On 14 February, a suicide bomber drove a car filled with explosives into a Central Reserve Police Force convoy at Pulwama, on the Jammu-Srinagar highway, leading to the deaths of at least forty jawans. Soon after, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack. In the days that followed, social-media users and news channels in India led vociferous demands for retaliation against Pakistan. Twelve days after the Pulwama attack, the Indian Air Force conducted strikes in Jabba, a village near the Balakot town of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province—marking India’s first attack in Pakistan territory since the war in 1971, and leading news anchors to heap praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Indian government termed the strikes a “non-military preemptive action” against a JeM training camp in the area, based on intelligence that indicated future attacks by the militant organisation. But subsequent ground reports challenged the veracity of India’s claims about the air strikes. On 27 February, tensions between the nations escalated when a dogfight between the two air forces resulted in India losing a fighter jet, MiG 21 Bison, and in the capture of its pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, across the border. The next day, Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, announced that Varthaman would be released on 1 March as a “peace gesture”—an assurance that was adhered to on the following day. Shortly after the announcement, senior officials of the Indian Air Force, Indian Army and Indian Navy addressed a joint press conference stating, among other things, that the aerial confrontation between the two nations was a result of Pakistan violating Indian airspace.
It remains to be seen whether the release of Varthaman will lead to a de-escalation of the conflict. The Caravan spoke to three defence and foreign-policy experts—Happymon Jacob, an associate professor of disarmament studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s school of international studies; Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor at the same school; and VK Singh, a retired major general of the Indian Army who formerly served in the Research and Analysis Wing—about the circumstances and strategy surrounding India’s response to the Pulwama attack, the public clamour for war, and what lies ahead for the two nations. Edited extracts from these responses are below.