Control of Kashmir Post-Pandemic



The Battle for Kashmir

The death, destruction and economic upheaval brought by the COVID pandemic notwithstanding, fighting season has arrived in South Asia. In the eye of the storm is Pakistan, a state seething under military rule, thinly veiled as democracy, and battered by severe economic hardship. In the west, its Taliban proxies have launched their usual summer offensive, pushing aside the infamous peace deal with the US and to its north east, its infantry and light artillery are engaged in routine shelling across the Line of Control, the de facto mountainous border that divides Indian and Pakistani territories of Kashmir. Typically, Pakistan uses these border fires to push infiltrators in the summer from its numerous spread-out so called launching pads and India retaliates heavily to deter these attempts and brow-beat Pakistani infantry.
So far more than a thousand violations of the Line of Control have been recorded during the year and just recently Indian forces claimed to kill a terrorist from a banned organisation in a raid at Pulwama.
Though, it’s business as usual for both India and Pakistan summer has arrived at the heels of several significant developments in the region and amidst a lethal pandemic that have the potential to turn the geo-strategic status quo on its head both in the region and beyond. Before looking at what might and might not happen in Kashmir and Indo-Pak relation in a post-pandemic world order, let’s take a brief look at the history of Kashmir dispute – one of the oldest and most volatile unresolved trouble-spot in the world. The dispute has sent both India and Pakistan to wars three times and the rivalry and animosity it created resulted in both countries engaging in a 70-year long arms race that includes adding 200-nuclear warheads a piece in the stockpiles of both the countries.

A brief chronology

Pakistan was carved out of Indian land mass when British Raj ended in 1947. There were 562 princely states in the sub-continent that operated with a limited autonomy within the British territories. At the time of Partition, the states were given a choice to join either India or Pakistan depending on geographical proximity and will of the population. Kashmir, a thinly populated state and huge land mass (more than 100,000 sq miles) stretching from the China border down to the plains of Punjab. The Hindu ruler of the state toyed with the idea of independence for a while delaying the accession decision creating unrest in majority Muslim population that revolted in few districts. Some of the revolt leaders fled to Pakistan and colluded with a senior Pakistani military officer, who kept the British chief of Pak army in the dark and assembled a ragtag force comprising WWII veterans and sent them towards state capital Srinagar. The ruler panicked and asked India to help. India readily obliged but on the condition of accession. Indian forces moved in and pushed the Pakistan military-backed force towards north but Indian Prime Minister Nehru requested UN intervention. The UN brokered a ceasefire agreement that called for i) Vacation of all territory by Pakistan-backed militia ii) withdrawal of Indian forces except a force to defend the key installations iii) holding of plebiscite referendum to decide the accession. Though both India and Pakistan signed the agreement but both countries never withdrew their forces, holding on to the territories they had at the time of agreement. So no plebiscite was ever held to ascertain the will of the people and the dispute continues to simmer ever since.
In hindsight, the Kashmir dispute has had enormous far-reaching consequences for the fate of the region broadly. The dispute not only sent the two countries into to successive wars, but also pushed Pakistan to become a permanent security state run by its military with the help of complicit bureaucracy and select politicians. Pakistan today is at the verge of economic meltdown and collapse because military controls and spends whatever Pakistan earns from limited revenue base and foreign aid and loans. In India too, the state never took off as it promised because of heavy spending on security and conservative economic policies necessitated by its rivalry with China and Pakistan.
The military in Pakistan, made the idea of sending in non-regulars to fight and foment trouble in Kashmir a permanent part of their playbook. They tried it again in 1965 but India expanded the war and then again in 1999 in a limited way to attract world attention to Kashmir after both countries overtly went nuclear in 1998.

