The issue of the disputed Kashmir region in South Asia, which has long loomed over traditionally strained India-Pakistan relations, has once again put the two nations at odds. Kashmir, the mountainous Himalayan region comprising the northern-most part of India, has segments claimed by India and Pakistan. The region is a major source of their historical animosity, marked by violent clashes between the two nations. The latest clash, however, has surpassed most skirmishes in scope and significance since the 1999 Kargil War. Tensions began to rise this past summer, when the Indian-administered valley saw major protests in response to the killing of Burhan Wani, a prominent leader of resistance to India. As a result of these protests, major portions of Kashmir’s government and police infrastructure were shut down. India responded with a robust deployment of security forces to the area along with mandatory curfews. The tension cultivated by the protests came to a violent climax on September 18th, when eighteen Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush on the line of control, or LOC, in the disputed area between India and Pakistan. The ambush was conducted by a militia group which India claims is working on behalf of the Pakistanis, while Pakistan vehemently denies perpetrating the attack.
India’s response has been bipartite; along with targeted strikes across the LOC to target Pakistani “terrorist launch pads,” the country is also waging a targeted publicity campaign against Pakistan. The raids were allegedly conducted by Indian Special Forces, and Indian officials say that “casualties are substantial.” However, it seems that the most significant aspect of the Indian Government’s raid has been its publicity and its proclamation to the Indian public that firm action was taken in response to the death of the eighteen soldiers. The strike itself was an unprecedented military operation against targets in Pakistani territory, as was its presence in the news. The Indian government has not admitted to such action since 1971, which highlights the increased stakes in the current Kashmir conflict and demonstrates just how important the optics of the situation are for India. India has so far been reluctant to release photos or videos of the raid, citing a possible complication of the “post-strike situation.”
Pakistan has, of course, reciprocated this war of words.Defense Minister Khawaja Asif said “If India tries to do this again we will respond forcefully. India is doing this only to please their media and public.” With its own information-burden to the public, Pakistan has also aggressively challenged the facts put forth by India about the strike. General Asim Saleem Bajwa has claimed that India has hidden casualties from cross-border fire, and, furthermore, that India’s strike across the LOC was a fabricated claim by the Indian government and never actually occurred. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has also categorically denied the that the strike ever occurred, and Pakistan’s influential military press wing claimed that “this quest by Indian establishment to create media hype by rebranding cross border fire as a surgical strike is fabrication of truth.”
The forcefulness with which both India and Pakistan are pushing their own narratives of the original attack and subsequent strike demonstrates the importance that each country places on public perception with regards to this conflict. Each nation’s media has spun whatever the true facts of the situation are into news reports that highlight their respective country’s strength in the face of violence. This is often true of any armed conflict that the only real solution is political. Public perception and opinion are among the strongest influences in politics, so the emphasis placed on both comes as no surprise in the case of Kashmir and broader Indo-Pak relations. These competing narratives will also become crucial to the interests of both countries in the event of international intervention. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has offered to act as a mediator, and should he become involved, India and Pakistan will undoubtedly try to argue their side of the conflict and place all blame on the opposing side. With the facts still murky, it will be crucial to the interests of both countries to push a narrative that portrays the other as the belligerent party.
These volatile narratives are especially troubling, of course, because both India and Pakistan possess nuclear capabilities. It is in the best interest of each party, as well as the international community, to see these tensions cooled before hostilities expand even further, and both nations can begin this de-escalation by first relaxing their wars of information. If physical war were to break out between the two countries, the prospect of nuclear weapon use could hang on a dangerously delicate thread. Though India only possesses strategic, high-yield nuclear weapons and says that it has no plans to develop tactical nukes, Pakistan possesses tactical nuclear weapons that could be used on the battlefield, and has openly signaled its willingness to deploy low-yield, short range tactical nuclear missiles against India.
The danger of nuclear weapon use, along with further destabilization of the Kashmir region, makes the recent unprecedented actions and bellicose rhetoric by both India and Pakistan extremely concerning. It also represents a disappointing downward slide in relations after renewed hope last year of an improving Indo-Pak dialogue. Both states’ war of bullets, along with their war of words, demonstrates the volatility of the region and the high stakes for both India and Pakistan.