Pakistanis often call Kashmir its “jugular vein.” The implication is that reclaiming the part of the region now administered by India is key to Pakistan’s survival. That objective got harder in August 2019, when India rescinded Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. The move caught Pakistan off guard, made its military look weak, and turned its goal of annexing territory that has never formed part of its homeland even more distant.
How has Pakistan responded to India annulling Kashmir’s special status? And how will Pakistan try to advance its position in Kashmir going forward?
So far, Pakistan has been active diplomatically but has not yet responded militarily. Looking ahead, Pakistan will likely continue its support of anti-India terrorist groups, which risks sparking another crisis. It might also launch a limited military assault against Indian targets of some kind. This misadventure would likely backfire because Pakistan risks isolating itself internationally as it did twenty years ago in the Kargil War. Military action would also offer India the rationale to respond with force as it did in Feb. 2019 after a Pakistan-linked terrorist attack in Kashmir. Moreover, Pakistan would jeopardize its already precarious economic position — it received a $6 billion IMF bailout last summer (the 13th in the country’s history) and desperately needs international investment. Another military confrontation with India would scare away investors when Pakistan can least afford it. Still, from the perspective of the Pakistan Army, military action would demonstrate that it can challenge and punish India no matter New Delhi’s growing military and economic strength.
Pakistan’s most effective response may be to do nothing at all. Under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi is willing to take risks and pursue policies even if they are unpopular internationally. India’s restraint in the face of Pakistani provocations can no longer be taken for granted. With its heavy-handed approach in Kashmir and the pursuit of a Hindu-nationalist domestic agenda, Pakistan’s best strategy may be to watch as India commits a series self-enforced errors.
Kashmir and International Opinion
How did Jammu and Kashmir get its special status and what was so special about Article 370? At the time of partition, Maharaja Hari Singh, the princely state’s ruler, was undecided on whether to remain independent or accede to India or Pakistan. He signed an instrument of accession with India after Pakistan sent fighters to forcefully seize it in October 1947. This instrument limited the Indian parliament’s legislative writ on Jammu and Kashmir to defense, foreign relations, and communication. This special status meant that Kashmir could have its own constitution and a flag. The adoption of the Indian Constitution in 1950 gave birth to Article 370, and this codified Kashmir’s special status. Surprisingly, it was a provision within Article 370 itself that permitted the Indian government to dismantle the article, a move which is currently under review in India’s Supreme Court.
The international response to India’s revocation of Article 370 was largely muted immediately after the decision. India is an increasingly important country for economic and geopolitical reasons, and few countries were willing to risk alienating a growing power. However, the restraint of the international community is being tested, particularly in light of discriminatory legislation against Muslims passed in December that has triggered nationwide protests. That the leading voices challenging New Delhi’s move are Islamabad, with its record of supporting terrorist groups, and Beijing, with its abysmal human rights record — particularly with respect to its Muslim population — has also worked in India’s favor. Unless New Delhi changes its approach, the observed silence from governments other than Pakistan and China won’t last forever.
Whether or not the muzzle around Western capitals will come loose on India’s human rights record is not an if but a when question. Already the U.S. Congress has held a hearing to examine the human rights situation in Kashmir. Some members of the U.S. Senate have condemned the imprisonment of large numbers of Kashmiris and urged President Donald Trump to act. German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed this sentiment in early November and stated that the lockdown of the people and the region cannot be sustained. Pressure is likely to grow. When international criticism of India becomes more vocal, Pakistan will be ready and waiting to put Kashmir under a permanent spotlight.
What Are Pakistan’s Options?
Pakistan has a few instruments to press its argument forward on Kashmir. First, Pakistan can and has used diplomacy to carry out symbolic acts — like expelling India’s envoy and banning Indian television and movies — to demonstrate downgraded ties with India. Pakistan’s diplomatic outreach has made a lot of noise across international forums ranging from the United Nations, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and other multilateral bodies — but it’s unclear if it’s made much difference. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s address at the UN General Assembly in September is a case in point. He hammered on about Kashmir but spoiled the argument by effectively threatening nuclear war against India. The trouble with the Pakistani establishment’s approach is that its narrative has very few takers. Its use of terrorist groups to advance its foreign policy goals in Afghanistan and India, its growing nuclear arsenal and history of proliferation, and its poor human rights record means that Pakistan has few if any partners that are willing to support its position on the most pertinent foreign policy matter it has championed for over 70 years.
Second, Pakistan can establish a political office for Indian Kashmiris in Pakistan. Islamabad’s objective would be to give a platform to Indian Kashmiri political groups that would amplify their propaganda value. By giving oxygen to Indian Kashmiri political groups, Pakistan could bolster them as a suppressed voice and host them as a people in exile in international forums. Such a practice is likely to gain some traction and would confer a degree of legitimacy on them, to India’s chagrin. If Indian Kashmiri political groups find a footing in Pakistan, it is likely to increase Islamabad’s support network deeper inside India on the back of these political groups’ support base. A more profound network inside India would enable Pakistan to conduct enhanced clandestine activities including recruitment, reconnaissance of sensitive installations, support for organized crime, money laundering, and exploitation of the Indian state’s vulnerabilities. These twin moves are not risk-free. It would be easy for New Delhi to call out Pakistan’s interference in its sovereign affairs, and India could potentially open a similar channel for Balochi groups demanding the Pakistani state address their political and economic grievances. Kashmiri groups seeking Islamabad’s overt support would risk losing legitimacy and could be cast aside as terrorist groups pursuing Pakistan’s agenda.
