For seventy years, the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir has been divided between the warring South Asian neighbours India and Pakistan. Since both acquired nuclear weapons in 1998, the Line of Control which forms a truce line between the two in Kashmir has been described as the world’s most dangerous place by, among others, the former US President Bill Clinton.
On paper, each country holds their side of Kashmir with a great degree of autonomy – only they do not. Pakistan has long circumvented any real autonomy on its side of Kashmir. Autonomy had been eroding for years on the Indian side, until on August 5, in one stroke, the Delhi government removed all special provision status for Kashmir through a vote in parliament, along with a military lockdown in Kashmir and the stopping of all telephone and internet connections.
This has put India and Pakistan, who went to war flying jets and firing bombs at one another only in February, on crisis mode once again. Pakistan has long argued that as a Muslim majority state, under the provisions of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 between Hindu and Muslim areas, Kashmir belongs to it. India has rejected this position, based on an accession of the erstwhile ruler of the state to it.
India considers an accession letter signed the former Hindu ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, as evidence that the whole of Kashmir belonging to it, while Pakistan argues that as a Muslim-majority-state, as per the logic of partition with the creation of the Muslim homeland of Pakistan, Kashmir ought to merge with it. Both sides control a part of Kashmir separated by the Line of Control.
A United Nations recommended plebiscite has never taken place because the conditions under which it was to be done – a unified Kashmir with no military presence from either country has never really existed. Also, after decades of secessionist militancy, aided and abetted by jihadist terrorists from Pakistan, there is little doubt which way the vote might swing if a plebiscite were to happen in Indian Kashmir.
For the supporters of this removal of the special status of Kashmir via the modification of the provisions of Article 370 and abrogation of 35A, this is a masterstroke by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has pulled off something most thought could never be achieved with – till now – relative peace, albeit the whole area is under military lockdown with tens of thousands of troops and all local political leaders are under house arrest. For detractors, this is the ultimate murder of democracy and a sign of the Modi government’s neglect of the country’s Muslim minority – also expressed through its Hindu nationalism, a 19th socio-political ideology that asserts a primarily Hindu cultural, though not political, identity for India.
The truth is more complicated.
At any other time, Pakistan may have assumed a far greater support from international powers after such a move by India. But in the last two decades, world over, too many instances of Islamist terrorism have been traced back in some way or the other to Pakistan – including the fact that Osama bin Laden was found hiding in that country. There was also a real threat that once the United States pulls out from Afghanistan, many guerrillas might be redirected by Pakistan towards India, so that it makes perfect sense for New Delhi to seek greater protection by strengthening its grip on Kashmir.
Most major countries in the world are weary and wary of Pakistan as a constant fountainhead of terrorism – and they have business ties with India (the world’s 7th largest economy) which are exponentially greater than anything they might ever have with Pakistan (ranked 39th on the basis of GDP). In fact, the Pakistani economy is nearly bankrupt and is running on World Bank dole. While India too faces a slowdown with growth rate falling to around 6-7% over the past two years, economically the neighbours have never been less alike. The reaction of the international community, most specifically the United States, has been muted. It hasn’t helped that compared to Modi, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who only a few days ago seemed to have convinced American President Donald Trump to play mediator – something consistently rejected by India which claims the matter is a bilateral issue – has seemed unsure and slow in responding.
But Modi knows that this moment is one of the most important – if not the most important – in his nearly two decade career first as chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat and then as prime minister (having won the general election in 2014 and 2019). The curfew in Kashmir cannot continue indefinitely and military strength alone cannot keep emotions in the region in check – after all, one of the most militarised zones in the world has failed to control insurgency for years. When the lockdown is removed and Kashmiris start using their dead telephones and march out onto the street, there will come a moment of reckoning – have they been convinced to make a fresh start or has their anger been pushed over the edge?
On his part Modi is doing all he can to ensure that hearts and minds are won in this small window – his impassioned speech on television on August 8 implored the Kashmiris to give him a chance to turn the troubled destiny of the state. There will be no lack of local democracy, he promised, a new crop of Kashmiri leaders will rise, there will be entrepreneurial ideas and development (among other things, a major investor summit is said to be in the works for later this year). Kashmir had been stuck in a trap, he argued, all he had done was to set it free. But in case the message doesn’t go through, India’s national security advisor Ajit Doval has also been parked in the area for days now to personally ensure that things do not go out of hand. In carefully curated videos that have been put out of him lunching with locals, he is heard telling them to worry neither about democracy nor about protecting their religion, that there is no threat whatsoever to either.
All those notions will be challenged and tested once the shutdown is removed. If all goes well, this is a fantastic opportunity for the two neighbours to thrash out a final peace deal. Some contours of this deal including converting the Line of Control into a de facto international border have been deliberated by Modi’s predecessors too. India’s current home minister Amit Shah, however, has said in parliament on August 6 that he would give his life to win back the Pakistani side of Kashmir and merge it into India. While potent as an aggressive bargaining strategy, it is unclear how India could coerce a nuclear-armed Pakistan to give up strategic territory, and most experts and observers consider this improbable.
For Pakistan this is an unprecedented crisis of credibility after decades of pushing the ‘Kashmir issue’ as a central theme of its foreign policy. The country is ruled de facto by its military and Khan is a favourite of the Pakistani army – so for India to pull off such a strategic coup with such a government in power in Pakistan is a major loss of face. How Khan handles this will determine his future in Pakistani politics.
Any outbreak of major violence would jolt both countries and might derail their economies. A peace deal would create history and resolve one of the defining and defiant inter-state battles of the twenty-first century. The world should pay greater attention.