Opinion: following the latest crisis between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, can anything be done to prevent more confrontation?

By Moign Khawaja and Mohd Tahir Ganie, DCU

One of medieval India’s most famous Sufi poets Amir Khusrow once said the following about Kashmir: "If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!" But the Doomsday Clock literally came a minute close to midnight last week when nuclear powers India and Pakistan traded blows over the region and vowed to teach each other a lesson. The international community urged both sides to observe utmost restraint.

The latest crisis was sparked on February 14th when a 20-year-old Kashmiri militant Adil Ahmad Dar rammed a car filled with explosives into an Indian security forces convoy in the Pulwama district of Indian-controlled Kashmir killing at least 49 Indian troops. The suicide attack was the deadliest since the armed insurgency started in 1989.

India instantly accused Pakistan of the attack owing to the fact that Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM, Army of Muhammad in Arabic), a Pakistan-based militant organisation, claimed responsibility. Pakistan vehemently refuted the allegations and asked India to provide evidence and "actionable intelligence". New Delhi, citing past terrorist attacks and alleged Pakistani involvement, rejected pleas for dialogue and decided to take matters into its own hands amid war frenzy whipped up by many Indian media outlets.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Shubhajit Roy, Senior Editor with the Indian Express, discusses the conflict facing Pakistan and India as tension escalated over Kashmir

The result was a cross-border air raid on February 26th that targeted a suspected JeM training site in Balakot, northwest Pakistan, within striking distance of the contentious Line of Control (LoC), which separates Indian and Pakistani controlled territories of Jammu and Kashmir. An Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman claimed the airstrike killed "very large number of (JeM) terrorists, trainers and senior commanders." No evidence of this was provided to the media though. Denied by Pakistan, media reports suggested Indian aerial attack was limited to an injured civilian and some damaged trees. However, this was just the beginning of tit-for-tat actions.

On February 27th, Pakistan shot down an Indian MiG-21 fighter jet and captured its pilot. In a separate incident on the same day, seven people died, including six IAF personnel and a Kashmiri civilian, when an Indian Airforce (IAF) combat chopper crashed in the Budgam area of Indian-controlled Kashmir. New Delhi also claimed shooting down of a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet which was disputed by Islamabad.

On the one hand, the downing of Indian jets and the capture of its pilot created a huge setback for under-pressure Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is facing general elections in May and whose popularity has dipped in recent months. His opponents accused him of taking the nation to war and stoking populism for electoral gains.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Karachi based journalist Omar Quraishi on the shooting down of Indian jets over Kashmir by Pakistan

But on the other hand, Pakistani PM Imran Khan bolstered his dipping popularity when he announced the release of captured Indian pilot as a "gesture of peace," which won him plaudits in India and abroad despite some criticism at home. Warning about any miscalculations having nuclear ramifications, he urged Indian PM Modi to hold direct talks to resolve the issue.

New Delhi insists that Islamabad should end its support for "terrorism" first before any negotiations can take place, which in Indian diplomatic speak means Pakistan ending its material support for the Kashmiri freedom movement. So why are Kashmiris waging an armed insurgency against India in the first place?

There is no doubt that the roots of current crisis lie in the longstanding dispute over the region of Jammu and Kashmir, which has been raging since 1947 when the British divided India along Hindu-Muslim lines. Under the British partition plan, Muslim-majority states of the Indian sub-continent were supposed to be part of Pakistan. However, the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir Maharaja Hari Singh, a Hindu, signed the accession document with India on October 26th, 1947, paving the way for a military takeover by India.

What can be done to de-escalate the situation in Kashmir and stop India and Pakistan from triggering a nuclear confrontation?

A revolt in Muslim-dominated parts of Jammu and Kashmir led to invasion from neighbouring Pakistan and subsequent control of territories which were later proclaimed "Azad Kashmir" (Free Kashmir). A stalemate ensued that triggered the first India-Pakistan war in late 1947. The war came to an end after a UN-brokered ceasefire came into effect on January 5th, 1949.

Back in 1948, New Delhi took the dispute to the UN and agreed to a UN-monitored plebiscite, declared Jammu and Kashmir as its "integral part", granted it special rights and later incorporated it into the Union of India in 1956. The moves failed to dispel unrest among Kashmiris, which Pakistan duly exploited leading to a full-blown war in August-September, 1965. The violent breakaway of Pakistan’s eastern wing and formation of an independent state named Bangladesh in 1971, fully armed and supported by India, paved the way for an agreement in 1972, which promised to resolve the issue peacefully.

However, little changed on the ground. Deeply frustrated by the status quo, Kashmiris under Indian control started an all-out pro-independence movement in 1989. They held mass protests which turned violent after a brutal crackdown by Indian security forces. Kashmiri rebels took up arms and started targeting state institutions and security forces while India amassed around half a million troops in the region, making it the most militarised place on earth.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Pakistan and Central Asia Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph Ahmed Rashid on attempts to ease tensions in Kashmir

Years later the insurgency died down due to several factors, including a Nationalist-Islamist fratricide, but the demands for independence kept simmering in the hearts and minds of Kashmiris. A new wave of pro-independence mass protests in 2008 and 2010, in which over 150 Kashmiri demonstrators were killed by Indian security forces, turned a new chapter in Kashmir’s history. Termed "new age militancy," hundreds of Kashmiri youths joined armed anti-India groups. Prominent among them was a 21-year-old rebel commander named Burhan Wani whose death in a gunfight in July 2016 triggered a three-month long uprising in Kashmir and inspired many young men to take up arms and fight the Indian army.

Despite lacking military training and resources, the fresh batch of militants are highly-motivated, social media-savvy, and enjoy wide support among the local population. Knowing full well their weaknesses, the Indian army launched Operation All-out in June 2017, which killed over 450 Kashmiri fighters including top commanders.

Vastly outgunned and outnumbered, Kashmiri militants resorted to other deadly insurgent tactics such as the use of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The deadly suicide attack of February 14th is part of Kashmiri separatists’ efforts to reclaim lost ground. A large segment of the local population in Kashmir not only supports the rebels but also challenges Indian rule through peaceful means, such as demonstrations, general strikes and shutdowns, as well as by means of media, art and music.

Each nation wants the Kashmir Valley for itself, or to deprive its rival of this region

So what can be done to de-escalate the situation in Kashmir and stop India and Pakistan from triggering a nuclear confrontation? While Indians and Pakistanis insist that Kashmir is an "integral part" of their nation, Kashmiris are increasingly joining the chorus for independence. Several Kashmiri politicians have demanded unconditional India-Pakistan peace talks, demilitarisation of the whole region including Pakistani-controlled areas, and opening of all roads and communication links on both sides to foster peace and stability.

Many analysts have proposed a Northern Ireland like model for peace which focuses on a joint Kashmiri assembly and investment in the Kashmiri economy, a solution that could prove beneficial to all sides i.e. Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris. But skeptics believe such a scenario is not in the interests of either Indian or Pakistani establishments.

According to renowned Kashmir specialist Christopher Snedden, "each nation wants the Kashmir Valley for itself, or to deprive its rival of this region." In his book "Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris", he quoted late Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah who once said: "they [India and Pakistan] are like lovers prepared to suffer tremendously for Kashmir’s sake."

Moign Khawaja is a PhD student at the School of Law & Government at DCUMohd Tahir Ganie is a PhD student at the School of Law & Government at DCU

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