In the deadliest attack targeting security forces in Indian Kashmir since the insurgency began, more than 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed in a suicide attack on February 14. The attack involved an explosive-laden car ramming into two buses of a CRPF convoy on a highway near Letpora, 20 kilometers from the capital of Srinagar. The rather large convoy of 78 vehicles was travelling from Jammu to Srinagar after incessant snowfall had held up traffic for days. The impact of the explosion was such that it was heard up to 10 km away from the blast site. Pictures in the immediate aftermath of the blast showed gory images of dead bodies scattered on the road, with confusion reigning supreme.
Within minutes, the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack through a video message. It showed a message from the purported suicide bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar, a Kashmiri from the village of Gundibagh, a few miles away from the blast site. In the 10-minute long video, Dar mentioned that he had joined the suicide squad in 2018.
“I am known by name of Waqas. I joined JeM suicide squad a year back. After a year’s wait, today is that desired day for which I joined JeM. And I have this expectation from my Allah, by the time this video reaches you, I will be enjoying in heaven… Oh Kashmiris you are the soldiers of world’s most ancient freedom struggle. From past seven decades you gave hundreds of thousands of lives but didn’t lose courage…” he can be seen saying in the video.
As soon as the JeM claimed responsibility, the Indian government lost no time in pinning the blame on Pakistan for nurturing the group. The deadly nature of the attack and the number of casualties sparked anger in India, with many demanding an end to terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Many urged a repeat of the surgical raid carried out by the Indian Special Forces on terrorist launchpads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in October 2016, in response to the attack on Indian Army’s Uri brigade headquarters in north Kashmir in September 2016. The fact that the Pulwama attack was more lethal than Uri only reinforced those calls.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed that those who carried out the attack will pay a high price for it. Speaking at a public meeting in Maharashtra on February 16, Modi announced that Indian forces have been given a free hand to punish the masterminds of the suicide bombing.
On February 18, in a swift move, Indian security forces killed three JeM militants in an encounter not very far from the site of the attack. The forces claimed that the militants were involved in the CRPF attack.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, some Kashmiris took to the social media to claim that the attack was revenge for India’s alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. Many also flagged the attack as an “inside job,” designed to help Modi’s election campaign.
In the supercharged emotional atmosphere post-attack, many Indians took offense to this narrative, combined with the fact that the suicide bomber was a Kashmiri. The result: Many cities in India reported cases of targeted violence against Kashmiri students and business people by right wing groups.
As per reports, members of Yuva Sena, a right-wing organization, attacked Kashmiri students in Maharashtra on February 20. In other cases, academic institutions expelled Kashmiri students for posting objectionable content on social media about the attack. In one instance, two nursing students from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh were expelled by the college authorities for posting anti-India comments on social media after the attack.
In another instance of targeted violence, a video surfaced on social media showing a Kashmiri man being beaten in Kolkata, West Bengal by a mob which forced him to chant patriotic slogans like “Vande Mataram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai.” The Diplomat couldn’t independently verify the authenticity of the video.
These reports created panic among Kashmiris, with anxious families in the valley asking their family members to quickly return home.
Zahid Ahmad, from south Kashmir, was one such student who was studying in a college in Punjab. He had to return home. “Though Punjab is safe, we were threatened and abused by the people when we ventured out of our rented room to buy some goods. People told us to leave the place,” Zahid told The Diplomat.
“We have been staying indoors for the past week. Even though we have come back home now, it’s temporary. After all we have to go back, study and complete our course,” he added.
Javid Ahmad had returned to the valley amid this violence from Amritsar in Punjab four days after the Pulwama attack. To get home, he had to cross Jammu, where authorities had imposed a curfew.
Ahmad told The Diplomat, “We reached home safely but were fearful due to the prevailing situation. Even drivers at Jammu railway station refused to ferry us to the nearby areas. However, on Jammu-Srinagar national highway, police ushered us to travel with the Army convoy as there was fear of getting attacked by the protesters.”
The valley observed a shutdown on February 17 in response to the violence. Government employees and civilians held a protest the next day at several places in Srinagar, demanding safety for Kashmiris who reside outside the valley.
Amidst this violence, Tathagata Roy, governor of Meghalaya, one of the northeastern states, called for a boycott of “everything Kashmiri,” including the Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage and purchasing products from the state. Tweeting on February 19, Roy said, “An appeal from a retired colonel of the Indian Army: Don’t visit Kashmir, don’t go to Amarnath for the next 2 years. Don’t buy articles from Kashmir emporia or Kashmiri tradesman who come every winter. Boycott everything Kashmiri. I am inclined to agree.”
Many in India condemned Roy’s outbursts as well as the violence against Kashmiri students and traders. Journalists and civil society activists posted messages on social media throwing their homes open to any Kashmiri in distress or facing harassment.
Prominent journalist Rajdeep Sardesai took to Twitter with a message of support. “Want to tell any Kashmiri student out there, if you are being targeted in any manner, feel free to call/DM me. My home and heart is open to you as are that of thousands of right thinking Indians. Let’s fight forces of violence together: you don’t have to bear the cross of terror,” he wrote.
This violence led to the Indian Home Ministry directing the police authorities in various states to ensure the security of Kashmiris, with even the Supreme Court directing the states to do the same.
While these developments continued, India has stepped up the diplomatic pressure on Pakistan — with New Delhi stripping Islamabad of its “Most Favored Nation” status and imposing tariffs on Pakistani goods and recalling the Indian ambassador in Islamabad back home for consultations. Responding decisively is a compulsion for Modi, as general elections are only a few weeks away and his party doesn’t want to lose the narrative of strength on national security. Sure enough, early on February 26, Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters reportedly struck a terror training camp in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The attack in Pulwama was preceded by the deadliest year in Kashmir’s recent history, with 2018 witnessing 361 deaths as per official statistics, including 238 militants, 37 civilians, and 86 security forces personnel. However, figures from human rights activists put the death toll as more than 500. An increased level of violence has been observed since 2016, when a rise in local militancy resulted in more encounters and anti-India street protests.
Many in Kashmir believe that this violence is unlikely to stop until Kashmir reaches a concrete political solution.
Sheikh Showkat Hussain, an academic from Kashmir, told The Diplomat, “There will be no end to this bloodshed, unless some concrete solution is taken to solve the Kashmir dispute.”
“Our mornings start with news of violence and killings. We have seen the violence and have been losing human lives whether in small or big installments,” he added.
He faults the central government for its incorrect appreciation of the street protests.
“Militancy regained ground because the mass protests of 2008-2010 were never responded [to by the central government]. Once the agitation ended, the government of India came with the same rhetoric that everything is normal, people have participated in elections, and separatists have no role. This further fueled the agitated youth to take up arms,” Hussain said.
Now it seems that the region is headed for more turbulent times. Ahead of the hearing on Article 35A, which gives special privileges to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian constitution, the Indian government on February 23 launched a crackdown against Kashmiri separatist leaders and the Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious organization. The government has also rushed in 100 additional companies of paramilitary forces to ensure law and order in Kashmir.
Amid this chaos, authorities are preparing to hold elections for the national parliament and the state legislature in the coming months. However, it is anybody’s guess how the region’s security situation will pan out until that time.
Um Roommana is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir.