The crisis between India and Pakistan should have everyone concerned, but there is no simple solution in sight. Liam Glen writes on the dispute over Kashmir and the international community’s response.
The world inched closer to nuclear war this week. This time, it was not because of the usual suspects like Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Instead, it was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Indian government overturned provisions that gave special autonomy to the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir. The Pakistani government, which claims the region for itself, responded by expelling the Indian high commissioner and suspending bilateral trade.
The fact that both countries possess nuclear weapons should make everyone uneasy. The two have previously fought wars without either of them turning to weapons of mass destruction, but that is no reason to let one’s guard down.
A shooting war between India and Pakistan, which have a combined population of over 1.5 billion, would be devastating. It would also complicate matters for various actors, including the United States, that have interests in both countries. If only for this reason, de-escalation must be an international priority.
The conflict over Kashmir began in 1947. After India and Pakistan were partitioned, the Hindu Maharaja of the northwestern princely state of Jammu and Kashmir sought to assert his own independence.
However, this plan fell apart when Muslim rebels supported by Pakistan rose up against the Maharaja. To maintain his rule, he surrendered much of his sovereignty to India.
In the ensuing decades of conflict, the bulk of the territory has remained in India’s hands, as the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Meanwhile, Pakistan controls the western strip of Azad Kashmir, while China managed to seize the sparsely-populated salt flats of Aksai Chin.
The situation is reminiscent of border disputes throughout the world. Nationalists on both sides conjure arguments that their government has some deep, metaphysical right to administer the territory. Government officials focus on strategic assets – both sides seek control of the Indus River. Meanwhile, the people actually living on the land are a low priority.
The Indian government prefers to focus on cases like the Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus who were forced out of the region by Muslim insurgents. Pakistani leaders have long denied allegations that they fund terrorism in Kashmir, but the FBI acknowledges links between the Pakistan’s intelligence agency and Islamist militants in the region.
Meanwhile, the Indian military has acted with impunity in its fight against separatists. Despite allegations of torture, rape, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial execution, none of the accused have been brought to account.
Supporters of the Indian government’s moves to repeal Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and split it into two territories say that it will help integrate it into the rest of India. This means increased minority rights, along with access to programs that can alleviate poverty in the region.
This benevolent interpretation ignores the reality of the situation. The Indian government has put the region under martial law. Hundreds of regional politicians have been arrested. Internet and other modes of communications have been shut down. Curfews and security patrols curtail freedom of movement.
Furthering controversy over the region’s future, India will also change laws to allow citizens from the rest of the country to move to and own land in Kashmir. The narrative spreading throughout the Muslim world is that Kashmir will become like the West Bank of Palestine – a region with limited autonomy, where settlers displace the Muslim majority.
The Art of the Deal
On the surface, this seems like an area where US mediation would be a boon. Pakistan plans to take the issue to the United Nations, but it is not a body known for decisive action. A powerful nation like the US could be more effective.
Jared Kushner’s peace plan for Israel and Palestine was dead on arrival, but that was largely because the US was seen as an inherently biased arbitrator. On the other hand, America has close ties with both India and Pakistan. It may be the best-suited country for the task.
Problems emerge, however, when considering the specific context. A few weeks before the conflict reignited, President Trump was already claiming that Prime Minister Modi had asking him to help mediate it.
In response, the Indian government accused Trump of fabricating the story and insisted that India and Pakistan should settle all problems bilaterally without third party mediation. In fact, it is alleged that Trump’s comments spurred Modi to take extreme action in Kashmir to preempt potential US intervention.
A hardcore Hindu nationalist, Modi is getting exactly what he wants right now. Any efforts to pressure him to the negotiating table would risk backfire.
At the same time, this situation cannot stand. Along with humanitarian concerns, the US has a direct stake as it tries to enlist Pakistani help in negotiating a ceasefire with the Taliban in Afghanistan. That may not happen if Pakistan’s government has more important matters to attend to.
There is no proper, clear-cut solution. But that does not mean simply letting the dice fall where they may. The international community must keep a close eye on the situation, and act when the circumstances permit.