The recent military escalation on both sides of the disputed Kashmiri border between India and Pakistan has concerned the international community, which has urged the two South Asian arch-rivals to scale down the tensions that have ratcheted up following a deadly attack on Indian forces, just weeks before general elections in India. Of course, the crisis reflects the underlying dynamics of the never-ending Kashmir conflict.
On February 14, a young Kashmiri militant rammed into convoy transporting CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force, the paramilitary personnel used for crowd control) troops in Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir. The attack, responsibility for which was claimed by Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), killed 49 police personnel. It was the deadliest attack on Indian military forces since the beginning of the insurgency in 1989
In the aftermath of the attack, people have taken to the streets in India to protest the martyrdom of its jawans (soldiers) and organized anti-Pakistan demonstrations in many Indian cities. Indian PM Narendra Modi blamed Pakistan for the attack, accusing the country’s neighbour of giving (ongoing) protection to terrorist groups like JeM. For its part, Pakistan denied any responsibility, accusing Delhi of having orchestrated the attack in view of the elections.
In days after, vitriolic threats have been hurled across both sides of the disputed border, with India accusing Pakistan of not doing enough to counter terrorism and Pakistan saying if will fully retaliate against an unprovoked attack. While news anchors in the subcontinent have been warmongering—and playing the chords of jingoism—Modi promised retaliation and villagers along both sides of the Line of Control (LoC, the unofficial border between the separately administered parts of Kashmir) moved to safer areas.
The tension exploded on the 26th, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted “pre-emptive non-military strikes” in Pakistan, near Balakot, and reportedly bombarded a JeM’s training camp, housing some 350 terrorists. The move was the first military action beyond the LoC since it was created as a de-facto ceasefire line after the third Indo–Pakistan war in 1972, and contributed to the sudden escalation between the two nuclear powers.
On the same day, Pakistan condemned the trespassing but also denied any casualties in its territory, claiming the bombing took place in an uninhabited forest area. The information and numbers’ war—of claims, denials, and counter-claims—is nothing new in the ongoing spats between India and Pakistan.
The day after, Pakistani warplanes entered Indian air space but were forced back beyond the LoC. These events mark the worse standoff between the two countries in the last fifty years and while they have contributed to galvanizing Indian nationalist sentiment against its arch-enemy, they have also triggered a wave of anti-war voices on both sides of the border.
On the same day, two military jets of the IAF were shot down in Pakistan, with one of the pilots captured by the Pakistani army. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said his country is ready for dialogue with India and called for “better sense to prevail”. The Indian pilot, Comm. Abhinandan Varthaman, who was attacked by a mob of civilians and rescued by the Pakistani army, became the centre of the dispute between Delhi and Islamabad—the human face of this interstate crisis.
Khan warned his counterpart that escalation might easily lead to a “situation where control could be lost”. He later declared Pakistan would free the Indian pilots as a gesture of peace. Both countries have no interest in escalating to a full-blown conflict, but they also have to safeguard the power play and their respective electorate. Modi is particularly careful to stick to his party’s nationalist agenda and divert attention from other sensitive topics in the lead up to elections.
Since the creation of the two countries with the Partition of British India in 1947—a Muslim Pakistan and a secular yet Hindu-majoritarian India—they have been involved in a number of wars and spats over disputed territory. The first conflict happened the very year of the bloody Partition, which left over a million dead and a trail of communal hatred to this day.
The war of 1965
Princely states like Kashmir were left to decide which side to join. Then ruled by a Hindu Maharaja who chose to join India, Kashmir became India’s only majority Muslim state. The first war between the two countries ended after two years with India gaining control of two thirds of Kashmir, and Pakistan only a third. The Pakistani-administered part became known as Azad Kashmir: free Kashmir.
The Indo–Pakistani war of 1965 caused thousands of deaths on both sides with a heavy deployment of armoured vehicles, while the third war in 1971 had little to do with Kashmir. It, rather, was an Indian intervention into Bangladesh’s (formerly known as East Pakistan) liberation movement, which was supported by India against (West) Pakistan. Nevertheless, this third war worsened the rivalry between the neighbours.
In the late 1980s, separatist discourse gained momentum in Kashmir and the military insurgency started spreading in the valley against what is perceived as an Indian occupation. The Pakistani secret services have ever since encouraged and aided the militancy, while after the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan, mujahideen fighters also infiltrated Indian-administered Kashmir adding to the delicate power game in the region.
The last military conflict between the then nuclear powers was in 1999, when Pakistani soldiers took control of parts of Indian territory near Kargil: the incursion triggered a major military and diplomatic offensive, in which India took back control of the infiltrated areas.
Delhi accused Islamabad
Delhi has always accused Islamabad of giving protection to terrorist groups like the JeM and Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lashkar was just banned in Kashmir, but has claimed responsibility for all bloody attacks against India over the last decades, like the 2001 Parliament attacks in Srinagar and Delhi and the 2008 coordinated attacks in Mumbai. The latter heightened tension between the historic rivals to alarming levels, defused only by diplomatic efforts. In 2010, Kashmir was again on fire.
A heavily armed group (reportedly from JeM) attacked the Indian Airforce station in Pathankot, Kashmir, causing the dead of six soldiers, early in 2016. The attack led to a breakdown of Indo–Pakistani relations and was seen as an attempt to derail a fragile normalization process and destabilize relations between the two countries.
Soon after, border skirmishes began following reported “surgical strikes” across the LoC by India against militants, although Pakistan always denied any incursion in its territory ever took place. Clashes between India and Pakistan lasted for the whole year with another attack later in 2016 against Indian forces in Uri, which brought the relations to an extreme low.
In the same summer, the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, a young and beloved Kashmiri militant, triggered a wave of unrest in the valley that lasted all summer. The situation pushed the government to adopt more stringent security measures that exacerbated the already tense relations with the local population.
Today, a couple of decades after Kargil, the subcontinent has again come to the brink of war. One miscalculation by either side could drag the region, however, into full-blown catastrophe. Fortunately, however, both Delhi and Islamabad know that a full-scale conflict is the last either side needs.
Photo: Narinder NANU / AFP
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