When neighbouring states don’t get along with each other, their mutual borderlands are ‘sensitive spaces’ par excellence. Border ‘incidents’ can and do have the capacity to spiral out of control, as the intentions and capabilities of each protagonist become objects for paranoia and speculation. In areas of the world where geopolitical tension is long-standing, the scope for escalation is endemic to the everyday life of communities living on and near border. One of the most potent examples of borderline tension is India-Pakistan.
In late February it was reported that an Indian air force jet had been shot down by a Pakistani adversary somewhere over Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The pilot escaped the doomed aircraft and was captured on the ground by locals living in Horran Village. The capture of the pilot became international news after images began to circulate, initially, of the bloodied Indian air force officer. Later pictures were released of him looking in a less dishevelled state. After some early denials regarding the loss of one of their planes and pilot, the Indian government demanded his release, and the Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, agreed to his release. The move to release was welcomed by India and world leaders such as US president Trump who spoke about it in terms of it representing ‘reasonably decent’ news.
While the release of an Indian pilot might be considered good news for him and the Indian armed forces, the underlying geopolitics of the Indian and Pakistani borderlands remains intact. Earlier in February, Indian forces were engaged in a military operation directed towards what was described as a ‘militant camp’. It followed in the aftermath of a suicide bombing that claimed the lives of around 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in what was called the ‘Pulwama attack’. A suicide bomber and local resident, Adil Ahmad Dar, was held responsible for the bombing and the Islamist militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, also claimed responsibility. India blamed Pakistan for sponsoring and enabling the attack. Pakistan denied the claim.
This is not the first time India and Pakistan have found themselves trading accusations and military action in the highly disputed area of Kashmir. Ever since partition in 1947, Kashmir has been divided by the so-called Line of Control (LOC) – not a formally recognised international boundary but rather a military control line. India controls Jammu and Kashmir while to the north Pakistan administers Gilgit-Baltistan. High altitude areas such as the Siachen Glacier continue to be caught up in this uneasy division of territory, and further east there is a Chinese-administered area called Aksai Chin. So Kashmir is a complicated geopolitical space, and the three countries have been involved not only in overt conflict but also in low-intensity violence, which disproportionately affects local residents. Interestingly, the suicide bomber from the Pulwama attack was said to have been radicalised by his prior treatment by Indian police.
Most of the 14 million Kashmiris on the Indian side of the line of control are overwhelmingly Muslim, and this in itself can and does generate anxiety in New Delhi about the loyalty and patriotism of Indian Kashmiris. There are separatist movements in the region and for the last 40 years there have been calls for either independence from India and/or union with Pakistan. Thousands have perished and many more injured and brutalised by a conflict in which India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring violent separatist groups. Kashmiri separatists are routinely arrested and some have simply ‘disappeared’ over the years. The Kashmiri Valley is one of the world’s most ‘militarised’ spaces.
So when India launched an airstrike against a suspected training camp inside Pakistan it justified its action on the basis of cross-border terrorist activity as well as provocative actions carried out by Pakistani military forces. The latest Indian military attack on suspected Jaish-e-Mohammed facilities was at least 50 miles beyond the LOC. Indian and Pakistani sources tend to disagree over the efficacy of each other’s actions. For every news story proclaiming the devastating effectiveness of either an air raid or special forces operations, there will be another calling into question any trumpeting of success. Both countries manage their border geopolitics as much through their respective medias as they do on the ground. It is worth bearing in mind that many Indian and Pakistani citizens will never visit Kashmir, so news stories (including social media posts) are particularly important in shaping national geopolitical atmospheres.
The latest incidents along and beyond the LOC in Kashmir reveal the enduring legacies of partition. The 1947 Indian constitution, under Article 370, recognised Kashmir as semi-autonomous/special status, which means that there are not only special laws affecting the region, but also exemptions from legislation affecting the rest of the India. The reasons for this special status in large part rested on the simple fact that Jammu and Kashmir was partially occupied by Pakistan, and subject to conflicting claims about its political future inside India and beyond. Article 370 was the result of those intense negotiations involving Indian, Kashmiri and British parties. Kashmir’s status was complicated further because the United Nations had promised a plebiscite to determine its political status.
In more recent years, Indian political leaders have expressed concerns that the autonomous status of Kashmir needs to be re-visited. For Indian nationalists interested in territorial integrity and national security, the repeal of Article 370 would send a clear signal to Kashmiri separatists and their suspected Pakistani sponsors that the region is integral to India. The ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan in 2003 has not stopped tension and violence either side of the LOC. Both countries are nuclear weapon states, and each side has to think carefully about how far they do or don’t escalate activities in the aftermath of the latest border ‘incident’. Sometimes those violent ‘incidents’ have extended even as far as Indian cities such as New Delhi and Bombay.
Longer-term, the most important issue might be the future of Article 370. If the Article was ever removed from the Indian Constitution, a constitutional crisis would surely follow, and lead to calls for a plebiscite. India shows no signs of giving up Kashmir. Neither side, let alone the resident Kashmiris, expects the knotty issue of the future of Kashmir to be resolved by the release of an Indian pilot caught on the wrong side of the LOC.
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