Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi should consider the age-old truism “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Actually, to say that Kashmir isn’t broke would be putting an optimistic gloss on the Asian sub continent’s number one flashpoint. Since independence and partition in 1947, the mountainous region has been the cause of three wars and numerous border clashes which have threatened to escalate into full-blown conflicts.

Kashmir is a simmering political cauldron whose lid has largely been kept in place by two clauses in the Indian constitution which give the Muslim-dominated, but Indian-controlled region autonomy in all matters except foreign affairs, defence and communications.  Kashmir has its own flag and has passed laws favouring the property rights of the Muslim majority. Modi has revoked the constitutional clauses—articles 370 and 35A—and dropped big hints that he wants to develop Indian-administered Kashmir with imported Hindu settlers.

The result has been riots, demonstrations and the recall of the Pakistani ambassador to India. But that could only be the start. Both states are armed with about 150 nuclear weapons each and blinkered by a dangerous religious zeal. The conflict also has the potential to drag in China and possibly the US. China’s interest is its claim to a desolate and sparely-populated section of Kashmir.  The Chinese have also $46 billion investment in Pakistan to protect.

America’s position is more ambivalent. It needs Pakistani support the fight in Afghanistan, but is angry at what President Trump has called Pakistan’s  “lies and deceit” in combating the Taliban. At the same time, Trump and Modi enjoy close personal relations through a shared right-wing populist approach to political issues.

The problems started with partition. Kashmir has three religious populations: Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist. The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants are Muslim. But at the time of partition it was ruled by a Hindu Rajah. As the sub-continent edged inexorably towards partition, Irregular troops from Pakistan moved into Kashmir to claim the entire country. The Hindu Rajah, Hari Singh, appealed for help to the Congress Party in India who dispatched troops to the region.

The result was a stand-off; A UN-mediated ceasefire and the division of Kashmir which left Pakistan in control of the under-developed provinces of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir which are 100 percent Muslim and India in control of the more prosperous Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir  provinces which are 66 percent Muslim with the balance made of up Hindus and Buddhists.

The UN ceasefire agreement included a clause for a referendum over the decision of who governs the whole of Kashmir. The Indians failed tocomply with this part of the agreement as their part of Kashmir was 66 percenty Muslm.  Instead they came up with the compromise of autonomy in the form of constitutional clauses 370 and 35A. The Muslims in Indian-administered  Kashmir were generally satisfied  with this. They were not as zealous as their co-religionists in Pakistan and were happy to remain part of India as long as they were allowed control of domestic affairs.

China became involved during the 1950s after it annexed Tibet. They had never accepted the British-drawn boundaries and claimed roughly 20 percent of Kashmir known as Trans-Karakoran. The sparsely populated region (population 250,000) is a desolate Himalayan province known for its windswept salt flats. Ownership of Trans-Karakoran was the main cause of the 1962 Sino-Indian War which resulted in China occupying the region and India continued to dispute their giant neighbour’s claim.

Three years later, in 1965, the first Indo-Pakistan War broke out after Pakistan launched an insurgency  bid to wrest control of Jammu and Kashmir from India. The war ended with a return to the status quo after mediation by Britain, Russia, the US and the UN.  Both Pakistan and India were dissatisfied with Western efforts which basically involved an embargo on both countries. This resulted in a closer long-term relationship between Pakistan and China on the one hand and India and Russia on the other.

Kashmir was not a major issue in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan conflict following the bid for independence from Pakistan of Bangladesh. But the two countries did clash again in 1999. Commonly known as the Kargil War, this conflict again started with a Pakistan incursion into the Indian-administered half of Kashmir.  American pressure forced another return to the status quo and represented a major defeat for Pakistan which lost 4,000 troops.

The 1965 and 1999 wars  were both limited to conventional weapons. Pakistan had developed its first nuclear weapon the year before but did not feel confident about standing up to the Indians who conducted their first nuclear weapons test in 1974 and were estimated to have over 100 nuclear warheads. The other factor was that Narendra Modi’s BJP Party was not in power. Congress (I) was, and their policy was to govern on behalf of both India’s Muslim and Hindu communities. The BJP, in contrast is a Hindu nationalist party. Ending autonomy and gaining control of all of Kashmir is part of their election manifesto.

Pakistan, for its part, owes its entire existence to the Muslim faith.  Blind obedience to the teachings of Mohammed has led devout members of the Pakistani army and intelligence services to form close relations with the Taliban, prompted a cut in US military assistance and strained the strategic link between Washington and Islamabad at a time when the Americans need maximum leverage.

Diplomats fear that if Modi does not back down there is a strong likelihood of war. Pakistan lost the two previous conventional wars. With a population of 200 million and an underdeveloped economy, Pakistan has little chance against India’s billion citizens and booming industries. Pakistan, especially the politically powerful army—could be sorely tempted to use nuclear weapons to resolve this 72-year-old dispute. Kashmir could become the spark that ignites the nuclear powder keg.

Anglo-American journalist Tom Arms has been writing about foreign affairs for nearly 50 years. He is currently working on a major book on Anglo-American relations as well as writing a weekly blog and presenting a foreign affairs discussion for American radio.

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