On 14th February 14, 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers were killed by a suicide bombing in Indian-Administered Kashmir. Whilst the bomber was born and raised in India (a fact ignored by the Indian media), he was funded and equipped by the Pakistan based terrorist organisation JeM, who have publicly taken credit for the attack. Over the last two weeks in tit-for-tat the militaries of both countries have conducted cross border operations, thus escalating the tensions between the nuclear armed states.
When the last three American presidents were asked which region gave them the most sleepless nights, the answer wasn’t Russia, North Korea, nor Iran. The India-Pakistan conflict over the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir has been at the epicentre of at least three nuclear flashpoints in this millennium. This colonial era conflict has already resulted in over four wars, with the latest one being in 1999 when both countries had declared nuclear arsenals.
But before we move forward, perhaps a brief historical refresher is required. In 1947, as 200 years of British colonialism in India was winding down, the borders of the region had to be redrawn for the creation of Pakistan. Partition was a messy affair with over 1.5 million deaths in Punjab and Bengal over the contentious border, let alone the question of the princely states. The border which was drawn by a British civil servant who before had never been to India, had omitted the three princely states whose rulers had refused to merge with either India or Pakistan. Whilst Hyderabad and Junagadh was successfully annexed into the Indian union, the question of Jammu and Kashmir remained. Kashmir had a Hindu Maharaja ruling over a kingdom which had a 70% Muslim population, and controlling vital rivers for both India and Pakistan.
Voltaire famously said of Prussia that unlike most states which have an army, in Prussia the army had a state. This description perfectly describes Pakistan, with most of the period since independence having been ruled by the military. In order to sustain its disproportional budget allocation, for pure survival the military establishment must maintain the constant fear of a perennial enemy. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it has been the policy of Pakistan’s military establishment to use Islamic militants “to bleed India through a thousand cuts”. When Pakistan-funded militants bombed the Indian parliament in 2002 and laid siege to Mumbai and killed 174 people in 2008, tensions between both countries were at boiling points. Yet previous Indian governments had the good wisdom of practising restraint. But this is an election year in India.
The Modi-led Indian government launched “pre-emptive” airstrikes within Pakistani territory, the first ever military response outside the disputed Kashmir region since 1971. In order to save face, Imran Khan, Pakistan’s cricketer turned Prime Minister, ordered retaliatory air strikes last week. Whist the details remain murky through the fog of war, an Indian MiG 21 was shot down in Pakistani airspace whilst shooting down a Pakistani F-16. Thankfully all the airmen safely ejected.
What started off as a measure to appease Modi’s right wing flank ahead of the upcoming general election, a series of miscalculations have had the subcontinent, if not the world on the verge of nuclear annihilation. In fact, the capture of Indian Airforce Wing-Commander Abhinandan, which was recorded by smartphones of Pakistani villagers, forced both sides to deescalate. As a peace measure, Pakistan released Wing-Commander Abhinandan back to Indian hands last Friday as per the Geneva Protocols. So the world can rest easy once again, till the next time these two quarrelsome neighbours think to raise the collective blood pressures of people around the world.
In order to avoid a repeat performance, there must be concrete measures undertaken by both countries. Firstly, Kashmiris must recognise that an independent Jammu and Kashmir will never materialise because the geopolitical reality will never tolerate an independent state sandwiched between three nuclear powers (the third one being China). Therefore, the many rightful grievances of young Kashmiris must be settled within the Pakistani and Indian states. Secondly, the Pakistani state must abandon its foolhardy use of proxies to change the borders of the Line of Control. For too long, international terrorists like Hafiz Saeed and Massod Azhar have walked the streets of Pakistan with impunity. For who can forget that Osama Bin Laden was living a few kilometres off their GCHQ. If Pakistan doesn’t want to be a pariah state, it must accept the diplomatic norm of this century, Pakistan must stop funding terrorist organisations and help to bring them to justice. Not only India, but Iran and Afghanistan have suffered in the hands of Pakistani terrorist. But above all, the good people of Pakistan have lost over 70,000 fellow citizens to the scourge of terrorism since 2001. And lastly, Indian politicians must not heed the sabre-rattling of the Indian far right and recognise there can be no winners by provoking Pakistan with military attacks, especially because Pakistan has not declared a no-first use policy with respect to its growing nuclear arsenal. Above all, India must recognise the legitimate grievances of the Kashmir people. To start with, India can repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has effectively militarised the state for too long, and begin meaningful talks with Pakistan and separatists to peacefully resolve the conflict.
A hundred years ago, the first world war consumed the lives of 21 million people and changed the course of history. The book Guns of August examined that at the heart of WWI was the miscalculations by each side. With nuclear weapons in the equation there can be no such miscalculations. The fate of humanity is within the hands of Pakistan and India. Let us hope that cooler head will always prevail.