In his 2007 dispatch from the Pakistani side of Kashmir’s infamous Line of Control, Christopher Hitchens called the area ‘the near-certain flash point of a coming war that could well become an Asian Armageddon’. That war came closer to fruition last month than at any time in the past two decades.
It was hardly the first time India and Pakistan have come to blows over Kashmir, the disputed territory that has been split between them (and China, which controls a good chunk of its north-easternmost part) since the partition of British India in 1947. Indeed, given the number of ceasefire violations that take place along the LoC each year, it’s not even technically the first since both countries became nuclear powers.
It was nevertheless a remarkably dangerous situation in which South Asia found itself, on par with the 1999 Kargil War, when Pakistan was tempted to use its nuclear arsenal, and the 2001-02 stand-off over a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, when India was tempted to trot out its own.
The catalyst for this most recent bout of fighting was the February 14 suicide attack on a military convoy in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir. The attack killed 40, making it the single most deadly such incident in decades. The game of ever-escalating tit-for-tat that resulted—Indian airstrikes on Pakistan-based training camps (or on nothing, as media reports have since suggested), the downing of two Indian planes, the capture of an Indian pilot on Pakistani soil, an uptick in cross-border shelling—has rewritten the rules of engagement in the region, thrown Pakistan’s reliance on nuclear deterrence into question, and, perhaps most notably, revealed the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be as dangerous to regional stability as its more traditionally destabilising neighbour.
It is no secret that Pakistan allows terrorist and other militant organisations to base and train themselves on its territory. The country has all but admitted it on numerous occasions. But it is similarly true that the vast majority of militants on Indian soil are, nowadays, homegrown ones, including Adil Ahmad Dar, who was responsible for the Pulwama attack.
Indeed, India bears at least as much responsibility for the radicalisation of such young people as Pakistan does.
When I was in Indian-administered Kashmir last year—my 12,000 word series about the region was published by the Daily Beast in December—I found it to be a beautiful but beleaguered police state. Friday prayers devolved into rolling street battles between heavily-armed soldiers and rock-throwing teenagers—’stone-pelters’ as they are known in the Indian press—and civil society leaders and human rights workers claimed to be regularly targeted for their work. I met Khurram Parvez of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society in his office towards the end of my stay. ‘The Indian government has resolved to kill the Kashmiri people slowly,’ he told me. ‘They don’t want a Rwanda on their hands. They don’t want any international outcry…It’s what we might call a slow genocide.’
That Modi’s government should have chosen to bring South Asia to the brink of war is for this reason not surprising. Violence has characterised Modi’s approach to the region, and to India’s Muslim population more generally, since his ascent to power in 2014. For all the paternalistic cant of his official statements on Kashmir—’Neither abuses nor bullets will resolve problems, but hugging every Kashmiri will,’ he told an audience on the first day of my visit—the numbers don’t tend to lie. India killed more insurgents in 2018 than in any other year this decade, and its use of pellet-firing shotguns against civilians recently led the former UN Commissioner on Human Rights to announce an independent commission of inquiry into the practice. (At least seventeen Kashmiris were killed by such guns, and more than 6200 wounded, between July 2016 and March 2017.)
The public reaction to the Pulwama attack also speaks to the culture of Islamophobia that Modi has cultivated. Kashmiri students studying in Dehradun were spirited out of the city in the dead of night to avoid the lynch mobs baying for blood outside their dormitories. Indeed, the days immediately following the attack recalled the Gujarat riots of 2002, which left hundreds of Muslims (and a smaller though no less significant number of Hindus) dead. Many believe, despite a court later finding him innocent, that Modi tacitly supported the violence in his then role as the governor of that state.
It is hardly coincidental that that Modi faces reelection next month and that his numbers have gone up since Indian planes crossed the LoC. His party colleagues have bragged in public about how many seats the conflict is likely to net them. The Bharatiya Janata Party he leads has even launched a line of sarees featuring pictures of soldiers and fighter jets alongside the prime minister in the lead-up to the vote.
But it is nevertheless difficult to imagine Modi responding to the Pulwama attack in any other way. The anti-Muslim rhetoric of the BJP, and the Hindu nationalist ideology it espouses, all but ensured such a reaction, election or otherwise. This ideology has entered the Indian mainstream, if not the country’s very bloodstream, as evidenced by the jingoism espoused by its media, including supposedly liberal commentators like Barkha Dutt, who insisted that her tweets in support of India’s actions were not “warmongering” but a cry for “justice”. Hindu nationalist Twitter was even more bloodthirsty.
