Narendra Modi and Imran Khan may be tempted to escalate the hitherto limited warfare in disputed Kashmir, both to distract public opinion away from domestic governance failures, and to reinforce their ideological claims to power.
Ten months after tensions between India and Pakistan erupted into a brief air war over disputed Kashmir, deadly skirmishes are raging along the Line of Control with ever increasing frequency.
Clashes along the de facto border are now at their most intense since a ceasefire agreement was reached in November 2003. The number of Pakistani violations has reportedly doubled this year, spiking to an average of more than 10 a day since August 5, when New Delhi provocatively annexed its half of Kashmir. Pakistan says the volume of Indian violations is even higher.
The latest fortnight-long outbreak has claimed the lives of soldiers and civilians on both sides, prompting a call for restraint from neighbouring China. As Pakistan’s closest strategic ally, and India’s premier rival for power in South Asia, Beijing is often the first to red-flag brewing trouble. Its most recent statement calls on India and Pakistan to “avoid actions that might escalate tensions” - language it has used since August 5.
To some extent, Beijing’s warning merely echoes the rhetoric emanating from Islamabad and New Delhi. Gen Bipin Rawat, India’s newly-promoted chief of defence staff, has warned that hostilities along the Line of Control could escalate at any time. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi says India could be in the process of manufacturing a pretext for another armed incursion.
At the very least, this regular exchange of ammunition and threats means that the ceasefire agreement is dead and buried. So, too, is any prospect of the revival of the “irreversible” peace process diligently negotiated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s military dictator, Pervez Musharraf.
For the time-being, Islamabad has limited its responses to the Line of Control and diplomatic lobbying against the draconian measures that Narendra Modi’s Hindutva administration has imposed on millions of Kashmiris. It may also be argued, with justification, that Pakistan’s economy is too weak for its government to consider upping the ante, militarily.
However, China has good reason to fear a further escalation. It would be naive to expect Pakistan to accept the ‘new normal’ that Modi has sought to impose by revoking the special constitutional status of India-administered Kashmir. Its entire power structure is predicated upon national security policy, with Kashmir at its core.
No Pakistani government can sustain or survive such humiliation. At some point, its decision makers will have to act, or at least be seen to act, by the Pakistani populace, or they will lose their raison d’etre. Failure to do so could eventually prove fatal for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration, which has grown increasingly unpopular because of its inept governance and austere economic policies. Already, its failures have fuelled a divisive imbroglio between state institutions over who actually rules the country.
Historically, Pakistan’s powerful military has sought to reassert its grip in such circumstances by launching ill-fated military operations against Indian forces in Kashmir. General Ayub Khan did so in 1965 after rigging the presidential election he contested against Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan’s founder. Similarly, General Pervez Musharraf seized the Kargil heights in 1999, without the knowledge of the then prime minister, setting into motion a series of events culminating in a military takeover.
Rather than learning from Pakistan’s past follies, however, Modi seems to be inspired by them.
He has justified his abandonment of India’s reactive post-2003 policy by accusing Pakistan of resuming sponsorship of cross-Line of Control militant attacks against Indian forces, a charge Islamabad hotly disputes. Subsequently, it joined forces with the West to corner Pakistan on the issue of terrorism financing.
Rather than being satisfied by this significant diplomatic victory, however, New Delhi has chosen to use it as a pretext for military aggression. To date, it has not presented any convincing evidence of Islamabad’s alleged involvement in the Pulwama attack, India’s excuse for its alleged air attack on a militant camp in the Pakistani hinterland.
Instead, Modi used the crisis he created to boost his flagging popularity and gain a second term in office. Since then, his governance has been characterised by the oppression of Muslims, both in Kashmir and through the nationwide imposition of an Islamophobic citizenship law.
Clearly, Modi has decided the political longevity lies in the manipulation of religious hatred to justify both his domestic political agenda and confrontational policy towards Pakistan. This mindset is fast infecting the rest of the Indian state. During the ongoing crackdown against Muslims demonstrating against the new citizenship law, police officers have been filmed telling them to “go to Pakistan”.
Freshly-anointed top general Bipin Rawat has also broken with India’s military tradition of staying out of politics. As army chief of staff, he echoed the Modi administration’s since-disproven claims about last February’s conflagration, and enthusiastically supported populist calls to seize Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Shortly before his promotion, Rawat shocked Indian politicians again by criticizing demonstrations against the new citizenship law.
Analysts predict that New Delhi’s focus on implementing a Hindu supremacist agenda will exacerbate the country’s sharp economic downturn, much in the way that the Khan administration’s prosecution of opposition politicians on trumped up corruption charges has undermined investor sentiment in Pakistan.
If history is anything to go by, the leaders of India and Pakistan may be tempted to escalate the hitherto limited warfare in Kashmir, both to distract public opinion away from domestic governance failures, and to reinforce their ideological claims to power.
Whether they do or not, another conflict in Kashmir may be just one populism-driven decision away.
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