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Andrzej Kohut  10 października 2019

The end of Kashmir’s autonomy. Is the world on the brink of nuclear war?

Andrzej Kohut  10 października 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 7 min

The conflict over Kashmir between India and Pakistan has been going on for over 70 years. In August, a breakthrough that threatens world peace took place.  Overnight, without consultation and contrary to the Supreme Court’s verdict, India abolished the region’s autonomy, guaranteed by the constitution. The Pakistanis have long been supporting the Muslim rebellion against the authorities in New Delhi, and another terrorist attack early this year has reinforced the democratic support for the Indian government and gave it a social mandate for taking decisive action. Prime Minister Modi’s decision may be a legal gateway to weakening the influence of Islam followers in the mountainous region. As always, the world looks at “bloody Kashmir” with great worry, remembering that both countries involved in the conflict have nuclear arsenals.

Seventy years of war

When in 1947 the shaky British Empire decided to withdraw from the Indian subcontinent, two countries were formed. These were Pakistan, gathering mainly Muslim population, and India which is officially a secular state. The division was forced by the growing conflict between the followers of Islam and representatives of other religions, primarily Hinduism. On August 16, 1946 alone, several thousand people died in Calcutta as a result of unrest provoked by the Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah. However, it soon turned out that this was only a prelude to the upcoming bloody events. The division into two countries has resulted in millions of migrants in both directions but also religiously motivated violence, to which up to 1 million people could fall victim in 1946-1948.

Only in one place has this conflict been preserved over many decades: in Kashmir. At the time of the partition between India and Pakistan, the Muslim population dominated, but the local Maharaja had closer ties with India. In October 1947, there was a Muslim uprising in Kashmir, supported by tribal Pashtun militia who had crossed over from Pakistan. Unable to deal with the military challenge, the Maharaja asked India for help, which in turn made it dependent on Kashmir’s declaration of joining India.

The conflict between India and Pakistan did not bring a resolution. Either country has seized part of Kashmir, although India secured most of the cake. As a result, there were further tensions and several armed conflicts. Earlier that year, another one almost broke out when, in response to a terrorist attack, India bombed targets in Pakistan.

Besides, that terrorist attack was not an isolated incident. An uprising has been going on in Kashmir for 30 years against Indian authorities, killing tens of thousands of people. The Indian government has been accusing Pakistan of sponsoring jihadists in the region for many years now. The need to calm the situation has also become one of the arguments for New Delhi in support of limiting the region’s autonomy.

Dół formularza

Modi’s crusade

This year’s Indian election turned out to be record-breaking in terms of attendance. 67% of those entitled to vote decided to go to the polls. This means that over 600 million votes have been cast! These largest democratic election in history was won by the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Only a few months prior, his victory was not certain. The Prime Minister was criticized for numerous unfulfilled or unsuccessful economic promises. But in late February, there was the aforementioned terrorist attack in Kashmir and India’s decisive response – the bombing of an alleged terrorist training camp near the Pakistani city of Balakot. Modi gained recognition as a tough politician and secured additional votes resulting from patriotic mobilization of voters. To keep the emotions high, he announced during the election campaign that he would solve the issue of Kashmir.

The prime minister now argues that since he won the election, the voters accepted and supported his plan for the northern state. Besides, he was supported by demonstrations of support on the streets of Indian cities. The only problem is that Kashmir’s autonomy was secured in the Indian constitution, and Modi’s government made no effort to change it.

Article 370 of the constitution was drafted shortly after the Kashmir territory was partitioned between India and Pakistan. It was intended as a temporary solution, but a condition was added: abolishing it required the consent of the legislative body responsible for the state constitution. However, the said body decided to dissolve in… 1957. Therefore, the case was brought to the Supreme Court of India, which ruled last year that in that situation, Article 370 should be considered a permanent element of the constitution. Apparently, Modi did not accept this ruling.

The government argues that the new administrative arrangement will bring the necessary stability to the region. The state of Jammu and Kashmir – this is the official name of the disputed region – was not only stripped of its autonomy, but also divided into two parts, which will no longer enjoy state rights, but will be directly subordinated to the authorities in New Delhi. The government also announces a swift improvement in the economic situation caused by the influx of investors. Especially the latter announcement raises concern among the Muslim population

Until now, one of the elements of Kashmir’s autonomy has been the local authorities’ power to decide who to allow to buy land, and who can apply for permanent residence. These provisions have been protecting the region from the influx of outsiders and, as a result, reinforced the Muslim majority, which of course had its political consequences.

Therefore, what the government perceives as opening up to investment may in effect be a legal gateway to weakening the relevance of Muslims through the influx of people of other denominations, primarily Hinduism. Given the mode of change – overnight, without consultation and contrary to the Supreme Court’s verdict – it’s hard to rule out that this had been Modi’s intention.

Will the bombs fall down?

Modi’s critics say he would like India to become a unified Hindu state, just as Pakistan is a Muslim state. Besides, the Prime Minister’s nationalism is no secret. However, none of his previous steps can compare with taking over control of Kashmir. This is certainly bad news for nearly 200 million Muslims living in India.

However, another serious question arises: does this decision threaten to escalate into a military conflict? These kinds of questions always come back during the Kashmir disputes and are always accompanied by high emotions. After all, both countries concerned possess nuclear weapons. Thus, a regional dispute over a mountainous province could potentially bring about a nuclear war.

In this context, the resolution of the conflict that took place in the first quarter of this year seems optimistic. Following the Indian bombings, Pakistan responded by shooting down two Indian planes over its part of Kashmir. They also managed to capture the pilot of one of the planes. However, after a few days they decided to release the prisoner “in a gesture of peace” to ease the escalating conflict. Therefore, this country does not seem to be seeking open confrontation with its larger neighbor.

On the other hand, in supporting terrorist activities in the Indian part of Kashmir, the Pakistani military authorities have been working for years to make sure “that India would bleed from a thousand cuts”, as one of the leading Indian military said. It can therefore be assumed that Pakistan will not be eager for war. Meanwhile, it seems likely that it will be more eager to support jihad in Kashmir. Unfortunately, further escalation of violence in the valley is very likely.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2019" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.