India’s attempt to reset history in South Asia on Aug. 5 by illegally changing the disputed status of Kashmir was first met with shock in Pakistan. The outrage that followed is only the tip of the iceberg. As the implications of what New Delhi had unilaterally done unfolded in Pakistan, global capitals also woke up to the potential crisis this could trigger, especially given the transition underway in Afghanistan. The most dangerous flashpoint in the world, as U.S. President Bill Clinton once famously called Kashmir, had just turned into a ticking time-bomb. Two nuclear neighbors that have gone to war over Kashmir, more than once, stand poised once again for a potential face-off.
As Indian-held Kashmir remains in lockdown, angry locals are beginning to break the curfew, and India’s ability to contain the story is coming apart. Despite a telephone, Internet and physical iron curtain on Kashmir, the scab-wounds of resistance have become badges of bravery and fealty to an endangered Kashmiri identity. The media is in a clampdown. Intrepid BBC coverage of India’s tear-gassing and shelling have been slammed by the Indian authorities as manufactured, but independent reports continue to leak out, belying New Delhi and its apologists’ claims of calm in Kashmir. A recent warning from global rights bodies such as Genocide Watch to bring multilateral attention toward the humanitarian crisis in Kashmir is perhaps even more telling. Kashmiri activists in Azad [Pakistan-administered] Kashmir are relaying distress messages from families and friends across the Line of Control, and almost all footage from protests in the besieged valley flash slogans of Azaadi (freedom) from India. India dismisses all local outrage as made-in-Pakistan. Yet movement across the Line of Control is almost impossible given Indian shelling, and Pakistan’s responses.
For Pakistan, and arguably most of Kashmir, Indian brute actions to unilaterally annex and divide the part of Jammu and Kashmir it has been holding on to since the bloody partition of British India as it rushed to the exits is based entirely on fiat and force. The dispute, as well as the special status of Indian-held Kashmir that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just took away, is embedded in an unresolved legal and political history of popular resistance. As a princely state of British India, Kashmir was signed away by its Hindu maharajah in 1947 in a controversial accession instrument, which was unacceptable to the largely Muslim majority of the paradisal valley. Less than a year later, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in fact, took the vexed issue to the United Nations for resolution via an internationally supervised plebiscite to determine which country Kashmir would actually accede to. While the plebiscite never took place, India gave Kashmir its contested special status and transacted bargains with a series of accommodational local political parties. None of them quite worked as the Srinagar valley remained in varying intensities of resistance to all bargains with New Delhi. Today, while thousands of Kashmiris have been locked up, even the most pliant of political leaders and former chief ministers are in detention, helpless as Modi’s regime forcibly carves up Kashmir into three parts and declares it federal territory by presidential decree, without any pretense of recourse at all to the Kashmiris. If truth has become a casualty in this whole episode, so has the fabric of Indian democracy. The Modi government’s claim of all being well in Kashmir was exposed badly by its own actions of blocking the Indian mainstream opposition’s travel movements to Kashmir.
In Islamabad’s view, India’s attempt to change Kashmir’s constitutional unilateral was technically irrelevant, as Kashmir remained a disputed territory as per U.N. Security Council resolutions. Yet, three wars with Pakistan later, and many negotiations down the line, India’s attempt to take away even the fig leaf of Kashmir’s special status, by abolishing Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, has backfired. Compare to the Pakistani government’s unwieldy pushback: both houses of Parliament in Islamabad responded, jointly, with a clear, robust resolution of intent. The government was explicitly urged and asked to take the latest crisis of India’s causing to the Security Council. The national consensus for a diplomatic surge on Kashmir, given the heartbreaking humanitarian and political crisis there, was the outcome of years of policy unity on betting on the dividends of regional connectivity, not fear of conflict.
