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Aug 5, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

Unrest in Kashmir Sets India and Pakistan on Edge

Kashmiri Unrest Sets India and Pakistan on Edge
(TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Until New Delhi addresses the grievances driving disillusionment among the residents of Kashmir Valley, the region's Muslims will continue to oppose Indian rule.
  • The threat of electoral defeat will compel Indian and Pakistani politicians to maintain an uncompromising stance on the conflict in Kashmir during campaign seasons.
  • Since the Kashmir issue has been closely linked to bilateral talks to normalize ties, Pakistan and India's relationship will likely remain fraught. 

Kashmir is known throughout South Asia for its natural beauty, which draws visitors from far and wide. But beneath the region's alluring exterior, deep-seated grievances are beginning to jeopardize its stability. On July 8, Indian security forces killed Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant separatist group that calls for the India-administered portion of the region (Jammu and Kashmir) to join Pakistan. The organization's fighters regularly sustain casualties, but Wani's death set off widespread protests in the state's capital, Srinagar.

In an effort to contain the situation, New Delhi temporarily shuttered at least four major Kashmiri newspapers, cut off mobile phone and internet access to the region and imposed a curfew that has yet to be lifted. These measures have not stopped the demonstrations, however, and clashes between protesters and security forces have left more than 50 dead and 3,000 injured. New Delhi has pointed the finger at Pakistan, blaming it for fomenting unrest in the region. But unless India recognizes and addresses the underlying political and economic issues sending Kashmiri residents into the streets in droves, popular discontent will persist long after the protests have died down.

An Intractable Dispute

Kashmir, historically a flashpoint for conflict between the nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, lies at the center of a 70-year territorial dispute stemming from the region's partition in 1947. At the time, Kashmir was a princely state, and its Muslim-majority population was ruled by a Hindu maharajah named Hari Singh. When the British rule of India ended, splitting the region into modern-day India and Pakistan, Singh was initially reluctant to side with either country. But a tribal rebellion in Pakistan eventually forced him to join India in exchange for its protection.

To Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, this turn of events was unacceptable. Pakistan was created on the basis of the two-nation theory, an idea that says Hindus and Muslims make up distinct nations that require separate countries. By this logic, Jinnah argued, a Muslim-majority state such as Kashmir belonged with Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, India disagreed.

Today, India and Pakistan (as well as China) own portions of Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan, however, claim the region in its entirety and fought wars over it in 1947, 1965 and 1999. Kashmir is crucial to both countries for different reasons. For Pakistan, all of its major rivers — the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab — flow through its share of Kashmir. If India were to fully occupy the region, New Delhi would have an advantage over Islamabad as the upstream riparian state. At the same time, Kashmir is India's only Muslim-majority state. If New Delhi were to lose it, other separatist movements in India might be inspired to seek their own independence — a significant threat to a country with an array of distinct ethnic groups.

Kashmir's status is now the biggest obstacle to the normalization of ties between India and Pakistan. Presently, 600,000 Indian soldiers and paramilitary troops are stationed in the India-administered Jammu and Kashmir, and since the region's Hizbul Mujahideen militancy arose in 1989, some 90,000 people have been killed.

A Conflict With Roots at Home . . .

The sustained anger now on full display in Kashmir is about more than just Wani's death, though his strong social media presence did help to galvanize the local population. (Access to social media has risen in the Kashmir Valley, from 25 percent in 2010 to 70 percent in 2015.) Most Kashmiris are still upset about the Indian government's 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist who New Delhi alleged was the mastermind of an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. Many of the region's Muslim residents say Guru did not receive a fair trial. Moreover, Kashmiris are unhappy about the state of the economy. The region's unemployment rate stands at 5.3 percent, higher than in its four neighboring states, and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has named youth unemployment one of Kashmir's biggest problems.

The policies of India's ruling coalition have also created controversy in Jammu and Kashmir. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party is angling to repeal Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which grants Kashmir its autonomous status. The party's Hindu nationalist rhetoric and proposal to build housing colonies in Kashmir for the families of Indian soldiers have been unpopular among the region's Muslims as well.

. . . And Consequences Abroad

Though domestic issues have largely driven the unrest in Kashmir, its effects have rippled beyond India's borders. In response to the protests, India and Pakistan have begun to cast blame on each other, hurling accusations that threaten their efforts to normalize ties. In the wake of Wani's death, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called him a martyr and organized a day of mourning — a departure from his relative silence on Kashmiri issues earlier this year. Meanwhile, Pakistani militant Hafiz Saeed, the alleged organizer of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, called for a nationwide protest of Indian Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh's Aug. 3 visit to Islamabad. Across the border, Singh and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj have each accused Pakistani terrorists of stirring up trouble.

Islamabad has certainly lent support to the Kashmiri insurgency before, but India's allegations are more a means to shift the blame away from itself. After all, Kashmiris are growing disillusioned because of a host of political and economic problems that New Delhi has yet to resolve. Similarly, Pakistan's recriminations are the product of if its own political calculations: Sharif's party won 76 percent of the seats in Pakistan-administered Kashmir's state elections on July 21 by taking a tough stance against India. Neither government, then, is in a position to compromise with the other over the contested Kashmiri region. And because Kashmir has become an integral part of ongoing bilateral talks between the two, it appears that India and Pakistan's relationship is set to continue down its rocky path.

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