NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has long been known for his hard-line stance on Pakistan. It was a major part of the campaign that swept him to power.
But even with his own officials saying a recent attack on an Indian military base was launched by Pakistan-based militants, Modi is relying on diplomacy more than saber-rattling.
In large part, this is because Modi and Indian forces already must defuse the massive and relentless anti-India protests that have swept its portion of Kashmir, triggered by the killing of a young rebel leader more than two months ago. The unrest has led to a clampdown by security forces that often left the Kashmir Valley under curfew, with schools, universities and businesses shut through the summer tourist season.
Also, with China standing solidly behind Pakistan, India does not want to face both of them — either diplomatically or militarily — given India’s festering border dispute with Beijing. India suffered a humiliating loss in a bloody war with China in 1962. And today, all three countries have nuclear weapons.
Gul Mohammad Wani, a political science professor at the University of Kashmir, said Friday that the region’s strategic environment made it difficult for New Delhi to try any kind of military adventurism.
“China is openly favoring Pakistan,” he said. Plus: “Near daily protests against India in Kashmir don’t go well with New Delhi’s strategic military planning.”
On Sunday, militants slipped into an Indian army base in Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing at least 18 soldiers. Four militants were killed in the attack, which occurred near the highly militarized Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over control of Kashmir since they won independence from British colonialists in 1947.
Indian investigators say maps, weapons and other evidence indicated the fighters were from Jaish-e-Mohammed, an outlawed militant group based in Pakistan. In January, India blamed Pakistan for an attack on an Indian air force base close to the Pakistan border that left seven soldiers dead.
On Friday, Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria denied Pakistani involvement in Sunday’s attack.
“They have a tendency of making such allegations whenever some incident takes place in India, especially in Kashmir,” he told state-run Pakistan Television.
But many of Modi’s supporters and members of his Bharatiya Janata Party say India must hit back hard. “We will take revenge,” said Indresh Kumar, a Hindu nationalist leader.
That’s the sort of reaction many in the BJP expected from Modi after the Sunday attack. Instead, little has happened at all.
“The strategic thinkers in the country know very well that any kind of military strike by India is likely to lead to a war,” Wani said. “In such a scenario, nuclear confrontation is a real possibility. There are extreme difficulties in that option. After all, these (nuclear weapons) are not merely political weapons.”
Modi’s handling of this crisis stands in sharp contrast to what happened after suspected Pakistani militants attacked India’s Parliament in 2001. Both countries came close to a fourth war then, massing hundreds of thousands of troops in Kashmir and remaining in a state of standoff for 11 months. Tensions eventually cooled after intensive international diplomacy.
Modi’s BJP was in power then also. Then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, facing immense public pressure, scaled down diplomatic ties with Pakistan, stopped trans-border train services and banned overflights by Pakistani aircraft.
While Modi also has these options, so far he has preferred confronting Pakistan diplomatically, said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the United States.
“It is a sign of maturity that the Modi government is keeping all options open, but giving priority to diplomacy,” he said. “You could see that diplomacy has virtually isolated Pakistan, as we saw at the United Nations when Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif found very few takers.”
In a Wednesday speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Sharif strongly criticized India’s suppression of protests in Kashmir, calling for an independent inquiry into killings there and a U.N. fact-finding mission to investigate what he called India’s “brutalities.” Diplomatic broadsides followed, with an Indian diplomat calling Pakistan a “terrorist state” and Pakistan’s foreign ministry offering support to Kashmiris’ “movement for freedom from Indian oppression.”
The South Asian nations’ dispute over Kashmir is a perennial topic at the annual gathering of world leaders, but most countries now favor settling the dispute by India and Pakistan through direct talks.
In Pakistan, a senior foreign ministry official said Friday that Islamabad will “carefully weigh any diplomatic initiative” taken by New Delhi. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
India’s friendship with the United States has helped defuse the situation, Mansingh said.
“We don’t expect Americans to send their forces if we have any conflict. But the fact is that having a powerful country like the United States on your side diplomatically means a lot,” he said.
Associated Press writers Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.