NEW DELHI - The latest dispute between archrivals India and Pakistan centers on whether the Indian army took out several suspected terror camps just across the volatile border in Kashmir. While India claims its special forces carried out preemptive “surgical strikes” last week, Islamabad is adamant that they did not cross the line of control into Pakistan.
The truth may be hard to ascertain in the remote, Himalayan region where the two armies have long faced off and where bouts of heavy cross-border firing is not unusual.
What is certain is that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signaled a more assertive posture in dealing with Pakistan following an attack on an Indian army post in Kashmir that killed 20 soldiers on September 18. New Delhi blamed the attack on Pakistan-based militants.
Officials say in the coming days and weeks, India will explore more diplomatic and economic measures to put pressure on its neighbor and rival, who it has long accused of supporting cross-border attacks by Islamic militant groups.
Analysts warn the tougher line carries the risk of an escalation of hostilities as it takes the South Asian rivals into "uncharted waters."
The head of the strategic studies program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, Harsh Pant, said the fundamental shift in India’s approach follows the failure of past policies after multiple terror attacks.
“This time there was a real focus on making sure that Pakistan pays, not simply in terms of rhetoric, but real costs,” he said. “This is one of the few times when a more comprehensive strategy was adopted.”
Analysts say the army’s “surgical strikes” were a signal that India can retaliate. That is a reversal from its restraint in the past when fear of hostilities turning nuclear held India back. “The issue was India was losing its credibility in its conventional deterrent,” according to Pant.
WATCH: Pakistan Questions India's Alleged Surgical Strikes
Pakistan denies the Indian allegations of supporting militant groups mounting attacks in India and says the real problem is alleged human rights violations by Indian security forces in Indian Kashmir that have triggered unrest in the region.
But blaming Pakistan-based groups for fomenting unrest, India has said it will isolate Pakistan diplomatically.
The first casualty has been a South Asian summit that was canceled by Islamabad after five out of eight nations in the group, led by India, pulled out citing concerns about cross-border terror.
There have been several calls for India, South Asia’s largest country, to explore the possibility of forging a regional forum that could exclude Pakistan.
However, security analyst Bharat Karnad at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research underlines the risk of such a strategy.
“You are in essence undermining the idea of reconciliation in the long term,” he cautioned. Pointing out that distancing Pakistan from South Asia is “physically, culturally” not possible, he said, “So you are going to create a real problem in trying to attempt something that is not practical.”
Economic measures considered
India is also looking at economic measures aimed at Pakistan. The prime minister is due to review the Most Favored Nation status that New Delhi granted Pakistan in 1996. That is unlikely to hurt Islamabad as direct trade between the two countries is small and most of the trade is in India’s favor.
The bigger pressure point is a 1960 Indus Water treaty that awarded most of the waters from three Himalayan rivers to Pakistan. India says it will explore all options including building hydroelectric dams along these rivers so that it can utilize its share, something that could potentially reduce the flow into Pakistan.
That may not happen anytime soon as it would take years to build dams. But it has raised alarm in Islamabad, which says scrapping the treaty would be an act of war.
While India says it has no intention of ending the treaty, which has survived two wars and decades of bitter relations, analysts say the message New Delhi wants to send out is that it might now be willing to use tools never contemplated in the past.
The closer strategic ties that Prime Minister Modi has cultivated with the United States since taking office two years ago have also given India the confidence to contemplate tougher measures, according to analysts.
“He [Modi] recognized the fact that having good relations with America allows India greater strategic space to pursue certain policies vis-a-vis Pakistan,” says Pant.
Tensions have spiraled along the Kashmir border in recent days. Indian officials reported another attack on an Indian army camp Sunday night by six militants in north Kashmir. One border guard died and another was wounded. India has evacuated hundreds of border villages on its side and cross-border firing continues.
But in a signal that both sides want to reduce tensions, the National Security Advisers of the two countries spoke to each other Monday for the first time since tensions spiked in the last two weeks.