Indian security forces drive to the site of an attack on an army and police convoy that killed 42, south of Srinagar on February 14. Photo: AFP

In the aftermath of a terror attack which killed 42 policemen in Pulwama, Kashmir, tensions continue to rise between India and Pakistan. India has accused Pakistan of “harboring terrorists” after a video of the suicide bomber emerged claiming that he was an Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) operative.

The increased pressure between the two nuclear-armed neighbors has led to mass panic in Kashmir, and rumors of a possible war are rife. The local government is stocking up on essentials on a war-footing, fueling rumors that India is preparing for military action against Pakistan soon. The state is currently under Governor’s rule after the ruling coalition fell apart, which means the federal government controls the state until elections are held again.

‘War-like preparations’

The “unusual exigency” in stocking essentials came on the same day that the federal Ministry of Home Affairs started airlifting an additional 100 companies of paramilitary forces, including the Central Police Reserve Force, Border Security Forces and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police to snow-bound Kashmir valley.

The federal government says this additional deployment was made to halt any further terror attacks and senior intelligence and military officials in New Delhi insisted that the measures were preventative and there was no scope for any war with Pakistan at this stage.

The Supreme Court is also likely to hear a petition challenging Article 35A of the Indian Constitution that gives special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. If the Supreme Court abrogates Article 35A, this would be a major flashpoint that could lead to massive protests in Kashmir.

A senior official told Asia Times that government hospitals have been asked to keep adequate stocks ready for “any emergency.” In another sudden development, the winter vacations for all educational institutions in Kashmir have been extended until March 5, while the government has started a crackdown on separatist leaders who advocate that Kashmir should be a part of Pakistan.

As per a colonial British law, those with princely status were asked to choose between India or Pakistan at the time of partition in 1947. The ruling monarch of Jammu and Kashmir chose India and signed an instrument of accession, which is disputed by Pakistan.

The unusual developments led to chaos and confusion in the Valley, with protests and spontaneous shutdowns called in several places. There are also reports that the Indian Army is beefing up its positions in the Karnah sector along the Line of Control with Pakistan. People are hoarding fuel and essential supplies and most gas retail outlets in the state went dry on Saturday night.  While the local government is tight-lipped, a senior functionary downplayed the unusual developments.

India and Pakistan have fought three of their four wars over Kashmir since their partition following independence from Britain in 1947.

Sleepless nights

Government sources said that on the nights of February 22 and 23, the state’s most senior official, chief secretary BVR Subramanian and the director general of police, Dilbagh Singh, were at a police control room monitoring developments, including the mobilization of additional police forces being airlifted to Kashmir in an overnight operation. This continued until 3 am on Saturday, government sources confirmed. Hundreds of buses from the Kashmir Motor Division, a private venture, were hired to transport additional forces to the Kashmir valley.

Earlier, on Friday afternoon, the chief secretary chaired a meeting on “war-like preparedness” asking officials to immediately raise adequate supplies of essentials, especially fuel, for the Kashmir Valley. According to officials present at the meeting, they were told that the subsequent import of “such supplies would have to be dedicated mainly to defense forces.” Sources said the emphasis was on the  “streamlining of convoys” bringing essentials through the Srinagar-Jammu national highway, the treacherous route that snakes through the Pir Panjal ranges from Jammu to Kashmir.

Sources said it was the first time that the fuel tankers were being allowed to ferry through the strategic Nashri Tunnel, a nine-kilometer path that shortens distance between the Jammu and Srinagar by around 30 kilometers.

“The chief secretary was informed that stock of essentials for around seven million people living in Kashmir was depleting in the wake of frequent closure of the national highway due to rough weather since February 4,” a senior official said. The chief secretary is understood to have subsequently called up Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) officials in New Delhi to ensure delivery of petrol and diesel “as a top priority.”

Similar meetings were also held in some borders districts. Official documents accessed by Asia Times reveal that District Development Commissioner, Rajouri district, Mohammad Aijaz Asad, convened a  meeting in the district.

“Threadbare discussions were held on various issues related to border areas. [They] included the ongoing construction of border bunkers, accommodation, status of under construction individual and community bunkers, status of ration supply along with movement plan for transportation of ration and essential supplies at various locations, transportation arrangements, livestock arrangements, and critical care ambulances available in the district,” the minutes of the meeting stated.

People living close to the Indian Air Force base in the summer capital of Srinagar, said that “for the past around 24 hours, warplanes and helicopters have been hovering over the airfield without a break.”

Crackdown on separatists

While the additional deployment of paramilitary forces were being rushed in, the government has started a crackdown on separatist leaders. The Jammu and Kashmir Police detained separatist leader and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front Chairman Yasin Malik and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) cadres. The detentions coincide with of the Supreme Court hearing on Article 35A, expected on Monday.

In an interview with a private news channel, the Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that if Pakistan is ready for war, India is “not behind.” The Indian government has vowed to avenge the suicide bombing masterminded by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based group.

This is also an election year and prime minister Narendra Modi is keen to retain power for another five years. In 2014, Modi repeatedly attacked the then Congress-led coalition government for failing to prevent terror attacks. However, a spate of terror attacks has now come back to haunt his pre-2014 rhetoric. A much hyped fictional film on a series of commando raids by Indian Special Forces in September 2016, released in January this year, was aimed at adding to the political propaganda for Modi and his ruling BJP. However, the Pulwama attack severely dented that spiel.

Meanwhile, Islamabad has warned residents of Pakistan-administered parts of Kashmir along the Line of Control of a possible Indian attack, and asked them to take precautions and report suspicious activity. Expressing concern on a standoff between India and Pakistan, US President Donald Trump said: “It’s a very dangerous situation between the two countries. Right now there (are) a lot of problems between India and Pakistan because of what happened.”

Despite repeated attempts the chief secretary and the director general of police did not respond to requests for a comment.

However, the Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir Baseer Ahmed Khan, ruled out any preparedness for war. “Basically we are reviewing the supply positions in the wake of highway closure. Petroleum stocks especially that of petrol and diesel had been depleting fast and we had to seek intervention of the worthy Chief Secretary,” Khan told Asia Times. And the state’s former chief minister, Omar Abdullah took to Twitter to raise concerns about the panic in the Kashmir Valley and urged the federal government to take appropriate measures to reassure citizens.

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