India’s nationalist leader celebrated his country’s Independence Day by touting his consolidation of control over territory also claimed by Pakistan as diplomats prepare for a rare United Nations meeting on the controversy.
“The rights and responsibilities of every citizen in the country have become equal,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Thursday at an event celebrating the country’s independence from Britain in 1947.
Modi adopted that breezy posture amid a lockdown in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that both India and Pakistan claim as sovereign territory. The dispute has fueled part of the rivalry between the nuclear-armed neighbors, which has gotten increasingly fierce since Modi’s decision Aug. 5 to revoke the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, a state held by India in the contested region.
“India and Pakistan have entered a more volatile stage,” Jeff Smith, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner.
The growing danger was thrown into sharp relief in February, when Indian fighter jets crossed the unofficial boundary line dividing contested territory to strike a terrorist group in Pakistan that had killed dozens of Indian security officers. Pakistan downed an Indian jet and captured the pilot, raising fears of an all-out war between the two countries as India signaled it would continue to strike Pakistani-based terrorists.
India’s administrative change is only being enforced in the portion of Kashmir that it already controls, with one of the main consequences being that Indians from the rest of the country can purchase property in the region. Indian officials maintain that the changes will spur economic development as they clear out terrorist threats, but many local Muslims fear being displaced — a warning amplified by Modi’s Pakistani counterpart, who accused India of plotting an “ethnic cleansing” campaign.
Modi also ended Kashmiri communication with the outside world on Aug. 5, cutting off internet and telephone lines. Police have shot many of those who have dared to leave their homes under the imposed curfew with pellet guns.
“There is a change in Kashmir, and there are now calls for people to come out in the streets,” Smith said. “It does make the situation in Kashmir more charged, which raises the possibility of a terrorist attack or some kind of miscalculation.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s complaints have received a muted response from world powers, in part because U.S. officials have long been frustrated with Pakistan for allowing jihadists to make their headquarters in the country. But China backed Pakistan’s call for the United Nations Security Council to take up the matter at the risk of irritating India, which the United States sees as a potential counterweight to China in the region.
Modi’s government “had asked the Chinese to not make any statements about what was happening in Jammu and Kashmir,” Kartikeya Singh, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Examiner. “This is just one more step in the sort of chessboard game of what’s happening with the region.”
China is under pressure to support Pakistan because Khan’s government is playing a key role in the Belt and Road Initiative, the controversial spending plan that Beijing uses to gain access to strategically significant infrastructure around the world. The two sides are trying to establish a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that would run through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to connect mainland China to a Pakistani port west of India.
Modi’s policy shift “is probably creating a little bit of unease as to what they think India is capable of doing beyond this to probably impact their investments,” Singh surmised. “The fear is that [Pakistan] is not going to pay back the heavy debts from this infrastructure investment and that the Chinese are going to essentially control a state to the west of India, a nation-state.”
But China has strong incentives to restrain Pakistan’s impulse to retaliate, analysts say. An outburst of terrorism could jeopardize those prized infrastructure projects if the region descends into instability. And any Indian counterattacks would raise the prospect of a major conflict in which Pakistan seeks Chinese aid, which would force Beijing to choose between the embarrassment of abandoning an ally or conflict with India.
For now, then, China seems likely to opt for diplomatic half-measures on behalf of Pakistan, such as Friday’s closed-door Security Council meeting, while the United States gets to curry favor with India by giving tacit approval to Modi’s policies.
“China gets a lot of benefit out of the China-Pakistan relationship, arguably, and the Pakistanis need something, too, and this is it,” Smith said. “It’s a game that they have to play, sometimes at a cost to themselves, but this is their value to Pakistan. This is what they bring to the table.”