Unable to bury the axe

Following the latest attack on an Indian military base in Kashmir, India and Pakistan have yet again locked horns over the disputed region. Now the Indian government says it wants to isolate its Islamic neighbour as a terrorist state. Report by Ronald Meinardus in New Delhi

By Ronald Meinardus

The attackers came at dawn. Heavily armed, they forced their way into the Indian army camp near Uri – not far from the border separating the Pakistani from the Indian-administered regions of Kashmir. Eighteen Indian soldiers were killed in the exchange of fire, as well as the four attackers. It was the highest death toll suffered by the Indian military in a border-region attack since 2002. That year, India responded with a partial troop mobilisation.

There is little agreement between the rival neighbours in matters concerning the disputed region of Kashmir. This applies to the major frontlines of the conflict, but also to the details, such as who carried out the terror attack on 18 September and who bears the responsibility. In India there is not the slightest doubt that the fighters entered the base from Pakistan and that the bloody attack was organised from there.

"Pakistan is a terrorist state and should be identified and isolated as such," explained India's Interior Minister Rajnath Singh, who cancelled a trip to Moscow at short notice due to the escalation. Similar, yet more damning condemnations of arch-enemy Pakistan can be heard from all political camps in India. The content of newspaper commentaries and social media forums is also indicative of the highly charged mood. In a quick poll by the "Times of India", the nation's leading English-language publication, two thirds of those polled voted in favour of harsh military retaliation.

The narrative on the other side is diametrically opposed: "blaming Pakistan for Uri will be expensive for the Indians," said Defence Minister Khawaja Asif.

Indian′s Information Minister Venkaiah Naidu (photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)
At loggerheads: India′s information minister, Venkaiah Naidu, declared following a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi: "India will teach Pakistan a lesson. Pakistan assists, supports, finances and trains terrorists. It has become state policy. The country has demonstrated that it is a rogue state"

In contrast to other international conflict flashpoints, there are no negotiators in the current India-Pakistan quarrel. Only the world superpower the US would come into question here, as it has particular interests in both nations. "For years it's been our policy that the two sides involved must solve the problem themselves," said the US Ambassador to New Delhi Richard Verma recently. Following the 18 September incident, the US State Department did condemn it as a "terrorist attack". But Washington stopped short of blaming Pakistan, which is something India would have liked it to do.

No prospect of peace

As a result of the unwillingness, or even the inability of the United States to convince the nuclear-armed neighbours to reach some kind of compromise, the south-east Asian conflict has continued to simmer for decades. The unresolved Kashmir issue still represents a potential threat to world peace.  India and Pakistan have already waged war three times over Kashmir. Dangerous escalations have regularly flared up along the disputed border. The origins of the dispute date far back to the time after the end of the British colonial period. The Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the Indian Federation with a Muslim majority.

While historically, India pursues a policy of preserving the status quo in Kashmir, Pakistan adopts a revisionist approach aimed at the annexation of Kashmir. As this target cannot be a realistic option in view of the superior strength of the Indian army, Islamabad regularly employs "unconventional" methods. It is a well-documented "secret" that Pakistani intelligence agencies supported terrorist activities and groups in Indian-administered Kashmir. In view of this, the knee-jerk reaction of Indian media to attacks of this kind is not surprising.[embed:render:embedded:node:24804]

New low in the stricken relationship

The latest military escalation indicates a new low point in the stricken relationship. This despite recent hopes of a thaw in bilateral ties.  Following his election to the post of Prime Minister in early 2014, Narendra Modi invited his counterpart Nawaz Sharif – together with all heads of government in the region – to his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi. Christmas last year saw a political sensation when Modi made a surprise stop in Lahore on his way back from a foreign engagement and drank tea with Nawaz Sharif.

Scarcely had the positive noises surrounding the Indian-Pakistani tete-a-tete fallen silent, relations were yet again strained by a terror attack on an Indian military base near Pathankot. Seven Indians were killed in that attack, which was similar in style to the 18 September assault.

The small-scale border conflict is taking place against the backdrop of exacerbated tensions in the Indian-controlled Kashmir Valley. Barely a day passes there without major demonstrations resulting in deaths and injuries. The trigger for the latest wave of violence was the killing of the local rebel leader Burhan Wani in early July by Indian troops. For the Indian authorities he is a terrorist, for many Kashmiris – and young people above all – he is a martyr and freedom fighter.

Kashmir conflict infographic (photo: DW)
Rumbling on for decades: the mountainous region with its Muslim majority population was divided up between India and Pakistan following the 1947 war. Both states however maintain their claim to the area in its entirety. Various groups of rebels have been fighting for the independence of Kashmir or its annexation to Pakistan since 1989

The anger of the Kashmiris has many causes. Many complain about their political and economic marginalisation and are indignant at what have been at times the disproportionately brutal actions of the security forces, which many regard as foreign occupiers. Eighty people died in the latest wave of violence, most of them demonstrators, many of them young.

For weeks now, there has been intense debate over the latest Kashmir crisis in Indian media. The political class – both in government and opposition – appears to have arrived at the view that a comprehensive political new beginning is now necessary, if the simmering conflict is to be managed.

The latest terror attack has for the moment put an abrupt end to this endeavour. Indian newspapers are reporting on military crisis meetings and possible retaliatory attacks. As is so often the case, those that suffer are the people living in the Kashmir region. And as long as India and Pakistan are unable to bury the axe, Kashmir will not find peace.

Ronald Meinardus

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon