On February 14, 2019, a suicide bomber affiliated with the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary policemen in Pulwama, Kashmir. Two Kashmiri men were arrested in conjunction with the attack and revealed during interrogation that the bombing was masterminded by Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, an Islamic fundamentalist and human rights activist, who was killed five days after in
Control of the Kashmir region has always been a point of contention between India and Pakistan. When India and Pakistan won independence from Britain in 1947, Kashmir was allowed to choose which state to join. Maharaja Hari Singh, Kashmir’s Hindu ruler at the time, chose to accede to India even though his subjects were majority-Muslim, sparking a two-year war between the countries. Subsequent wars followed in 1965 and 1999.
As of today, India controls about two-thirds of Kashmir and Pakistan controls the remainder. The unrest in the Indian-controlled portion, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, comes from the fact that the region remains more than 60 percent Muslim, the only Muslim-majority state in India. Additionally, Kashmir acceded to India in 1947 under the condition of substantial autonomy but, over time, the Indian government has curtailed Kashmir’s autonomy – many Indian government officials are eager to finally strip away the last few measures of Kashmir’s special treatment. Many Kashmiris want to either secede from India and join Pakistan or become independent – in these goals they are supported by Pakistan, which has never recognized India’s claim to the region. The situation is made worse by Indian security forces, who use brutally suppress protesters with pellet guns, causing extensive injuries. The violent death of Burhan Wani, a popular Kashmiri militant leader, aggravated the conflicts, causing mass protests and violence. In 2018, more than 500 people, including civilians and militants, were killed in conflicts.
Although it seemed as though Pakistan and India were heading towards peace, the Pulwama attack has raised tensions between India and Pakistan to dangerous levels. In India, the attack spawned numerous anti-Pakistan protests, but has also caused civilian attacks. Kashmiris all across India are being targeted for their ties to the region, with several reports of harassment or assault over the last few weeks. An exodus of Kashmiri students and business professionals have returned to Kashmir from other parts of India for fear of being attacked. More than 20 female students living in a hostel were forced to lock themselves into their rooms after protestors gathered outside demanding their eviction.
Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, has denied any involvement with the Pulwama attack and has stated that if India attacks, Pakistan will retaliate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has promised to give the military free rein to respond to the attack. India has already moved to both impose trade restrictions on Pakistan and build dams to prevent water from Indian rivers from reaching the country. Both India and Pakistan have recalled their diplomats to the other country.
Rising tensions between the two countries are made even more dangerous by the fact that both countries are nuclear powers. Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf warned against going to war with India, saying that “if we attack with one nuke, India may finish us with 20.” He warned against escalation, claiming that the only solution would then be to first attack with 50 bombs, to prevent Indian retaliation, and pointed out how ridiculous it would be to launch an initial attack of that magnitude. However, though war at the moment is unlikely, families in Kashmir are already preparing for the possibility and, if the conflict goes unchecked, further violence is almost guaranteed.
Historically, conflict de-escalation between India and Pakistan has been contingent on third party mediation, since both countries have no framework for de-escalation in place. In 2008, after Pakistani militant groups led deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India and Pakistan were close to war. The reason neither country declared war was due to other countries, including the U.S., that mediated the conflict and urged both sides to end the crisis. U.S. involvement was also crucial to ending both the 1999 conflict and a military standoff between India and Pakistan in the early 2000s.
But even though the U.S. and other countries were able to intervene in the past, that may not be the case today. Pakistan maintains that they are incapable of neutralizing the militant groups in the Kashmir region, while India believes that those groups are enabled by the Pakistani government, so both countries refuse to work together to solve these issues. Furthermore, the U.S. is no longer in the sole undisputed superpower that it was in when previous conflicts erupted between India and Pakistan, making it less likely that the U.S. can serve as a mediator this time around. However, there is still hope for peace. On February 28, 2019, Prime Minister Khan announced that Pakistan would be releasing an Indian pilot captured after his plane was shot down in Pakistani airspace following a bombing mission. His announcement is an effort to open negotiations for peace – he also asked for direct communication with Prime Minister Modi. Indian officials maintain that in order for India to back down, Pakistan must be willing to stop terrorist organizations within their country. Although Khan’s release of the fighter pilot won’t end this crisis, it is a first step in allowing both countries to move forward into peace talks.