India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir for decades. Is this tug of war about to go nuclear?
Pakistan and India have feuded over who owns the Kashmir region for more than 60 years, and yet they still don’t seem closer to reaching an agreement.
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The Indian government this week moved toward revoking special status for a contested region, Kashmir, that makes up the country’s only Muslim-majority state.
The decision to revoke the constitutional provision that previously gave the Indian-controlled region of Kashmir some degree of autonomy has raised concerns about fanning the flames of a violent conflict that has been ongoing for decades.
Those fears were substantiated when the Indian government moved troops into the region and cut off internet access , The Washington Post reported. That move not only sparked outrage from Pakistan, the Muslim-majority nation that shares control over the region, but led the country to downgrade its trade relationship with India and expel the country’s top diplomat in Islamabad in retaliation.
What might happen if the highly contested region loses its special status? Here’s what we know:
Where is Kashmir, and how was it formed?
Kashmir, a mountainous region located near the northernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, has been a source of dispute between India and Pakistan since the two countries won independence from Britain in 1947.
While India and Pakistan underwent a violent separation from one another, Kashmir chose to stay independent. The two countries began engaging in armed conflicts for control of the region, leaving Kashmir’s sovereignty in limbo.
Currently, three countries share control over parts of Kashmir: India, Pakistan and China. Kashmir’s largest territory, known as Jammu and Kashmir, is in India’s control, while Pakistan controls areas called Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. China controls an eastern area known as Aksai Chin.
In 1972, an unofficial border between the countries in the area, known as the Line of Control, was established. Though that area has been part of a cease-fire agreement since 2003, cross-fire deaths still occur, killing civilians and reflecting the ongoing state of conflict.
India’s recent decision to strip Kashmir of its limited autonomy isn’t the first time this year that conflict has sparked over control of the region.A suicide bombing in February of a paramilitary convoy in the India-controlled part of Kashmir killed 41 people and left India and Pakistan blaming one another for the violent attack.
The two countries also exchanged airstrikes for the first time in decades earlier this year, igniting fears that they could turn to more aggressive means, potentially including nuclear weapons.
“The revocation of Article 370 is expected to cause unrest and wide scale protests in the state,” Amnesty International India said in a press release. “So far, the government’s response to dealing with protests in the state has been heavy-handed and have led to gross human rights violations such as blinding, killing and traumatizing people over the past few years.”
What is Article 370, and what could happen to it?
Article 370 is a provision in India’s constitution that has, until now, given the state of Jammu and Kashmir a certain degree of self-governance, including the power to make their own laws — except in the case of foreign affairs, defense, or communications — and the right to their own flag and constitution.
This allowed Jammu and Kashmir to make its own rules on permanent residency and property ownership, allowing them to bar Indian citizens from outside the state from settling there, Vice News reported.
By revoking Article 370, the Indian government would shift those powers to its own central government in New Delhi, potentially opening the Muslim-majority state to be controlled by India’s Hindu nationalist government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP.
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The BJP, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has historically embraced Hindu nationalist positions and has long opposed Article 370, BBC News reported. The BJP included the goal of abrogating Article 370 in its election manifesto this year.
Those nationalist positions have already had an impact on Kashmir, and they could exacerbate levels of violence there, according to Sameer Lalwani, a senior fellow and director of the South Asian program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think-tank that studies international peace and security.
“In the [Kashmir] valley itself, you’ve had rising violence over the last five years. I think it predates the BJP’s ascension to power by a little bit, but a large part of it coincides with the BJP coming to power,” Lalwani told USA TODAY.
The attempt to repeal Article 370 has received criticism from Kashmiris, Pakistanis and Indians. Among those critics is Mehbooba Mufti, who was Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister until last year. Mufti wrote in a tweet that the decision marked the “darkest day in democracy” and “reduces India to an occupation force in the state.”
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Mufti, who is among several Kashmiri politicians who have been placed under house arrest amid the rising tension in the area, also called the move “illegal and unconstitutional” and said that its goal is to change Kashmir’s Muslim-majority demographic through migration.
Omar Abdullah, another former chief minister under house arrest, said in a statement that “[t]hose of us who gave democratic voice to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, are incarcerated as lakhs (thousands) of armed security personnel have been put on the ground,” according to Amnesty International India.
Amnesty International India added that the abrogation of Article 370 will “inflame prevailing tensions, alienate the people in the state and increase the risk of further human rights violations” in Kashmir and its surrounding areas.
The decision received a more aggressive response from Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who said his forces would go to “any extent” to protect Kashmir, Vice News reported.
“Certainly, all conflict between India and Pakistan is fraught because they are two countries with nuclear weapons,” Lalwani said.
How do people in Kashmir feel about it?
It’s difficult to tell how exactly Kashmiris have responded to the news. The Indian government made a series of moves in Kashmir in the days leading up to the announcement, which included sending thousands of troops to the area, closing Hindu pilgrimage sites, ordering non-residents to leave the state and cutting off internet access, Vice reported.
“These shutdowns affect the ability of people in Kashmir to seek, receive, and impart information, which is an integral part of the right to freedom of expression,” Amnesty International India head Aakar Patel said in a statement. “These blackouts also impede the ability of friends and relatives to reach out and inform about their safety, further increasing tensions and feelings of insecurity.”
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Lalwani said a colleague who left Kashmir to go to New Delhi wrote to him about the state of the region, telling him that “everything is shattered!”
“My guess is that there’s a lot of anger, frustration, betrayal,” Lalwani said.
That doesn’t mean all Kashmiris oppose the move, though, even if they don’t support the means of getting there.
“We shouldn’t discount the idea that it is supported in some parts of the state, and even some parts of the [Kashmir] valley,” Lalwani said.
“But the way it was done, through the cloak-and-dagger in the middle of the night decision, backed by massive paramilitary forces, without a public debate in Parliament or an opportunity for political leaders to raise their voices, and the house arrests of Kashmiri leaders — all of those things make it seem much more nefarious,” Lalwani said.
Why is this happening now?
That’s unclear, Lalwani said — this part of South Asia has been facing a rise in ethnonationalism, religious nationalism and identity politics for decades.
“This didn’t pop up overnight,” he said. “And this is a phenomena throughout the world.”
It’s possible, however, that the Indian government made the move in order to avoid interference from the United States, according to Lalwani.
“There’s some suspicion, validated by anonymous reports, that there’s a great deal of concern about the U.S. president’s offers to mediate the Kashmir dispute. If that didn’t alarm India, it at least prompted them to take rapid action that would … preclude the ability of the U.S. to wade into this,” he said.
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