The conflict between India and Pakistan over the northern state of Kashmir has been going on since independence from the British and the partition of India in 1947. There have been three major bouts of fighting over the region and another between India and China. The latter has faded into the background, but the conflict over the areas held by India and Pakistan has lasted for over seventy years and there is no prospect of a resolution anytime soon. This is before we consider an insurgency against Indian rule within Indian-administered Kashmir, which began in 1989, but is divided over whether Kashmir should be independent or part of Pakistan. According to India, the insurgency has Pakistan’s fingerprints all over it, and most of the insurgents are reportedly Pakistani and Afghan in origin, but more recently, Kashmiri separatists have emerged as a result of India’s handling of their part of the territory. On the 14th of February a suicide bomber killed at least forty Indian troops in Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir. It was the deadliest attack there and the worst in India for over a decade. The bomber was Kashmiri but the attack was claimed by Jaish-e-Muhammed (JEM), an Islamist group based in Pakistan that has alleged links to the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
The Pulwama attack triggered an air raid into Pakistani territory that targeted an alleged JEM base, in turn prompting a Pakistani air raid and subsequent air battle in which two Indian jets were shot down. One of the pilots was captured but in a show of goodwill was quickly released. Despite this, fighting resumed across the line of control (LOC) in Kashmir on the 1st of March. This is the most serious escalation since the ‘Kargil war’ in 1999, which involved air and ground forces after Pakistan sent troops over the LOC, and brought to a halt after an intervention by President Clinton pressured Pakistan to withdraw. Yet, not even during the Kargil escalation did India send its planes into undisputed Pakistani territory.
There is one other difference between 1999 and today. Then, both countries had tested nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Today, they both have the ability to engage in an all-out nuclear war. This is unlikely to happen, but the potential is chilling. It is tempting to compare their nuclear rivalry to that of the United States and the Soviet Union, or their regional rivalry to that of Saudi Arabia and Iran, but in truth, it is unlike either. The rivalry between the two superpowers was ideological and political, that between India and Pakistan is political and religious. Saudi Arabia and Iran have a religious rivalry that is a malign influence on the relations between them and on the politics of the Middle East, but neither possesses nuclear weapons. Crucially, only India and Pakistan share a land border and have a history of actually fighting each other. While all three rivalries have been bitterly contested, that between India and Pakistan has been violent from the outset and has permeated their history as modern states. It is for this reason that a localised insurgency and bi-state rivalry is one of the most dangerous on earth.
While the nuclear war is a spectre that looms over the current crisis the worst impact is likely to be in Indian administered-Kashmir and across the LOC. Pakistan is commonly understood to be backing the insurgency, which India has cracked down on harshly, including after the Pulwama attack when separatist and religious leaders were rounded up and extra paramilitaries sent in. The insurgency now involves more Kashmiri’s and is morphing from an Islamist one that arguably has Islamabad’s fingerprints all over it to a separatist one that is a reaction to heavy-handed Indian rule and human rights abuses. Islamist violence within India by groups based in Pakistan has consistently infuriated India, and understandably so, but a Kashmiri revolt is another matter altogether and is potentially more damaging. This is a far cry from the time of partition, when the Maharaga of the Princely state of Jammu and Kashmir sought protection from India after Pakistan sent troops into Kashmir. The leaders of India and Pakistan are playing a dangerous game in the style of their predecessors, and while air battles between nuclear armed states are attention grabbing, and posturing to their respective audiences a given, their actions over the Kashmir dispute are escalating a conflict that is costing Kashmir dear.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.