Sunday, October 2, 2016

Kashmir – time for level heads to prevail

The question following India’s ‘surgical strike’ across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir — taking out what it describes as terrorist ‘launch-pads’ in Pakistani territory — is what happens next.

Despite all the rhetoric, the preferred answer from political centres in New Delhi and Islamabad is ‘not a great deal’. There has since been an attack by ‘militants’ on an Indian base in its part of Kashmir but on the scale of actions in this war-torn province, it was just another working day.     

The Indian strikes were in response to a far more serious militant attack on its Uri Army base that killed 18 Indian soldiers. That followed two months of street protests in the divided territory over the killing of militant Burhan Wani that left more than 85 people dead.

Tit for tat, tit for tat — the history of Indo-Pakistan relations over Kashmir that go back to partition.

Twice they have escalated into full-scale war, but the stakes are far higher now — and not just because both countries have nuclear arsenals.

To put it simply, China backs Pakistan and the United States supports India. Confrontation between the two sub-continent States could drag in the superpowers — and that is a situation no-one wants.

However, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, might be content with allowing matters to rest, there are other forces at play.

In Pakistan Sharif has to contend with an aggressive military which has a habit of seizing power for itself if it feels things are not going well for the country and a restive parliamentary opposition outraged over what it sees as India’s violation of its territorial integrity.

Army Chief Raheel Sharif is far more popular in the country than his political namesake and does not want to see that reputation tarnished by inaction. Finally, fundamentalist Islamic elements are generating pressure for more far-reaching reprisals.

Modi is not entirely immune from pressure either. His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is delighted with the strikes across the LoC after what it sees as India’s failure to respond to constant provocations, and Pakistan’s failure to deal with militant elements on its soil.  

For the right wing of the party, the crisis is a godsend, silencing liberal voices who seek a political settlement of the Kashmir question and moving closer to what so many of them have demanded for decades – a military solution.

It is to be hoped that level heads will prevail. New Delhi needs to be reminded that the latest tensions boiled over mainly as a result of its own brutal crackdowns in Indian-administered Kashmir and it now needs to deal with the unrest there in a more measured way.

With the United States distracted in the midst of its four-yearly presidential election cycle and with the Middle East still firmly on its plate, early intervention to calm the dispute cannot be guaranteed.

This opens the ominous possibility that China might decide the time is ripe to stir the Kashmir pot, raising the stakes to a point that Washington could no longer ignore.

Modi can avoid this by using some of the political capital he has gained so far to deescalate the situation. The next moves should be at the negotiating table rather than the battlefield.   

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