Third, Pakistan could try to persuade its only ally, China, to side with its position more stridently. Beijing was the only other actor that took issue with New Delhi’s policy shift on Kashmir. A statement from the Chinese foreign ministry noted that it was opposed to the move, as Beijing has territorial claims in the western part of Kashmir along the China-India border. It condemned India for changing a domestic law that would alter China’s territorial sovereignty, adding that such a practice is unacceptable and would be resisted. Though a strong statement, New Delhi had expected the Chinese to take a fervent position owing to Beijing’s increasingly muscular foreign policy, its partnership with Islamabad, and the persistent vexation in India-China bilateral ties.
Beijing’s criticism over Kashmir in late summer 2019 strained a relationship already beset with mutual distrust. This raised uncertainty about whether President Xi Jinping’s visit to India for the “Chennai Informal Summit” with Modi would take place on Oct. 11, 2019. The two-day summit did go ahead but produced little except for photo summitry at UNESCO world heritage sites. Moreover, neither capital could confirm the meeting between the two heads of state even very close to the planned date, revealing rising tensions in their bilateral relationship. Before meeting Modi, Xi hosted Khan in Beijing, further souring the climate for talks as Khan “thanked” Xi for support on Kashmir. New Delhi probably had low expectations of the Modi-Xi summit, so it was not a surprise that Xi’s arrival was also marked by the Indian military testing its new mountain combat capability in Arunachal Pradesh, 100 kilometers away from the border with China. Beijing calls this area “Southern Tibet” and claims 90,000 square kilometers of Indian territory.
While New Delhi is unlikely to change China’s position on Kashmir, it has had success in peeling away Saudi Arabia and the UAE from Pakistan’s orbit. Before Modi, Islamabad could have counted on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for support on Kashmir, but this is no longer the case. The Saudis told Pakistan that it considers Kashmir India’s internal matter. Similarly, the UAE’s ambassador in New Delhi stated that Kashmir was its domestic matter. The Modi administration has significantly upgraded ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, owing in part to Modi’s personal style of engaging political leaders as well as offering lucrative economic opportunities in the Indian economy, particularly in oil and gas, infrastructure, and agriculture. Although India’s economic growth rate is diminishing, it still offers a significantly better return on investment than Pakistan can.
Finally, to demonstrate that it is capable of a bold response to India changing the status quo in Kashmir, Pakistan might launch military operations against India. The army, through its proxies, could increase attacks against Indian security forces deployed in Kashmir and expand the portfolio of targeting to include soft targets such as government offices, residential buildings, and schools. Kashmiri Pandits, an indigenous Hindu minority that fled Kashmir in the wake of the 1989 armed insurgency against the Indian state, are especially vulnerable at this time. Pakistani terrorist groups could also hit and conduct complex suicide attacks in urban centers across India, or strike the Indian presence in Afghanistan.
While military action against India would be a geopolitical disaster for Pakistan, that hasn’t stopped the country before. Pakistan has a history of undertaking risky military operations with almost no chance of success, like during the 1965 India-Pakistan War and Kargil War. It has also consistently employed terrorism as a strategy to advance its political interests, despite the implications for its international reputation and its own security. As a result, New Delhi anticipates that Pakistan’s military establishment will intensify attacks against Indian armed forces and civilians, but any such action is likely to backfire and further isolate Pakistan and undermine its case in Kashmir. In addition, New Delhi is no longer held hostage to Pakistan’s nuclear coercion, as it has found a space for limited strikes — established by its targeting of terrorist camps in Balakot in February 2019 — and is prepared to fight a limited conventional war under a nuclear threshold if the level of provocation from Pakistan warrants it.
While India enjoys economic, diplomatic, and demographic advantages over Pakistan, it would be unwise for New Delhi to be complacent about the challenge from Pakistan. Given current trends in Indian politics, its partners will not remain silent on its human rights record. The Indian government may think that it is indispensable to the West owing to its economic significance, military power, and the fact that it is the only stable democracy in the region, and that these traits will neuter Western criticism on Kashmir. After all, so the thinking goes, New Delhi came out on top after its nuclear tests in May 1998 and international critics will eventually accept the situation in Kashmir.
But this would be the wrong lesson for New Delhi to draw. India is important to the West, to be sure — but it’s not that important. Western powers are fundamentally driven by hard national interests, but they are also responsive to their own populations, which can plainly observe India’s policies in Kashmir and its larger Hindu-nationalist turn. The wholesale imprisonment, curfew, and denial of rights of Kashmiris has the capacity to disrupt India’s relations with its partners and it would be risky for New Delhi to assume that it can sail through the storm easily.