That all of the above helps to create Kashmiri militants, rather than deter those considering armed struggle as a legitimate option in the face of India’s actions, seems obvious enough. In February last year, Kashmiri journalist Sameer Yasir reported on the funeral of 19-year-old Ubaid Shafi Malla, who dropped out of college to become a militant. Malla’s mother addressed the crowd.
‘Would you like to become a militant?’ [she asked them].
‘Yes, we will,’ the crowd roared in response.
‘Would you like to become Tiger?’ she said, pointing to a nearby village where a famous Kashmiri militant Sameer Bhat, also known as Sameer Tiger, was killed the previous week.
‘Yes, we want to!’ the crowd responded.
‘Then say it loudly,’ she shouted.
‘Azadi! [Freedom!],’ the crowd roared.
In 2007, Hitchens noted with some dismay that ‘the Kashmiri militants who contest India’s rule over a Muslim-majority province have abandoned nationalist rhetoric and tactics and opted instead for jihad’. That caught my attention, too, when I spoke to the families of several militants in southern Kashmir’s Shopian district. But it’s also worth noting that, when I met the family of Riyaz Naikoo, one of the leaders of the the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, they failed to see a difference between the nationalist and Islamist struggles. ‘Riyaz Saab and others like him are fighting for the Kashmiri people,’ Naikoo’s father, Assadullah, told me. ‘Our country and our religion are the same to us, you understand?’
When I met the leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Yasin Malik, the long-time separatist stalwart declined to condemn the shift towards radical Islam despite committing himself to non-violence more than two decades ago.
‘These boys,’ he said of Naikoo and others, ‘believed in the non-violent movement once, too. But the [democratic] space has been taken away from them. Harassment of their families has increased. They have seen their friends and families in body bags…This is what radicalisation is. India is humiliating these people.’
Until his death in 2011, Hitchens liked to remind Western leaders that India, not Pakistan, was their natural ally in the region. What he could not have foreseen was the manner in which, as Mihar Sharma recently suggested in Bloomberg’s opinion pages, India would eventually come to resemble a kind of Hindu Pakistan.
None of this is to exculpate Pakistan, of course, which also likes to exploit the Kashmir issue whenever election time rolls around, and which, as mentioned earlier, does bear real responsibility for the continued existence of groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed, which claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Pakistan’s reliance on nuclear deterrence—more a matter of faith than of sound strategy—has long been of concern as well. Late last month, in a private WhatsApp group message obtained by the Mumbai-based Firstpost news website, Pakistani Lt Gen Tariq Khan told his colleagues in the group that: ‘[Pakistan’s] response should be to escalate and push the envelope of hostilities so that nuclear war is a likely outcome.’ India, Lt Gen Khan insisted, ‘simply will not go down this road’.
Narendra Modi’s India has now put an end to this fantasy. In a few short days, in moves driven as much by its new, disturbingly dominant ideology as by cynical electoral politics, the country rewrote the rules and altered the calculus in South Asia. From now on, cross-border sorties and dogfights will be the bar that the Indian government has to clear when terrorist attacks take place on its soil, regardless of where those responsible were based or how, exactly, they were radicalised in the first place.
The doctrine of nuclear deterrence now comes with an important caveat, too: it can no longer be relied upon to deter parties—in this case both of them—that are ideological actors first, political ones second, and rational ones only third. We can only be grateful that Pakistan, under pressure from the United States and China, eventually released the captured Indian airman. (Modi’s government cannot have been thrilled that he thanked the Pakistani military for its hospitality.) Of course, while that move helped to reduce the overall tension between the two countries, it should also be noted that the return to old-fashioned cross-border shelling—business as usual along the LoC—quickly resulted in the deaths of countless ordinary Kashmiris in the area.
But then neither side has ever much cared about such people or their troubles. If they did, they would have given the Kashmiris the plebiscite they were promised by UN Security Council Resolution 47 in 1948. (Mind you, at this point, declining to fire pellet shotguns into mosques would also be a good start.)
Until this happens, and India and Pakistan put an end to the great game they have played since partition—’Our crowning failure,’ as one of the British characters puts it in Paul Scott’s devastating Raj Quartet—one suspects that they will continue to bring themselves, and the world around them, ever closer to midnight.