Threat of Kashmiri militants heralds a severe test for Prime Minister

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The Independent Online

The attack on the Indian parliament, although not claimed, was almost certainly the work of Kashmiri militants fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir. The Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad group has been closely linked with Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida terrorist network in the past and members of the group have spent time in training camps in Afghanistan.

The Kashmiri rebels do not need any encouragement from al-Qa'ida to launch their own terror attacks. Most recently, Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility (and then denied it) for the attack on the state legislature in Srinagar, which killed 38 in October. That attack brought India and Pakistan closer to conflict over Kashmir than they have been since the war of 1965, as one of India's senior military commanders noted last month.

The tension will be ratcheted up further now as many in India itch to hit back. After the attack in Srinagar, the chief minister in Kashmir asked: "If the US could not wait for a day after Black Tuesday [11 September], are not 12 years too much for testing our patience?"

Such retaliation would provide instant regional destabilisation – which could suit al- Qa'ida perfectly. Pakistan insists that it condemns terrorism. But the Indians remain sceptical, at best. The foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, describes Pakistan as "the epicentre of terrorism". The defence minister, George Fernandes, said: "If Pakistan is behind this attack, then a fitting reply will be given to them soon."

In recent weeks, India has already shown a determination to give a tough response. While Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, was visiting the region, the Indian army fired on Pakistani army posts in what was described as "punitive action".

Any conflict between India and Pakistan now would be more dangerous than at any time; both countries are nuclear powers and the dangers of escalation are real.

Terry Taylor, director of the Washington office of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, believes that the recent change of tactics towards suicide attacks "have the al-Qa'ida imprint"; previously, Kashmiri attacks more often used the guerrilla's standard armoury, of bombs and ambushes. Above all, such a high-profile attack may be designed to gain "maximum impact" for the radicals, who want to force the issue of Kashmir onto the international agenda as never before.

India has felt bruised in recent weeks and months because of a feeling that the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf has received a soft ride from the US, because of Pakistan's support for the bombing in Afghanistan.

In 1999, there was a dramatic escalation of cross-border shelling between India and Pakistan, and fighting between Indian troops and militants who crossed the so-called Line of Control that has existed since 1972, dividing the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan-ruled Kashmir. In the past decade, tens of thousands have died in the region.

If Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decides to cross the Line of Control – and there will be much domestic pressure to do so – the consequences could be incalculable. Full-blown war is a possible outcome.

It may be that international pressure – and a sense of self-preservation – will persuade the Indian government that the political reward for showing restraint will be greater than the military reward for punishing Pakistan. These will, however, be testing days and weeks.