Kashmir is on fire again, after militants killed 18 Indian soldiers in an early morning raid on Sept. 18. These five facts explain why the conflict over this long-disputed region between India and Pakistan is such a deep-seated problem, and why it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
1. Clashes Over Kashmir
A large part of the India-Pakistan rivalry centers on competing claims over the Kashmir region. This relatively small piece of land in the Himalayas has been disputed since 1947, the year the modern state of Pakistan was created. Pakistan claims the land because it’s majority Muslim like itself; India claims the land because Kashmir’s Maharajah once pledged loyalty to India (albeit under duress). India doesn’t want to give the region up for fear of setting a dangerous precedent for India’s other regions that are agitating for independence. While both countries claim all of Kashmir, each of them controls only part of it.
Two of the three wars fought by India and Pakistan have been over Kashmir (1947 and 1965). It’s bad when a collective population of 1.5 billion goes to war repeatedly over a sliver of land; it would be worse today, since both sides now have nuclear weapons. More than 47,000 people have been killed in Kashmir flare-ups to date—and there are human rights groups who argue the real figure is twice that amount.
2. Bloody Weekend
Besides the 18 soldiers who died in the Sept. 18 raid, four of the militants were killed in the subsequent shootout. While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi refrained from pointing the finger directly at Pakistan, other senior Indian military officials weren’t nearly as diplomatic, accusing a Pakistan-backed group of the mayhem.
But the violence in Indian-administered Kashmir doesn’t always originate from Pakistan. That’s because there are plenty of locals with grievances against India’s stewardship. While the Hindu Jammu section of Kashmir seems to be content with remaining a part of India, the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley favors independence from anywhere between 75 to 95 percent, according to a 2010 study. A prominent Kashmiri militant was killed by Indian forces in July, touching off mass protests and a wave of violence that left nearly 90 people dead. But Indian officials seem fixated on Pakistan for the moment.
3. Stalling Reforms
That makes sense from a political perspective. Modi rose to power as a pragmatic business reformer—he still enjoys a Putin-like 81 percent favorability rating, and 65 percent of Indians believe the country is headed in the right direction. Just 29 percent said that in 2013. But it getting harder to buoy those numbers as the low-hanging reform fruit gets picked off the tree.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Modi began his term in 2014 with an ambitious list of at least 30 major, much-needed reforms in the areas of taxation, government regulation, and foreign investment among others. Of those 30, seven have been completed and 14 are in progress or partially successful; nine remain outstanding. The reforms that have been implemented are a big reason why India is now the fastest-growing major economy in the world.
But Modi doesn’t have the leverage in parliament to deliver any more significant reforms as the country gears up for regional elections. And he can’t look weak when Indian soldiers are killed—particularly after winning an election with charges that the previous government was soft on terrorism and weak on Pakistan. His government needs to adopt a tougher line to keep core supporters on board ahead of coming provincial elections and the next national elections in a couple of years.
4. Fragile Pakistan
Pakistan, meanwhile, continues to deny involvement in the weekend’s violence. Pakistan knows that it’s in a weakened position compared to India. Pakistan may have the 11th-strongest military in the world, according to an analysis conducted by Credit Suisse, but that same ranking has the Indian military in 5th place. 66-year old Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in poor health, and the country ranks as the 14th most “fragile” country (an aggregate measure of political, social and economic stability) for 2015. India ranks 70th.
Sharif has spent UN General Assembly week trying to rally world leaders to Pakistan’s side and internationalize the conflict, reaching out to the U.S., U.K., Japan and Turkey, but early returns have not been promising. In Ban Ki Moon’s farewell address, Kashmir didn’t even get a mention among the world’s largest geopolitical challenges. Pakistan cannot afford to take on India over Kashmir, and it knows it.
5. China’s Shadow
Which is why Pakistan is angling itself toward China, the only country on the continent with a population, economy, and military that top India’s. China has agreed to spend $46 billion in investment in Pakistan, which is also the world’s largest recipient of weapons from China. China also builds Pakistan’s nuclear reactors. These are ties that bind.
China remains an important trade partner to India, too. But Indians are wary of China and seeking partners to balance China’s growing clout. Some 48 percent of Indians say that China’s relationship with Pakistan is a very serious problem; another 21 percent of Indians say it’s somewhat serious. China’s growing military power elicits roughly the same response from Indians, as well. Wariness of China has led India to strengthen ties with the U.S. and other Asian countries.
The bottom-line: Until recent weeks, relations between India and Pakistan seemed to be warming. Recent events in Kashmir, and the search for new allies, reveal that they’re as chilly as ever.