What has changed? Like anywhere else, India and Pakistan used to base their response-calculus on a number of factors. For both, the inclination to opt for rational responses is shaped as much by deterrence as it is by strategic need. Over the last decade, Islamabad has adapted and prioritized development over mutual damage. When Washington thought jihad was cool in the 1980s in Afghanistan as a route to regime change, Islamabad was both willing and able. Today it is not. Modi’s ascension to power in 2014, and then his consolidation of a majority in 2019, has fundamentally altered the state of play between the two countries in ways that peace narratives are unable to address. From Islamabad, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s bet on Modi’s power to reshape the bilateral conversation has met with a rude shock. The Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party’s scaled-up Hindutva project has shrunk space for dialogue as well as many increments of goodwill conscientious objectors in India try hard to expand. After New Delhi’s actions in Kashmir, prospects of rebuilding relations between Pakistan and India are in a perilous slide.
Where’s the fire? Outside of Kashmir, the potential for armageddon is located as much in the memory of trauma as it is in ideologies of hate that find new fuel in Modi’s India. Recent events, too, tell a sobering tale. The Pulwama-Balakot crisis, in which Indian jets crossed Pakistan’s military airspace for the first time after 1971, when New Delhi sent its military into a roiling East Pakistan that became Bangladesh with Indian instigation, immediately triggered a red alert in Islamabad and across Pakistan. Even at that point the political fallout of the exchange was not limited to one capital. The fact that Pakistan’s conventional response downed an Indian fighter pilot along with his jet in a decisive dogfight was not lost on New Delhi, or Kabul, Iran, Moscow, Beijing, Washington. Yet Pakistan’s maturity in sending the Indian pilot back immediately was met with an attention deficit now common to multilateralism. Instead of taking the gesture for the peace bid it was, it was taken as weakness by a war-mongering Indian leader and his kitchen cabinet. This miscalculation is an escalation that shows a dangerous disregard of not just Pakistan but of American and Chinese stabilization goals as well.
As Kashmiris brace for more oppression and torture by a Hindutva-driven Indian state, two things are certain.
One, Kashmiris will fight New Delhi until the worm turns. The breaking of the curfew in Kashmir has only just begun. Responding to violent state rule is almost generationally reflexive to the locals. For 500 years Kashmiris have resisted foreign rule, when the strategically located valley was envied both for its axial link to the Himalayan mountain passes and for its woven craft treasure, the inimitable Kashmiri shawl, and became the site of military conquests by extractive rulers, the Afghans, the Sikhs, and finally the Dogras. Indigenous capacity for resistance is now honed into a struggle linked to their identity as Kashmiris, not just Muslims. While ordinary Kashmiris may still seek jobs and peace, the notion of Kashmiri citizenship is now seen as a challenge to New Delhi, which has violently occupied the valley with such a high density of troops and hardware that it is now the most militarized area in the world. Years of state-sanctioned torture enabled by special laws that give the Indian military impunity for everything—including mass blindings and rape—have spawned a new militancy among Kashmiris that needs no help from anywhere. Even Indian apologists are having trouble swallowing the chilling tales of grisly detention camps and heinous torture that are continuing to break through the Indian communications lockdown.
Second, what happens in Kashmir will not stay in Kashmir. Indian democracy has not been able to do many of its federating states justice. This is unsurprising for South Asia, but the case of Kashmir is different. In fact, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the anomalous case of Kashmir represents a spectacular failure of Indian diplomacy, and even of democracy. As a U.N.-mandated disputed territory and as the only Muslim-majority state with a contested border touching both Pakistan and China, Kashmir’s rights to determining its own fate have been brutally suppressed by India for 70 years. Accusing Pakistan of rekindling a militancy that the Indian state has been unable to defuse will be its next step. Two nuclear belligerents, with matching military cultures of extreme competition, will not be able to resist responding to real or accidental incidents on the volatile Line of Control. In the recent past, India has shunned rational behavior in the search for peace in South Asia by rebuffing all initiatives on informal mediation, either by its own current ally, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, or any other international broker.
