At around 4am in Kashmir on the 26th of February or 10.30pm on the night of the 25th in Ireland, Indian fighter jets carried out airstrikes in Balakot, Pakistan, targeting the hillside camp of a group called Jaish-e-Mohammed. Shortly after, the Pakistan Air Force scrambled to repel this intrusion into their sovereign airspace but by this time, it’s very likely they had returned to Indian airspace. So why did this happen?
Last month, a suicide bomb attack killed 40 Indian military policemen in Pulwama, Kashmir, a hotly contested region that Pakistan and India have fought numerous wars over since independence was granted in 1947. The region’s split comes down to a key issue that caused the two nations to be separated, whereas before they were solely under British administration as the British Raj, the divide between different religions. Kashmir is majority Muslim but did not join Pakistan immediately, as its prince favoured independence due to the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh populations favouring India. Only parts of the Muslim population were interested in joining Pakistan while others, primarily those in the Kashmiri Valley, were more ambivalent about the idea of pan-Islamic Pakistani nationalism. This prompted a guerrilla backlash by the Pakistan government, leading to an appeal to the British by the Kashmir prince which ensured that it joined India instead. Four wars in 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999 have been fought over this territory since then, with a particular aspect of resentment being that the majority Muslim Kashmiri valley is the most populated and developed part of the state yet lies in India, while the territory held by Pakistan is thinly populated and with sparse development comparatively.
While the last major conflict between the two states ended in 1999 and with long-term peace likely as both India and Pakistan are now nuclear powers, the demarcated military boundary separating the two known as the Line of Control which functions as the de facto border is still highly militarised with frequent patrols and a heavy presence felt from both sides. While the two governments themselves may not be going to war any time soon, radical groups on either side certainly have their views on the issue and are intent on being heard.
It’s in this context that we find Jaish-e-Mohammed (J-e-M), created in 2000 and intent on separating all of Kashmir from India into Pakistan with further loftier goals of driving Hindus and other faiths such as Sikhs and Buddhists from the subcontinent entirely later on. With close ties to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it was formally banned in Pakistan in 2002 but continues to openly operate in their territory and has launched numerous attacks since then including the latest strike. This has prompted accusations that the Pakistan government is assisting the group and others like it, accusations which the government denies. The most recent attack in Pulwama, seeing forty dead Indian military policemen, is one of its largest in recent years. Pakistan has been under pressure in recent years for perceived complicity in aiding radical Islamic terror, with critics pointing to 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden being in hiding in Pakistan when captured by US forces as well as groups such as J-e-M seemingly operating freely.
The airstrikes against J-e-M carried about by the Indian Air Force are a major escalation of previously cooled hostilities over Kashmir, however, and with major political ramifications. India is heading to the polls in April and May for a general election that the incumbent prime minister, Narenda Modi, is likely to win but without a full majority. These airstrikes have already seen his nationalist party see a surge in support as citizens took to the streets in support of the strikes as some analysts raise concerns that patriotism and a feeling of revenge, a desire to get back at Pakistan for perceived injustices, is taking greater precedence over the stark gap in poverty rates between poor and rich Indian states. This gap only seems to be getting worse, with six of the twenty-nine total states in India housing a third of the population who have a quality of life estimated to be 3 – 4 times worse than their wealthier counterparts.
In Pakistan, the newly elected and controversial Imran Khan stands at a dilemma. He faces internal pressure at home, elected on a platform of displacing the political dynasties and military supremacy that has plagued the country for decades, while also seeking to mend ties with a US that has increasingly distanced itself from Pakistan. On top of this, he must also resist against what some regard as India attempting to isolate Pakistan on the global stage, and so far we have heard little in terms of what his foreign policy approach will be. Pakistani officials so far have disputed the effect of the airstrikes, with Indian sources claiming a “very large number” of militants were killed while Pakistan claims none at all – a statement that has been interpreted by some as conciliatory, assuring that there will be no reprisals, but by others as an admission of guilt. If the officials are able to give a count as to how many militants were killed, then surely this means the militants must also exist in the region? Or were none killed because none are there in the first place, and the statement is simply flippant?
While the crisis so far has yet to escalate further, India and Pakistan both face increasing domestic challenges as age-old foreign policy norms are falling away, leaving an unpredictable world in its wake. WIth new rising political forces in both their respective electoral systems and in the underground radical sphere, old tensions over territory and influence could explode into violence if restraint and caution is not exercised by both sides, and the frontline will be Kashmir.
By Iain Clowes – Politics Writer