17 soldiers killed in Uri • Call for 'a jaw for a tooth'

By Charu Sudan Kasturi and Our Bureau
  • Published 19.09.16
Smoke rises from the army camp during the terror attack at Uri in Kashmir on Sunday. (PTI)

New Delhi, Sept. 18: Raiders killed 17 Indian soldiers this morning near the border town of Uri in Kashmir, ratcheting up bilateral tension amid a clamour for action from within the country that included a call for "a complete jaw for a tooth".

Most of the soldiers were burnt alive in a tent that caught fire when four "foreign" terrorists opened fire. (See chart)

The political leadership reacted with fury. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the "despicable attack will not go unpunished" and home minister Rajnath Singh bluntly called Pakistan a terrorist state.

The strongest reaction came from Ram Madhav, the BJP general secretary and Jammu and Kashmir minder posted on Facebook: "The Prime Minister has promised that those behind the Uri attack will not go unpunished. That should be the way forward. For one tooth, the complete jaw. Days of so-called strategic restraint are over. If terrorism is the instrument of the weak and the coward, restraint in the face of repeated terror attacks betrays inefficiency and incompetence. India should prove otherwise."

Pakistan described the charges as "unfounded and premature" and asked India to share "actionable intelligence". But Islamabad did not condemn the attack till this evening - in sharp contrast with the decorous stand it adopted during the Pathankot airbase attack.

Deliberately, the Indian foreign ministry remained mum officially on the Uri attack today, even as Rajnath, Modi and defence minister Manohar Parrikar issued statements suggestive of an Indian response.

The silence from the foreign office was calculated to leave open the suspense on whether that response would be purely diplomatic, or one including a cross-border special operation along the lines of one the army conducted in Myanmar in 2015.

Analysts caution that any military response to today's attack risks triggering a larger war - unlike in the case of Myanmar, which too expressed displeasure - unless it is preceded by a carefully constructed international consensus.

Such a consensus appears elusive at the moment, with the US, in the heat of an unpredictable election campaign, unlikely to tilt too far for India, officials accepted.

The state department said today: "The United States strongly condemns the terrorist attack... The United States is committed to our strong partnership with the Indian government to combat terrorism."

India is planning to directly bombard key international partners and the UN with evidence pointing to Pakistan's links to the Uri terrorists, breaking with tradition and revealing a deeper breach with Islamabad than even after the Pathankot strike.

The home minister's prompt description of Pakistan as a "terrorist state" and Modi's quick assurance that those responsible "will not go unpunished" represent the public face of this approach.

But at the foreign office, top diplomats huddled through Sunday to try and find a response to the Uri attack that diplomatically pressures Pakistan and fits with the government's tough public posture without setting off a bigger fire in the region.

By evening, the discussions that also involved national security adviser Ajit Doval led to the government picking a strategy very different from what it had after the January 2 Pathankot attack, two senior officials said.

There will be little attempt from the foreign office to try and de-escalate tensions with Pakistan - unlike after Pathankot, when both New Delhi and Islamabad tried for more than a month to portray shared efforts at tracking down the attack's masterminds.

India will avoid its usual practice of sharing first with Pakistan evidence of its links to terror attacks before formally lobbying other countries against Islamabad officials said.

Instead, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will take to the UN this week arguments and dossiers that she will use in meetings with counterparts from other countries, and in an address to the General Assembly likely on September 26 that will echo Rajnath.

"Pakistan is a terrorist state and should be identified and isolated as such," the home minister said early afternoon, even as the army was combing the site of the attack in Uri. "I am deeply disappointed with Pakistan's continued and direct support to terrorism."

The Uri attack has made it even harder than it already was for Modi to travel to Islamabad in November for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit. Modi has highlighted the revival of the Saarc, and regional connectivity, as the cornerstones of his foreign policy.

The immediate aftermath of today's attack also revealed the fast-shrinking scope for any diplomatic détente between the South Asian neighbours, already engaged since July in heated exchanges - including at the UN -- over Kashmir, terrorism and Balochistan.

It took fewer than 10 hours after the Uri attack for Singh to directly name and blame Pakistan. The difference, compared to the Pathankot attack, was stark.

On January 2, while the attack was still ongoing at the air base in Pathankot, Pakistan had issued a statement condemning the strike, and promising all cooperation. Doval and his Pakistan counterpart Nasser Khan Janjua spoke on the telephone repeatedly, and Islamabad set up a joint probe team to investigate the attack.

For days after that attack, both sides tried to minimise any escalation in tensions.

Over the past two months, however, India has stepped up efforts to try and isolate Pakistan on its support for cross-border terrorism - at the UN, bilaterally with key nations, and at the non-aligned movement in Venezuela.

"Terrorism is one of the most egregious sources of human right violations today, and its use as an instrument of State policy is to be unequivocally condemned," Vice President Hamid Ansari, who is heading the Indian delegation at the ongoing NAM summit, said in a speech prepared before the Uri attacks began. "We need to establish a mechanism within our movement that will ensure effective cooperation in combating terrorism, that is the main threat to security, sovereignty and development."