February’s cross-border battle between India and Pakistan was a harsh reminder of the bitter dispute over Kashmir which has previously brought the nuclear-armed neighbours to all-out war. Nicholas Nugent asks what can be done to resolve this 72-year-old conflict
While the world worried about the danger of nuclear war breaking out on the subcontinent, the nations involved had more down-to-earth concerns. Blaming Pakistan for the February 14 suicide attack at Pulwama, which killed 40 Indian paramilitaries, India’s water minister, Nitin Gadkari, threatened to ‘divert water from [shared] rivers and supply [it] to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab’ to punish Pakistan. Five rivers flow through Indian controlled territory before emptying into the Indus, Pakistan’s main water source. Through control of these rivers and of the Indus itself, India has a powerful card it could play, although diverting river waters would be a costly and virtually impossible task.
It is control not of rivers but of the former princely state of Kashmir that lies at the heart of the dispute. The state was forcibly divided between the two neighbours at Partition in a way that neither side has ever accepted, with the former ruler opting to join India, despite the state’s Muslim majority. The dispute broke into armed conflict immediately after both countries gained their independence from Britain in 1947.
Despite the posting of UN observers along the divide, there were wars in 1965 and 1999, as well as many cross-border skirmishes. An estimated 50,000 people have been killed since the 1950s. India and Pakistan have also fought over the 17km-long Siachen glacier to gain strategic advantage through control of high ground.
To further complicate the issue, China controls around 20 per cent of the former state: it holds Aksai Chin, territory disputed since British rule, and the Trans-Karakoram Tract, given to it by Pakistan in 1963. India says it was not Pakistan’s to give. The total area of Kashmir administered by Pakistan, India and China is larger than Cambodia and almost as large as the United Kingdom. The mountainous part controlled by China is larger than Belgium but virtually uninhabited. If all of Kashmir were under India’s control it would be similar in size to Uttar Pradesh state, though with a population of less than 14 million.
After the 1971 Bangladesh War – the only Indo-Pakistan conflict not fought directly over Kashmir – the two countries met at Shimla and agreed to settle their differences ‘by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations’. They resolved to designate the Kashmir ceasefire line the ‘Line of Control’. The July 1972 accord, signed by Indira Gandhi for India and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan, was the nearest the two countries came to accepting the Line of Control as the international border, splitting the former princely state between them along the ceasefire line.
But the Simla Accord did not settle the issue of ownership and both nations continue to claim the entire territory. India has resisted Pakistan’s attempts at the United Nations to internationalise the issue, or to hold a plebiscite to determine the will of the territory’s inhabitants.
The dispute took a turn for the worse for India in the late 1980s, when another claimant emerged: inhabitants of the Indian sector of the Kashmir Valley who want independence rather than Pakistani rule. Under India’s constitution, Jammu and Kashmir State enjoys a considerable degree of autonomy. Rough treatment of Kashmiris by Indian border and security forces led to demands for a withdrawal of troops and independence for Kashmir. In the mid-1990s, this writer met militants in Srinagar whose venom was directed against the Indian government.
Although responsibility for the Pulwama attack was quickly claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the suicide bomber himself is understood to have been born in and lived his whole life on the Indian side of the divide. It would be easy to assume he was acting as part of the campaign for an independent Kashmir, yet an Indian spokesman said there was ‘incontrovertible evidence’ of Pakistani involvement in the attack.
Pakistan appeared to accept a degree of blame in the way it rounded up JeM and other militants following India’s bombing raid into Pakistan territory which, India says, destroyed a JeM training base in undisputed territory, Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, appeared keen to de-escalate the conflict by swiftly returning to India a pilot whose plane was shot down during the raid, saying, ‘We should sit and settle this with talks.’ The Indian government said the target for its bombers was ‘terrorists, not Pakistani soldiers’.
Since India is engaged in choosing a new Lok Sabha, the People’s House of Parliament, the issues of Kashmir and relations with Pakistan have been pushed aside as prime minister Narendra Modi makes a bid to be re-elected for a second term. Days after the initial attack, Modi told a rally in Rajasthan that settling scores was his ‘habit’ and he was going ‘to put locks to the factories of terror’. The toughness of his response to Pakistan is considered an electoral asset, as is his firmness towards militancy of any sort in Kashmir. Given his pro-Hindu credentials and support for Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, he would not help his chances of re-election by granting more autonomy to the state.
There are calls in India for Modi to end the state’s special status. India’s part of the state – 43 per cent compared with the 37 per cent controlled by Pakistan – is currently under ‘President’s Rule’, meaning it is under the direct control of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Voters may be questioning whether a re-elected BJP government has any greater chance of solving the Kashmir issue than the Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi.
In both India and Pakistan the Kashmir dispute has given rise to massive expenditure on the armed forces, and the development of nuclear weapons in the 1990s. Preparedness for war with the immediate neighbour is one thing that does not seem to change.
One area of subcontinental life that is only marginally affected by the Kashmir dispute is, surprisingly, cricket. After the attack India is reported to have tried to expel Pakistan from the International Cricket Council but the attempt fell on deaf ears, meaning that a championship match between India and Pakistan in this year’s World Cup at Old Trafford in Manchester, set for 16 June is likely to take place as planned. As captain of Pakistan’s winning World Cup squad in 1992, the only year Pakistan won the cup, Imran Khan has a strong interest in this game going ahead. India’s new parliament will have met by then and whoever is prime minister may see this symbolic match as an opportunity to launch a round of ‘cricket’ diplomacy.
Nicholas Nugent has visited both sides of the Kashmir Valley – Srinagar in India and Muzaffarabad in Pakistan – as well as Indian-administered Jammu and Ladakh districts and Pakistan-administered Gilgit-Baltistan, formerly known as the Northern Territories