Stumbling blocks

The world did pay a lot of attention to Kashmir – brokering direct peace between the two countries and facilitating several Track II initiatives only to see its efforts frustrated by both parties. So why is Kashmir still unresolved despite best efforts by international community? Let’s take a brief look at major stumbling blocks created by both Pakistan and India.
For Pakistan the Kashmir dispute is the reason for the existence and survival of its all-powerful military that controls the country’s politics and finances by drumming up perceived threat from India. And the enmity with India stands on the single issue – Kashmir. If Kashmir gets out of the way, other issues are too minor to stand in the way of peace. So there never was a genuine will from Pakistan side to resolve the dispute and even if there was like in the period from 2003-2007 when first Pakistan military ruler General Musharraf and PM Vajpayee and later Musharraf and PM Manmohan Singh gave their best shot to resolve the dispute pretty much on the lines drawn by the UN in 1948 agreement. However the forces inimical to Indo-Pak peace within the Pakistan military made sure that the process derails by staging Mumbai attacks in 2008. The calculus of peace never recovered from those attacks as India changed the way it used to deal Pakistan permanently.
Then there is the China factor. China exerts a considerable influence on Pakistan security establishment. It is also wary of India coming closer to its western borders if Kashmir is divided in any unfavourable way for Beijing. Soon after the independence, Pakistan ‘gifted’ a significant territorial chunk of Kashmir from its northern Gilgit territory to China to please the Mao’s communists. India does not recognise this ‘gift’. Further, China sees Pakistan as a counter-balance to India’s influence in the region pretty much the same way as the US sees India as counter-balance to China’s rising influence in the region. So the matters are not straight two-party affair if one considers China in the mix.
Neither are matters are simple in India. India is a country spread over a million sq kilometres with 1.3 billion people. Unlike Pakistan, India has multiple power centres and a diverse polity. Though Delhi’s grip on decision-making is strong, it can never ignore opposition parties, state governments and corporate groups spread across the country. Moreover, up until 2014, there was hardly a time when Delhi saw a strong and stable one-party government. Though matters related to national security are dealt with by the Prime Minister, unlike Pakistan and China it never has the absolute authority and freedom that comes with monolith political structures.
Also unlike Pakistan, India has been blowing hot and cold vis-a-vis India, talking peace and trade one day and hurling threats the other. This inconsistency provides leverage to the Pakistan military who has always been consistent in its anti-India posture.
Moreover, India never accepted Kashmir as disputed territory despite agreeing to a UN ceasefire agreement in 1948. It always repelled any effort by international community to mediate and always referred to Kashmir being a bilateral dispute. The policy worked as long as India held an edge in conventional military power but after 1998, the nuclear detonation and race for warheads rendered the conventional balance less effective.
Since 2014, we have seen a significant change in India. After almost 50 years, India is has a strong one-party rule under Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In August 2019, in a momentous move, Modi government decided to merge its part of Kashmir into Indian federation as a state ending its special status granted under constitution. The move meant that as far as Delhi is concerned the Indian part of Kashmir is not disputed anymore. The same was done with the part of Kashmir that borders China.

Is there a way forward?

As world experiences convulsions from the COVID pandemic and a shifting strategic and security paradigm in the wake of rising US-China and Russia rivalries, the chances of an old style summit mediation between India and Pakistan are lesser than before. Even if a peace were to be brokered, the chances of Pakistan sticking to its part of the deal are lower than Taliban honouring any peace deal in Afghanistan. The presence of strong and deliverable nuclear stockpile means that taking and holding a territory by force either by India or Pakistan is out of question and if tried will throw the region into another unending insurgency and conflict comparable to 40-year war in Afghanistan.
The chance of India claiming Kashmir militarily look bleaker than ever as in a post-COVID world it will be hard for India to sustain its defence spending and keep a meaningful economic growth.
So one can imagine the only decisive and final outcome of Kashmir would not come in isolation but is tied to what happens to Pakistan and its military state. Pakistan is economically impoverished with more than 40 million people are unemployed or jobless; its military and society is badly fragmented and in state of continuous conflict. The situation post-COVID is going to get worse both economically and socially. The response of the Pakistan military bears close watch. If it is unable to respond effectively, it may quickly lose its grip on power. Such a scenario would have profound implications to India (or China) control) over Pakistan’s long-claimed territory in Kashmir.