The suicide bomb that killed 44 soldiers south of Srinagar in the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir is the most deadly single attack that Indian security forces have suffered since the beginning of the insurgency in 1990.

Comparisons are being made with the J&K Legislative Assembly attack in 2001 that led to the killing of 38 people. Both dramas saw a suicide bomber ram a car loaded with explosives on to a target. And both were orchestrated by the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

The terrorist group was created by Maulana Masood Azhar, a terrorist released by India in exchange for hostages on board an Indian Airlines flight that was hijacked to Kandahar in 1999 by four Pakistan-based terrorists. Azhar has been based in Pakistan carrying out attacks on Indian targets through Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The main difference was in the Legislative Assembly attack the suicide bomber was a Pakistani, Wajahat Hussain, while Thursday’s bombing between Lethpora and Pulwama allegedly involved a local JeM recruit, Adil Ahmad Dar, who joined the outfit last year.

Despite the deep currents of Sunni radicalism in Kashmir’s militancy, suicide bombings have been rare. But there has been no dearth of Pakistani “fidayeen” or suicide attackers carrying out such missions in the Valley.

The only other local known to be suicide bomber is Afaq Ahmad Shah, a Class 12 student who blew himself in a car while attacking the 15 Corps headquarters in Badami Bagh in Srinagar in May 2001.

Jump in youths joining militants

This incident follows the steady rise of local recruits drawn to militants. From the mid-1990s to 2015, militancy was a Pakistani affair in terms of those fighting in the Valley. But this has changed over the last three years, especially in south Kashmir. At the same time the infiltration of Pakistani militants, mainly from the Jaish-e-Mohammad group allegedly involved in the attack yesterday, continues.

Suicide bombers are usually psychologically vulnerable or young people groomed to undertake such missions by older people highly skilled at their task. Given the three-decade history of violence in the valley and recent flare-ups, there is no shortage of potential recruits for suicide bombing. What is worrying security officials is that people in the state may be grooming terrorist bombers.

The attack near Lethpora, 30km southeast of Srinagar, will compel Indian security forces to ramp up security. Analysts have said it was lucky the attack did not involve more gunmen, as casualties could have been greater because as many as 2,500 army and paramilitary personnel were moving at the time in different buses in a huge convoy.

Jaish-e-Mohammed was also responsible for an attack in Uri, west of Srinagar, that killed 19 Indian Army soldiers in September 2016. But that involved attackers who came from across the border 10km away.

The latest attack could be classed as a militant exercise as it targeted the paramilitary. The distinction is important because the Indian policy in Kashmir describes such acts as terrorism. Elsewhere, however, a terror attack is only one that targets civilians.

A damaged bus is towed away after the deadly attack on the paramilitary convoy in Kashmir on Thursday. Photo: AFP

Has government strategy inflamed insurgency?

Questions are now being asked about the Modi government’s counter-terrorism strategy in Kashmir. The government began ‘Operation All Out’ aimed at finishing the insurgency, but this appears to have reinvigorated the insurgency.

Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said the number of local youths joining the militancy dipped to 16 in 2013 from 54 in 2010. But it went up to 66 in 2015 before reaching 88 in 2016, 126 in 2017 and 170 in 2018. Last year saw the deadliest militancy in a decade with 238 militants, 86 security force personnel and 37 civilians killed in the state, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

However, government spokesmen insist that the militancy is on its last legs.

The Modi government has a complex problem in dealing with Kashmir. The BJP’s forbear — the Bharatiya Jana Sangh — has strong roots in Jammu and its raison d’etre, as it were, was opposition to any kind of special status for Jammu & Kashmir. That hinders its capacity to enter into negotiations with separatists in the valley.

The second is that in invoking muscular nationalism, the Modi government feels compelled to take a hard line in dealing with militants in the north. The “surgical strikes” in September 2016, in response to the attack in Uri, were shallow events that took out a number of militant launch pads.

But they failed in their primary mission — to deter Pakistan from carrying out similar attacks in the future. Within two months, JeM militants struck again in Nagrota, the HQ of the 16 Corps, killing two officers, five soldiers and three civilians. And the government has done little as Pakistani attacks continued, through to 2018 when the Sunjuwan camp at the outskirts of Jammu was attacked, killing 11 soldiers and one civilian.

The concept of deterrence rests on two legs: first, that an adversary knows that any attack will be met by immediate retaliation and, second, that the deterring party has the capacity to hit back.

The Modi government went out of its way to publicize retaliation through the so-called surgical strikes in 2016, but failed miserably to follow up the action because it seems to lack the capability to follow through. “Surgical strikes” often do not work out like the Bollywood version that Modi has been reveling in of late. There are high risks involved in any operation across the Line Of Control, and with an election looming, this may prove more daunting than expected.