By: John Elliott

A devastating suicide car bomb attack in Jammu and Kashmir that killed some 40 Indian paramilitary personnel in the area’s worst terror incident for decades has united India’s political leadership in tributes to the victims at the same time as the government starts to consider what action to take against Pakistan.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, led government and opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi, Congress president, at an airport ceremony, paying respects as coffins were flown into Delhi. Modi and Gandhi cancelled other public appointments including Priyanka Gandhi’s first press conference as a party general secretary. “We will stand with the government,” said Gandhi.

While the country mourns, questions are being asked about how the incident was allowed to happen, which is significant because the devastating attack highlights failures in the Indian government’s policies on Pakistan and Kashmir, plus inadequate security planning.

Modi now has an opportunity to act tough with Pakistan in the run-up to India’s coming general election due in the next two months. There has been speculation in Delhi for many months that he would find a way to ratchet up tensions in order to win votes. The suicide car bomb attack, with the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror group claiming responsibility, has triggered such an opportunity.

Modi dominated the tribute ceremony (above) for several minutes, standing bowed in front of the coffins and walking alone around them with hands clasped as in prayer. A more modest leader might have taken top military and cabinet leaders with hm, but Modi chose to be the focal point of the ceremony during prime-time evening television,

In an earlier televised address, he said that, “the terrorists have made a big mistake and they will have to pay a very heavy price.” Referring to Pakistan, he added, “We will give a befitting reply, our neighbor will not be allowed to destabilize us.” He had given the army “a free hand.”

The government has canceled Pakistan’s most-favored-nation trading status, which has existed since 1996. Trade between the two countries only amounts to about US$2.4 billion, but the move is symbolic because it marks a new low point in bilateral relations and is intended to send out an international signal. Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, told reporters India would work to ensure the “complete isolation” of Pakistan.

A military strike on terrorist bases across the Line of Control between the two countries is also thought to be under consideration. In September 2016, 10 days after 18 Indian soldiers were killed in an attack on an army camp at Uri –- the last major incident in Kashmir –- India conducted a ‘surgical strike’ against terrorist locations in Pakistan.

19-year old Adil Ahmed Dar in the video made before the suicide bomb blast

Modi has repeatedly played this up as a major initiative to impress his Hindu nationalist electoral vote bank, culminating with a leaked video of the action, and celebrations of the second anniversary last September.

There are also implications for India’s relations with China because the attack enables Modi to speak out aggressively before the election after 10 months of improving relations between the two countries. China continually protects Pakistan and has repeatedly blocked India’s request for the United Nations Security Council to list Masood Azhar, leader of the JeM as a “global terrorist.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman expressed shock and sympathy over the attack, but failed to indicate that China would support India at the UN over Azhar, who has complete freedom of movement in Pakistan.

The seriousness of the situation created by the attack has been emphasized by Modi cancelling a re-election rally in Maharashtra, and by the Congress Party backing the government. Rahul Gandhi, the party president, canceled a lunch with foreign diplomats and his sister Priyanka postponed her first press conference as a party general secretary, following her appointment three weeks ago.

While the JeM has claimed responsibility for the attack, the car carrying the bomb was driven by a 19-year old Indian boy, Adil Ahmed Dar, from the Pulwama district. The JeM released a pre-recorded 10-minute long video statement by Dar in which he says, “By the time this video reaches you, I will be in Heaven.” He criticized India, saying: “your oppression fuels our jihad.”

This illustrates how the Modi government’s aggressive policy on Kashmir, and its failure to engage in dialogue with local interests, has increased the alienation of Kashmiri youth. While not condoning terror atrocities, there have been constant criticisms for many years of the security forces’ tactics and their impact on successive generations of young Kashmiris.

Dar’s family told the Scroll.in news website that they regarded their son, who had joined the terrorist group nearly a year ago, as a martyr. “Nobody talks about the daily blinding of civilians, killings and encounters,” said his father, referring to the security forces. “Why don’t these politicians invite all the parties and find a solution to Kashmir issue?”

Radicalized son

Discussing why his son had been radicalized, Scroll reports that Dar talked about an incident in 2016. “One day, he was returning from his school and men from the STF [security forces] stopped him and made him rub his nose on ground.” The men had forced the boy to make a circle around their jeep with his nose, his father said: “He kept mentioning this incident again and again.”  His son “wanted to become a cleric and had already memorized eight chapters of the Quran.”

Dar drove an SUV with a massive 350kg of explosives at a bus in a convoy of 78 vehicles carrying over 2,500 troops. While security operations had been carried out to ensure there were no landmines or terrorist preparations to fire on the unusually large convoy, no preparations had been made to block or check road vehicles and the highway had been opened to civilian traffic, enabling Dar’s vehicle to have access. This is the latest of a series of security lapses in recent years that the Modi government has failed to correct.

Modi’s policy in relation to Pakistan has been erratic since he was elected in 2014 and he has become increasingly aggressive, playing to his nationalist vote bank in India. The deteriorating relations with Pakistan have worsened the situation in Kashmir where killings and violent confrontations with security forces in the Srinagar valley have increased.

The central government has made no significant moves to restore calm and now is unlikely to do so until after the general election. That indicates a fraught and dangerous two to three months, both in Kashmir and on the Line of Control.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent.  He blogs at Riding the Elephant.