Foreign Affairs

Kashmir on The Brink

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s glamorous reception by 59,000 members of the Indian-American community in Houston featured a glowing introduction by President Trump and a rally-style speech on his administration’s achievements. Among other topics, Modi addressed his decision to revoke Article 370 of the constitution, which granted Kashmir partial autonomy. The policy has the broad support of Indians who support Kashmir’s integration into India but has divided the Muslim community and invited condemnation from India’s old rival, Pakistan. It also comes on the heels of a more assertive Indian foreign policy willing to use military force across borders in pursuit of terrorists. As domestic and cross-border tensions flare, the move raises the specter of war between two nuclear-armed neighbors and a renewed Kashmiri insurgency against Indian rule.

Shortly after independence from Britain and the first war with Pakistan, the Indian Parliament passed Article 370 to protect the unique identity and autonomy of the country’s only Muslim majority state and cement its annexation. Kashmiri laws have since conferred upon the state’s permanent residents’ benefits related to scholarships, employment, and, most importantly, property rights. In anticipation of the backlash that the repeal of Article 370 would generate, the Modi government placed regional political leaders under house arrest and imposed a communications blackout on the state. Critics have accused Modi of authoritarianism and thuggishness by criticizing the suspension of Kashmir’s democratic institutions (the state’s governor dissolved Kashmir’s legislative assembly in June) and arguing that Article 370’s abrogation was unconstitutional. The government has responded with claims that the move will enhance national security by consolidating India into a more unified polity.

Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, swept into power with an overwhelming majority in 2014 and unexpectedly expanded those gains during the country’s general election in April. The election was a referendum on not only his economic policies but also his novel approach to national security. Whereas previous governments abstained from taking military action against terrorists coordinating attacks out of their bases in Pakistan, Modi’s policy of ‘Zero Tolerance’ gives India’s military the latitude to conduct airstrikes and surgical strikes against targets in Pakistan. It is widely assumed that Modi’s muscular national security strategy gave him an electoral boost that contributed to his overwhelming victory in this year’s general election. Consequently, we can expect a continuation of Modi’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy well into the near future.

So far, Pakistan’s military has responded with restraint to Indian incursions into its territory. Although fears that Pakistan would respond with its own airstrikes never materialized, its hysterical response to Article 370’s revocation has placed India on high alert. In a New York Times opinion piece, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan compared Modi to Hitler and India’s treatment of Kashmiri Muslims to the Holocaust. Separately, his erratic statements about the possibility of nuclear war on the subcontinent in the event that India refuses to reverse course have alarmed Indians of all political persuasions. However unprecedented, Pakistan’s aggressive posturing does not represent a break with the past but rather a renewed commitment to a destabilizing national security strategy.

The military has always played a pivotal role in Pakistani politics. For most of Pakistan’s recent history and as recently as 2008, a general has led the country. Even as the country seeks to establish a firm democratic tradition, generals rather than elected officials command the loyalty of Pakistan’s armed forces. The military has long justified its pre-eminence by arguing that enemies, none more scheming than India, surround Pakistan. The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 created new enemies in the country’s Northwestern Provinces after then-President Pervez Musharraf agreed to commit manpower and resources to fight the Afghan mujahideen in exchange for US military aid. However, after nearly two decades of destructive warfare, America is ready to divest its military from the Afghan theatre. The end of the War on Terror’s most intense phase will allow Pakistan to concentrate on its longstanding feud with India over Kashmir. Using manpower no longer committed to fighting militants, the military could increase its presence along the LoC, the heavily militarized line of control between India and Pakistan. 

The possibility that Modi’s unilateral revocation of Article 370 may inspire new insurgencies against Indian rule adds a new dimension to the security situation along the LoC. Despite its history of close cooperation with the US in Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence and armed forces provide material to support terrorist organizations opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir. During the 1980s, Pakistan used its influence over Kashmiri militants to promote a religious insurgency against India that ultimately ended in failure. Nevertheless, Pakistan could use its terrorist infrastructure to keep Kashmir out of Delhi’s orbit in the short-term. 

All of these developments increase the likelihood of armed conflict between India and Pakistan in the near future since both India and Pakistan are unlikely to abandon their respective strategies. While neither side desires a costly and devastating war, the potential for miscalculation with serious repercussions has risen. Several times in the past three years, Pakistani and Indian armed forces have clashed over border violations. Diplomatic channels between the two parties have also broken down. Without dialogue, the possibility that a minor border incident could escalate into a full-blown conflict has increased.
India has gambled a great deal on Kashmir’s future within India by using coercion to accomplish the BJP’s long-standing goal of integration. Muslims voted for the opposition party over the BJP by a factor of two to one in 2014 and 2019, and Kashmir’s overwhelmingly Muslim population staunchly opposes the BJP’s suspension of Article 370. A military lockdown of an entire state cannot persist indefinitely, and sooner or later the central government will have to grapple with the consequences of a deteriorating security situation as an old conflict takes on new momentum.

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