With tit-for-tat airstrikes across a cease-fire line in late February, tensions between India and Pakistan rose to their highest point in years. The two nuclear-armed states have long clashed over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, which each claims as its own. But the situation deteriorated there after a Feb. 14 bombing by a Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, killed 40 Indian paramilitaries in the Pulwama district of Kashmir. It was the deadliest attack in the insurgency that has raged for 30 years in the contested Himalayan region that borders the two countries.
Twelve days later, on Tuesday, India sent jets into Pakistani airspace for the first time since 1971, and bombed what it said was a training camp for Jaish-e-Mohammed for the Feb. 14 attack. (Pakistan denied any such sites were hit.)
India and Pakistan last went to war over Kashmir back in 1999, and now, with Indian elections approaching in April and May, India’s retaliation threatens to escalate tensions even further.
The situation is more fraught than it has been for decades, analysts say, though both sides have kept open the possibility of de-escalation. At least 40 incidents of violence against Kashmiris were recorded across India in the days following the Feb. 14 attack. Here’s what to know.
What happened on Tuesday?
The two sides gave contesting versions of events on Tuesday. India said that “a large number” of militants were killed by the Indian air strike, which it said was targeted at a training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the terrorist organization that claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 suicide bombing.
The camp, New Delhi said, was in Balakot — an area inside territory that both sides agree to be Pakistan. The Associated Press quoted residents from a village nearby who said they heard explosions.
But Pakistan rejected India’s description of the attack, instead saying that the Indian jets were forced into a “hasty withdrawal” by the Pakistani air force, and that the bombs were dropped onto an open area, causing no casualties. Pakistan released pictures on social media showing what appeared to be a blast site in a forested area.
The office of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, said India had justified Tuesday’s bombing using a “fictitious claim.” A spokesperson said in a statement, “India has committed uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing.”
Then what happened?
On Wednesday, Pakistan launched strikes of its own. It said it had shot down at least one Indian jet that it claimed had strayed into its airspace on an apparent retaliatory mission, and captured a pilot.
The two sides also traded mortar fire across the line of control in Kashmir, and Islamabad said shells killed six Pakistani civilians.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said the captured Indian air force pilot, named as Abhinandan Varthaman, would be released on Mar. 1: “We have an Indian pilot. As a peace gesture we will release him tomorrow,” Khan told parliament. Khan also said he attempted to hold a telephone call with Indian PM Narendra Modi on Wednesday night, but did not succeed.
How might this affect the upcoming Indian elections?
With Indian elections approaching in April and May, the events in Kashmir have taken on a political charge. Analysts say Modi, who is seeking reelection for a second term, stands to benefit from the warlike atmosphere.
“For Modi, this is an opportunity to do what he likes to do most — project the aura of ‘strong leadership’,” says Sumantra Bose, Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.
“This kind of militarized, hyper-nationalist atmosphere pretty much makes it impossible for any opposition party to take a stand that is more sane, or more conducive to peace and dialogue,” says Nitasha Kaul, of the University of Westminster’s Center for the Study of Democracy. “Essentially there’s an atmosphere in which there is no political voice that is asking the question that needs to be asked, which is: How does this make anyone more secure?”
Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India’s main opposition Congress Party, posted one tweet after the air force bombing on Tuesday: “I salute the pilots of the IAF [Indian Air Force].”
The attack, Kaul says, also looks set to take the wind out of a growing feeling of momentum against the BJP in the runup to the election. “The BJP lost in three state elections at the end of last year, and there has been a huge wave of protests by farmers,” Kaul says. “So there was this pressure on the BJP and this feeling that they might not come to power again. And the events of the last three weeks have undone so much of that momentum.”
What’s the background to the attack?
Kashmir has been a contested region ever since the partition of British India in 1947. The Muslim-majority state is claimed by both India and Pakistan, and has been divided between the two countries by a “line of control” ever since a 1971 ceasefire agreement. India’s airstrikes on Tuesday marked the first time since the end of that war that India has sent planes over the line of control.
An insurgency in Kashmir has been raging since 1989, and violence has escalated since the BJP came to power in 2014, including widespread protests in 2016-17 in which thousands of civilians were injured. Groups calling for Kashmiri independence, or even accession to Pakistan, regularly square off against Indian armed forces, which are often referred to as occupants by Kashmiris. “Anyone who has been there should not be in any doubt about the level of alienation,” Kaul, who is from Kashmir, says. “When there are pitched gun battles between Indian security forces and militants, the villagers come out and pelt stones at the soldiers.”
Kashmir, which under India’s constitution is granted a “special status” of more autonomy from central government than other states, has been a used by Prime Minister Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a political symbol for decades. The state has become a byword for Indian national unity and strength against Pakistan, even as its alienated citizens turn out to vote in single-digit turnouts and 41% of adults suffer from depression.
The Hindu nationalist BJP believes that the “special status” of Jammu and Kashmir must be abolished, arguing that Hindu-majority India must not bend its constitutional rules for Muslim-majority Kashmir, and instead follow the principle of “one country, one constitution.” This approach, tapping into long-running hostility between India and Pakistan and tensions within Indian society between Hindus and Muslims, has historically played well with Hindu nationalists in elections.
Accordingly, Modi took a hard line in response to the suicide bombing that caused the deaths of 42 Indians on Feb. 14. “The blood of the people is boiling,” he said before Tuesday’s airstrikes, pledging that Pakistan would “pay a heavy price” for the attack. The same calculus could inform his next steps, too.
So, what could those next steps be?
The situation could deteriorate further. But nuclear war, analysts reckon, is still only a fringe possibility. “The costs of that — mutually assured destruction — are prohibitive even if this escalates further,” says Bose.
Islamabad has said its attacks had purposely avoided military or civilian areas, and Indian political leaders have remained notably tight-lipped.
“The whole point of nuclear weapons is that they’re meant to be a deterrent,” Kaul says, but points out that we won’t always know if things are under control. “The worst case is another war. But short of the worst case, too, this is not going to make anything better for Kashmir.”
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Pakistani military said it would be “insane to talk about” using nuclear weapons. But even as U.S. and North Korean leaders met in Vietnam to discuss denuclearization, Kashmir provided a reminder that North Korea isn’t the world’s only nuclear flashpoint.