve of those fighting for an end to India’s rule in Kashmir.
View from Pakistan
After Imran Khan took over as Pakistan’s prime minister last August, he promised to take two steps forward for every one step by India to forge friendly ties.
He said Kashmir was at the core of their differences, and that the countries have to end the tit-for-tat accusations.
But the peace initiative remained a nonstarter, with violence rising in the Indian portion of Kashmir and India asking Pakistan to stop supporting armed rebels.
Khan has now proposed to hold talks with India after its election. The former cricketer is quite popular in India.
He recently offered to open a Sikh religious shrine for Indian visitors on the Pakistani side of the border in Punjab province as a peace gesture.
But in September, India pulled the plug on a rare meeting between its foreign minister and her Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of a UN summit – a move that was termed “arrogant” by Khan and unleashed a barrage of insults from both sides.
India says it has not seen any constructive approach from Pakistan.