The Line of Control, which had been under a ceasefire negotiated in 2003, has become hot again. Pakistani soldiers and civilians have been regular targets of Indian ‘surgical strikes’ along the border since 2016. Calls for limited war with Pakistan have become common, especially from the jingoistic Indian media, which by and large has not helped shape responsible narratives. Civilian and military casualties have become the new normal from 2014, when Modi came to power, while India’s recent use of cluster bombs on the beautiful valley has created a crop of military and civilian martyrs to the Kashmir cause. The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, which apportions water between Pakistan and India, is in constant danger of unilateral revocation by India even though both water basins would suffer in such an extreme eventuality. Just as in the case of sub-zero Siachin, the highest battleground in the world, where both sides lose more soldiers to frostbite than gunfire, both militaries at the Line of Control suffer from their governments’ failure of diplomacy and from India’s heavy investment in stalemate.
Pakistan-India peace talks have had a limited shelf life. The festering dispute has been the core issue for years between the two neighbors, where even India’s insistence on bilateral solutions via the post-war 1972 Simla Agreement has been bypassed. Despite the heightened tensions, and the calling back of envoys and cancelling trade, Pakistan has allowed work on the Kartarpur corridor, which gives Indian Sikhs access to the shrine in Pakistani Punjab of Sikhism’s founder, to go on. Yet, deeper revisions of India’s own identity and notions of citizenship inflame the Kashmir debate daily. New Delhi’s heightened aggression toward Pakistan, as well as the exclusion of its own Muslim minority, after Modi assumed power has turned the idea of secular India on its head. With a roiling Kashmir now on the line, the prospects for stability have dimmed further. China has already joined Pakistan in declaring the Indian move to strip Kashmir of its autonomy and its international status as illegal. It was also their call for an immediate consultation that the U.N. Security Council was quick to respond, even as it paid lip service to its old position of Kashmir being a disputed territory, and suggested dialogue. Turkey, too, has been unambiguous about which side it’s on. Much to India’s surprise, Russia also referred to the U.N. charter and urged the two countries to reach a settlement to bring an end to their row over Kashmir. Meanwhile, powerful Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. turned a blind eye to Indian actions in Kashmir. Other countries have urged “maximum restraint,” but few have gone the extra mile to suggest an Indian climbdown. Trump’s repeated public offers of mediation have incurred no response from New Delhi, while many in Pakistan fear it may amount to little even as Trump meets Modi in the French resort of Biarritz for the G7 summit.
Pakistan sees terrorism as a regional and global problem, yet New Delhi is unwilling to partner on change, insisting on conditions-based benchmarks of cooperation, which entail progress without dialogue or the bilateral gruntwork that this entails. The rhetoric coming out of official Indian quarters, such as from Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s veiled threats on changing India’s nuclear ‘No-first use’ policy, amount to reckless posturing in a region bristling with military formations directed at each other. Either way, as the fires rage on in Kashmir, the timing of India’s unilateral actions are not helpful to peace in Kashmir or Kabul. The cognitive disconnect between India and Pakistan could not be more dangerous. New Delhi has just misread Islamabad’s responses as an outcome of Pakistan’s seeming economic vulnerability to multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or to terrorist-financing monitors such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). It has completely blocked out Pakistan’s emotional and political stakes in Kashmir, where the resistance is picking up steam.
The fury in Islamabad is palpable, and spread across the political and institutional board. Reports from the Line of Control don’t instill confidence. While Pakistan is not looking for a military solution to Kashmir, or any other kinetic play, the situation merits readiness. The Pakistan military, with its own protracted battle against militancy, is already having to divide its focus from Afghanistan to its eastern border. Given that Islamabad is absolutely clear about assisting the Afghan peace process to its best capacity, the limits on leverage for that will go up. The question then of Indian timing at such a critical point of Afghan transition does beget the obvious question: was India so upset at being sidelined in Afghanistan, as well as at China’s embrace of Pakistan along with America’s handshake, that it upped the ante on Kashmir? Whatever the answer, it has thrown the gauntlet at Islamabad. At stake is the future of Central and South Asia, and Kashmir is on its frontline. No one and nowhere in Asia will escape the fallout.
Sen. Rehman is parliamentary leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party in the Senate and founding president of Jinnah Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Islamabad. She was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. and federal minister for information