Kashmir is again engulfed in violence. Over the summer, mass protests have demonstrated widespread public disaffection with Indian rule over the disputed territory. In mid-September, an attack by militants against an Indian Army camp claimed 18 lives; the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed Pakistan for being behind the attack, a charge that Pakistan has denied. Tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors are mounting. An exchange of fire between Indian and Pakistan forces near their border on Thursday, in which Pakistan said two of its soldiers were killed, added to the tensions. Modi, who appeared to be relying on diplomacy rather than the military to press Pakistan, must continue his restraint.
The territory of Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both since the two countries claimed their independence in 1947. The Muslim-dominated area joined India, outraging Pakistanis who insist that it is an integral part of their Islamic republic. Indians dismiss the claim, countering that the process of incorporation was proper and that any concession to the Islamic majority could begin the unraveling of India’s multiethnic, multireligious society.
The result has been a history of tension and violence that has too frequently erupted in outright conflict. Two of the three wars fought by India and Pakistan have been over Kashmir; it is claimed that more than 47,000 people have been killed in Kashmir violence, although some human rights groups estimate the number of victims could be two times that figure.
This summer, the region has been on the boil following the killing of a media-savvy Kashmir militant by the Indian army. His death ignited waves of protest, particularly among younger Kashmiris. The Indian response has been heavy-handed: It is estimated that nearly 90 people have been killed, nearly all of them civilians, and another 10,000 people injured.
Then, on Sept. 18, a group of militants attacked an Indian army camp, killing 18 soldiers before the attackers themselves were killed. This was the bloodiest incident involving the Indian security forces in over a decade. Indian investigators have concluded that the militants were members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, an outlawed militant group based in Pakistan. The Pakistan government has denied any involvement in the assault.
Indian politicians, along with many independent security experts and analysts, have long believed that Pakistan provides considerable backing for the Islamic militants who attack India with regularity. They charge that parts of the Pakistan government see such groups as providing an equalizer in their country’s struggle to claim Kashmir. The terror groups are sufficiently distant from the government of Pakistan to give Islamabad plausible deniability about their operations. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal then ensures that India will not be tempted to strike back against the groups, which generally operate from bases within Pakistan.
Unfortunately, India’s tolerance is growing short. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is demanding a strong response to the Sept. 18 attack, and believes that Pakistan is also behind the unrest that descended over the region during the summer. But while Pakistan may well be supporting the militants, it is a mistake to underestimate the groundswell of opposition to Indian rule in Kashmir and the anger at the killing of the militant during the summer. While Hindus prefer remaining in India, an overwhelming majority of Muslims in Kashmir — from 75 to 95 percent, according to one poll — would rather join Pakistan.
Modi is certain that Pakistan is behind the attacks, but he knows well that escalating the violence will only court more risks. He also knows that Pakistan is the weaker of the two countries militarily, and that an Indian attack could force Islamabad to make good on its threat to employ its nuclear weapons to even the score. He is also aware that Pakistan is a fragile state and a confrontation could undermine the government there, bringing an even more militant administration to power or, worse, creating chaos that might imperil the command and control of nuclear weapons or materials.
A final concern for Modi is China, which has close ties with Pakistan, competes with India and has no desire to see its partner humiliated or destabilized. India and China have fought their own war and continue to dispute territory. Any move against Pakistan could quickly escalate to a two-front conflict.
To his credit, Modi is ignoring the hardliners and emphasizing diplomacy in his government’s response to the violence. While promising that India would not be intimidated by terrorism, he also said that he would focus on isolating Pakistan for its support of militants. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told the United Nations General Assembly: “We need to forget our prejudices and join hands together to script an effective strategy against terror. And if any nation refuses to join this global strategy, then we must isolate it.”
Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N., Maleeha Lodhi, called the Indian statement “a litany of falsehoods and baseless allegations.” Unfortunately, however, there is growing international support for India’s assertions. The Modi government has fanned the flames in Kashmir with its repressive response to protests, but much of the violence is not homegrown. India’s restraint is to be applauded and must continue. But the rest of the world must ensure that this restraint is not misinterpreted and the backers of Kashmiri violence pay a price for their support of terrorism.