Kashmir: ‘the most dangerous place on earth’
A Brief History of a Long-lasting Conflict
Kashmir is located on the northern-most tip of India. It lies nestled between India, Pakistan and China – three states which share a complex history of trade, conflict and now significantly, the only three nuclear-armed powers in the region.
As the British colonial powers were exiting the sub-continent in 1947, with a swift swipe of a pen, India and Pakistan (East and West) were created. At this time, around 560 princely states were asked to join one of these infant countries. The major hold-out was Kashmir. The Hindu king, Maharaja Hari Singh preferred to remain independent since the overwhelming Muslim majority in Kashmir (around 90 per cent) would not want to join Hindu-dominated India. At the same time, he feared that the Hindus and Sikhs (most of them serving as government servants) – including himself – would be severely disadvantaged in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Historians contest the series of events that follow, but the most prominent accounts acknowledge that Pakistani- engineered tribal attacks into Kashmir, sent the Maharaja to plead for India’s help. Upon ascension to India Kashmir gained support from Indian armed troops. This led to the first war between the two states over Kashmir. The timing of the ascension document and several circumstances involving the Maharaja being enticed to join Pakistan remain contested – making it possible for each side to construct their own narrative of justification.
Since 1972, a de-facto border called the Line of Control (LoC) separates the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and India-occupied Kashmir. A third part is Azadi Kashmir (or Independent Kashmir). Three wars have been fought between India and Pakistan (1947, 1965 and 1999) over Kashmir and recent events show the potential for a fourth soon. The border is so plagued with crisis that Bill Clinton in 2000, called it the ‘most dangerous place on earth’. His evaluation stands true even today.
In the last few months, the situation along the LoC has deteriorated. In mid-September, 19 Indians were killed in an attack by the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Uri in Indian-administered part of Kashmir. This is considered the most lethal attack in the past 20 years of the conflict. The Indians reciprocated with ‘surgical strikes’ but the Pakistan armed forces have claimed that these strikes never took place. Currently, both states have withdrawn their diplomatic representatives and a build- up of troops has been taking place along the border. This week Pakistan violated a ceasefire which resulted in the killing of two Indian soldiers.
Meanwhile, it must also be remembered that domestic unrest in Srinagar (the summer capital of the State of Jammu and Kashmir) between the people and the Indian forces has reached ‘extremely fragile’ levels. At this moment Kashmir is facing a crisis on two fronts.
There are a variety of ways in which Clinton’s evaluation is accurate and why this fresh round of tensions creates severe alarm across the world. The first is the presence of nuclear weapons by both countries. While the concept of Mutually- Assured Destruction may have reduced cross-border infiltration, it does make the region more unstable. Especially because Pakistan refuses to adopt a ‘no-first-use’ policy with regards to the use of nuclear weapons. This is justified on the grounds of deterrence. Additional uncertainty arises because of the fear that these nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists.
Another important weapon in the arsenal is very unconventional. The Indus Water Treaty between the two countries has existed for fifty- six years and stipulates the sharing of the water from the Indus river which flows from India, through Kashmir and into Pakistan. If India were to revoke the treaty, it would amount to a humanitarian crisis in water-starved Pakistan. So far, India has not seriously considered this but it is a card that is available to them.
A third factor which makes the situation very challenging is the foreign alliances the countries have. India and the US have grown closer for over a decade, while China has had a long-lasting relationship with Pakistan. Strategically, the US has been trying to contain a rising China, whilst China has created a ‘string of pearls’ (through its alliances with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others) around India to exert its dominance in the region. If the current conflict escalates it holds the prospect of drawing in neighbouring powers.
One factor that is not often taken into consideration by scholars is the animosity that exists between the two states. The Partition (of 1947) was one of the bloodiest events humanity has witnessed. Rhetoric on both sides by leaders and even how the ‘other’ is portrayed in school textbooks is quite alarming and has built on this animosity. On a smaller scale, the bitter rivalry over Kashmir is witnessed every time the two nations meet in international cricket. Furthermore, Pakistan still blames India for its role in separating East and West Pakistan which led to the annexation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the early 70s. This animosity and pride always play a role in decision making which could cloud rational thinking.
A long history of violence created by colonial incompetence has dominated the story of South Asia since 1947. There exists a legacy of violence and multiple ways the conflict could quickly escalate into a global conflict. All that is required is a spark. So far cooler heads have prevailed and there appears to be an easing of tensions between the two states.
There is no more vital story to watch for in the coming weeks than developments from the ‘most dangerous place on earth’.