The cavalier treatment of nations and peoples by great powers has had a rather bitter legacy on different continents, most notably in Asia and Africa. Post-World War I peace settlements set the stage for ethnic and sectarian conflicts predominantly in the Middle East. The Second World War precipitated the disintegration of the colonial empires of Great Britain and France in the first place. The process resulted in, among others, rearguard fights by the French in Vietnam and Algeria between 1945 and the early 1960s; while the British engaged in bloody local wars in, for instance, Malaya, Palestine and East Africa. The ‘crown jewel’ of the British Empire (called the British Commonwealth after the acceptance of the Statute of Westminster in 1931), India, gained independence without a shot being fired in 1947. However, what happened later, claimed the lives of millions of people on the Indian subcontinent, and the area continues to be one of the most volatile hotspots in the world today.
The India Independence Act conveniently carved up British India into three entities: the predominantly Hindu India, the overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan, and Jammu and Kashmir with mixed populations, but with a clear Muslim majority population except in Jammu (where the population ration favors roughly 2 to 1 the Hindus over the Muslims). The most hotly debated area, the Kashmir Valley is 95% Muslim, and only 4% Hindu. The maharaja in Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh moved closer to India, and fights broke out between the two communities, in which millions died or fled or were expelled from their place of residence – a textbook case of ethnic cleansing if there was one. The war between India and Pakistan was only the first one between the two countries after the British left: to date, three or four major conflicts between New Delhi and Islamabad qualify as wars, while the number of minor clashes and terrorist acts are unknown. Things were calmed down – sort of – after the war in 1971. The Shimla Agreement the following year acknowledged the independence of former Eastern Pakistan, Bangladesh, which was supported by India in its struggles to break from Pakistan proper. The ceasefire line – the Line of Control – cuts Jammu and Kashmir into two, but border clashes have almost become a daily routine for both sides.
Claims and alliances
Matters are even more complicated with the territorial claims by China, which regards the northeastern part of Kashmir, Aksai Chin as its own. If the northwestern borders of India are disputed, so are the northeastern ones, where India faces a Chinese challenge. The territorial disputes are defining of the strategic alliances in the region: the People’s Republic of China and Pakistan work together in a number of fields, from the cooperation in nuclear technology to the construction of parts of the ’One Belt One Road’ (’Silk Way’) initiative in Pakistan. (It goes almost without saying that the U.S.-Indian relations have been changing for the better in the past few years, especially since the nuclear agreement between the two countries under President George W. Bush. Recently, President Trump has been speaking about an Indo-Pacific region, emphasizing India’s importance in counterbalancing China’s ambitions in the region.)
India and the U.S. are more or less on the same page concerning the understanding of transnational terrorism and its network of supporters.
The recent attack by allegedly a member of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Kashmir separatist group against a busload of Indian troops in February 2019, and the subsequent bombing of the training camp of the group in Kashmir’s Pakistan-controlled territory a few days later heightened the tensions on both sides of the border. India has long accused Islamabad of providing safe haven to Muslim terrorists and training them; thus, India claimed, with justification, that the attackers of Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai in November 2008 were activists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, another terrorist group with links in Pakistan. Moreover, together with Washington, New Delhi more than suspects that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have actually worked hand in glove with elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The rivalry between India and Pakistan for regional dominance is not restricted to Jammu and Kashmir; they are waging a quasi proxy war against each other in Afghanistan, where India supports the Northern Alliance, while Pakistan sides with the Taliban for all practical purposes. In fact, Osama bin Laden in one his messages in 2002 claimed that one of the reasons he was fighting the Americans was Washington’s support of India on the Kashmir issue.
The ongoing conflicts and the resulting casualties are bad enough, but the potential escalation of hostilities is downright scary. Both countries possess nuclear weapons – though neither is a signatory of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). They developed their ’doomsday’ weapons in violation of the NPT in the 1990s, and currently each owns in excess of a hundred such weapons. Their possession, at least in the context of the Indian-Pakistani relations, is more important for Islamabad than for New Delhi because India enjoys a clear superiority in conventional weapons (not to mention the huge difference in the number of populations). As a result, Pakistan has not excluded the so-called first use of nuclear weapons in case of a serious conflict with India, while the later has ruled out using nuclear weapons first in a conflict.
Talking tough in both capitals usually yields political gains in the respective countries. At the moment, it is the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi who is relatively hard pressed at home: his Bharatiya Janata Party faces a tough challenge from the Indian National Congress, and its leader, Rahul Gandhi in the upcoming elections. Playing out the Pakistan-card is usually a winning tactic, especially for the allegedly more conservative and nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party. In point of fact, the successive Pakistani governments also take advantage of the Indian-Pakistani conflicts to score points in domestic politics, as well. Unfortunately, it seems that low-intensity conflicts come at handy for Indian and Pakistani leaders alike for domestic political purposes; while the great power brokers in the region do not take a real interest in the dispute over Kashmir so long as it is limited in scope, and its repercussions do not affect regional balance of power. The people in Jammu and Kashmir should brace themselves for more violence and the perpetuation of hostilities for some time to come.