How to Stop Kashmir from Spiraling into All-Out War

An Indian Agni-II intermediate range ballistic missile on a road-mobile launcher. Wikimedia Commons/Antônio Milena

India and Pakistan shouldn’t gamble with nuclear war.

Kashmir has again become the venue for a confrontation between India and Pakistan. On September 11, militants attacked an Indian military post in Poonch, and on September 18, another in Uri—both towns in Indian Kashmir. They infiltrated the so-called Line of Control (LOC), which separates the India- and Pakistan-administered portions of Kashmir and has served as the de facto boundary since the armistice that ended the 1947–48 war between India and Pakistan.

An Indian policeman was killed in the Poonch attack. In Uri, eighteen soldiers were killed (another died later while being treated for injuries) before the assault was repelled and the intruders shot dead. India insisted that in both instances the perpetrators were armed and trained by Pakistan, as its Director General for Military Operations added that twenty similar incursions had been thwarted so far this year.

Facing calls for a tough response, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered “surgical strikes” against targets on Pakistan’s side of the LOC. Pakistani officials claimed that no such Indian retaliation had occurred. Yet they acknowledged that two of their soldiers had been killed by Indian gunfire.

On the nonmilitary front, there have been the usual back-and-forth volleys of irate words and gestures. Pakistani theaters have stopped showing Bollywood movies, and Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority announced plans to block Indian television transmissions.

India has sought to isolate Pakistan by labeling it a state sponsor of terrorism. And it raised the possibility of reconsidering the 1960 bilateral agreement on sharing the waters of the Indus River and of revoking Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation Status, which was granted in 1996. Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, warned that reneging on the riverine treaty and curtailing flows to Pakistan “can be taken as an act of war.”

This backdrop for this latest conflagration was the unrest that erupted in Kashmir after Burhan Wani, a young—he was twenty-two—Hizbul Mujahideen commander was killed in a July shootout with Indian soldiers. During the demonstrations that followed his death there were encounters between angry protesters and Indian security forces. According to Indian press reports, the resulting violence left seventy-five people dead. Kashmir has not witnessed bloodshed on this scale since seventeen-year-old Tufail Mattoo was shot dead by the police in June 2010, leading to violence in which some one hundred people died.

Seeking to restore order, the authorities in Kashmir instituted curfews, shut down newspapers and, according to Indian news reports, Internet and cellphone services. Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist who has investigated the disappearance of Kashmiri detainees, was intercepted at New Delhi airport before boarding a flight to Geneva to attend a UN Human Rights Council meeting, and later arrested in Kashmir.

Calm has still not returned to Kashmir. On October 2, militants struck an Indian army camp at Baramulla, northwest of the capital, Srinagar.

In much of the Indian media, and certainly in statements issued by India’s civilian and military leaders, Burhan Wani has been portrayed as a terrorist, pure and simple. Hizbul Mujahideen has been officially labeled a terrorist organization, not only by India but the United States and the European Union as well. Still, painting Wani as nothing more than a poster boy for terrorism sweeps under the rug the complexities of Kashmir’s decades-long turmoil.