Latest India-Pakistan flare-up has historical roots


B.K. Bangash | AP

People hold posters of Pakistani army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan during an anti-India rally, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

An escalation that could threaten nuclear exchange over the disputed province of Kashmir resurfaced this week as India and Pakistan added to the history of their violent rivalry.

   The conflict reignited on Feb. 14 when a suicide bomber from the separatist group Jaish-e Mohammed killed 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers. The terrorist attack occurred during a training exercise in the contested  region of Kashmir that borders both India and Pakistan.

India retaliated two weeks later by bombing what it stated were terrorist training camps on the Pakistan side of the border. Pakistan retaliated with its own airstrikes, which grew into dogfights between jets that resulted in the capture of an Indian pilot after being shot down by the Pakistan military.  The pilot was returned in a highly publicized exchange between the two rivals, but tensions remain strained. The stakes are especially high because the two countries have nuclear capabilities, and this incident is the most violent confrontation in decades.

“This is kind of a level of escalation we haven’t seen in the past,”  DePaul political science professor Scott Hibbard said. “Not just throwing artillery shells across the line of control — this is Indian jets bombing Pakistan and that’s a really dangerous escalation.”

The origin of the conflict can be traced back to the partition of India and Pakistan by Britain in 1947. The borders were intended to shape the Muslim state of Pakistan and keep India predominantly Hindu.  The Hindu leader of the Muslim-majority border province Kashmir opted to join India instead of Pakistan, sparking the first of three wars over the territory. The stakes of the standoff were raised after both countries became nuclear-capable in the 1990s.

Resolution for the Kashmiri population that sees them joining Pakistan or becoming independent is difficult because it has become a symbol of national pride for both countries. There have also been complaints of high unemployment, human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces and violence spilling over from battles with insurgent militia groups.

These insurgent groups have had a history of being backed by Pakistani intelligence services, though the Pakistani government has repeatedly denied these claims and there is no evidence to link Pakistan to the most recent bombing. This support of militant organizations has to do with Pakistan’s past of not being able to win an outright war against India, according to Hibbard.

“(They) are trying to do everything they can to make life increasingly difficult for India in Kashmir as a way of furthering their strategic interests and putting pressure on India to either stay out of Afghanistan, or stay out of Pakistan or stay out of Kashmir,” he said.

The leadership of both countries also plays a role in continuing the conflict. Populist Prime Minister Imran Khan was recently elected in Pakistan and has been pursuing hardline policies that include his stance on Kashmir. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a Hindu Nationalist who faces an upcoming reelection and has been capitalizing on the recent border crisis.

Dr. Kalyani Menon is a professor at DePaul who focuses on South Asian culture and religion and says that the conflict in Kashmir has provided an opportunity for Modi before the election.  Modi’s government is on the defensive after being implicated in corruption scandals and faced with a report showing rising unemployment levels. 

“In this context, the conflagration in Kashmir changes the narrative and Narendra Modi would like to use it to project himself as a strong leader who acted decisively after an attack,” Menon said.

“Historically, if such a conflict occurred the U.S. would probably act a mediator,” said William Denton, a professor at DePaul who focuses on American foreign policy.  “That does not seem to be the case now.”

A sustained struggle between India and Pakistan would risk drawing China in as a participant. It could also become difficult for the United States to deal with terrorist groups in the Northwest tribal territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which it has done with the cooperation and permission of the Pakistani government. 

“A conflict would distract from this effort,” Denton said.

Although the fighting over Kashmir has cooled down for now, the underlying rivalry and history over Kashmir remain unresolved and the threat of escalation remains.