India’s Key Problem Isn’t Pakistan
New Delhi’s most significant challenge on Kashmir is not Pakistan — it’s Indian policy. Because India is the world’s largest democracy — and is proud of the status this confers — the country is rightfully held to a higher standard. India’s democratic values and principles require that it act as a state with a moral compass. It is also more vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. Three interrelated vulnerabilities stand out as a result.
First, New Delhi’s human rights abuses in Kashmir are a problem for India. The ongoing preventive detention, arbitrary arrests, and the disproportionate use of force against civilians in Kashmir are not the hallmarks of a thriving democracy. What is equally troubling is that an Indian Ministry of Home Affairs document titled “The Future Ahead of Kashmir” foresees a protracted violent struggle and even compares the situation to the U.S. Civil War. The persistence of these actions will make it increasingly difficult for the Indian government to justify its motives to the international community. India will not be able to buy the silence of its friends as China has done with Pakistan on the large-scale detention of over one million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.
Next, the ongoing information and communications blackout in large parts of Jammu and Kashmir are unsustainable. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye was quoted as saying “There’s something about this shutdown that is draconian in a way other shutdowns usually are not.” Similarly, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted “India’s communications blackout in Kashmir is having a devastating impact on the lives and welfare of everyday Kashmiris.” The Indian government’s defense for severing mobile-telephone networks and internet communications is that it will suppress violence, counter fake news, and deny violent protesters the means with which to organize themselves. Although a partial resumption of mobile services came into effect on Oct. 14, the problem with the argument that the communications blackout stems from a desire to save lives is that it would have reinforced and codified resentment, bolstered hatred against the Indian establishment, and created the conditions for an information vacuum that is subsequently filled by misinformation. Stanford University’s Jan Rydzak concurs that communications blackouts compel people in collective action to substitute non-violent tactics for violent ones. Moreover, the inability of Kashmiris to communicate with each other is likely to instill more distrust and antagonism towards the Indian establishment and may make them believe that there has been significant violence and that is the reason for the information shutdown.
The third liability is that India has subjugated its own people and has failed to afford Kashmiris the same rights and privileges as other Indian citizens. In a televised addressed to the nation, Modi justified his decision to void the constitutional autonomy afforded to Kashmir on the grounds that it would boost development and good governance, fight corruption, and end gender, caste, and religious discrimination. Far from giving Kashmiris the same rights and privileges as other Indians or having consulted them about their political future, they are now farther away than at any point in India’s history from being treated as equal citizens. However, the Modi administration’s view is firmly rooted in the belief that the annulment of the constitutional provisions has paved the way to “mainstream” Kashmiris. Exactly how Kashmiris will come to experience this mainstreaming under the oppressive conditions that currently exist is only a question Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party can answer. Besides the popularity of Modi’s Kashmir political move among many Indians and opposition parties, this popularity alone is restricted to India and parts of the Indian diaspora. The project of the current Indian government with respect to Kashmir does not have much international appeal.
The Indian parliament’s passage of the Citizens Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019 indicates that these concerns are not isolated to Kashmir. The law offers Indian citizenship to eligible Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, or Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, but disqualifies Muslims. In effect, the law betrays India’s secular, pluralistic values as it selectively comes to the defense of persecuted religious minorities and intentionally leaves out Muslims, which it implies are the oppressors. That the CAA has led to protests in different parts of India is unsurprising, but what has shaken domestic and international observers is the police brutality which has fueled public anger. So far, 19 people have been killed in less than a month of protests. In Hong Kong, where protests have been going on for much longer, only two citizens have lost their lives. Images and reports of excessive force against the protesters will codify the view that the Bharatiya Janata Party is intolerant of criticism or dissent, and this will make it harder for India’s partners to remain silent on human rights abuses whether in Kashmir or the rest of the country.
India’s Kashmir policy and the CAA threaten to undercut its diplomatic gains in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia appears to have indicated that it could hold a special foreign ministers’ summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Kashmir. This is precisely what Pakistan wants. If India turns on itself, it will be weaker, seen as a pariah, and make it easier for exploitation by its adversaries.
Pakistan will up the ante diplomatically in response to developments in India, and try to exploit Modi’s missteps. Islamabad has far more to gain by delegitimizing New Delhi’s actions than by intervening militarily, which would backfire and serve to isolate Pakistan. But the conditions for military intervention will ripen if the situation in Kashmir worsens and the effects of the CAA and other Hindu majoritarian policies cause reputational damage to India. Throughout its history, Pakistan Army has taken risky — and reckless — actions. It will pounce when it believes India is weak and lacks the support of its international supporters.
India is lucky that its chief international critics — China and Pakistan — have so little credibility on the subject of human rights. But this good fortune will be undone if the government continues to advance a troubling domestic agenda. New Delhi should know from its own history of struggles that no amount of material gain, economic development, or large-scale subjugation can offset political demands deeply rooted in identity. If Kashmir implodes — or if it continues to damage its international credibility — New Delhi will only have itself to blame.
Dr. Nishank Motwani is deputy director at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) in Kabul. He has observed Afghanistan’s 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, as well as the 2018 parliamentary elections. The views expressed here are his own.