There is brewing conflict between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, once again at loggerheads over the territory that lies between them: Kashmir.
The neighbours have fought two out of their three wars over Kashmir and the latest crisis has once again highlighted 72 years of failure to find a solution.
After the two countries gained independence from British rule in 1947, the Maharaja of Muslim-majority Kashmir decided to join India. That did not sit well with the population in Pakistan, and the two countries had their first war over Kashmir.
A 1948 United Nations resolution, and later mutual agreements, formed a ceasefire line along what is now called the Line of Control.
On August 5 this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government made a dramatic decision to revoke the partial autonomy of Indian-administered Kashmir. To stem anticipated protests, India locked down the region with additional troop reinforcements and imposed a full communications blackout.
“India has committed aggression in the recent weeks against the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” Masood Khan, president of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, tells Al Jazeera. “Everybody knows that Indian-occupied Kashmir has been under occupation for the past 72 years and India has made this fresh move to colonise the territory of Kashmir.”
The move also caused an expected uproar in Pakistan, with Islamabad strongly disagreeing with New Delhi’s insistence that the constitutional changes are an internal matter. In response, Pakistan’s parliament decided to cut trade with India, downgrade diplomatic ties and suspend bus and train services.
On the possibility of tensions escalating into conflict, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, tells Al Jazeera: “There are two nuclear-armed states and we think war is not a solution, it is mutual suicide and has never been our option.”
“We are going to articulate our case diplomatically, politically and we will look at the legal options,” he says.
However, India’s move in Kashmir has also revealed internal divisions inside Pakistan’s political system as to how to respond.
“We see that the government of Pakistan is following, not leading,” says Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party and a vocal critic of both the Indian and Pakistani government.
“I think that the people of Kashmir are looking to leadership. And they are looking for the Prime Minister of Pakistan to speak to their emotions and to speak to the crisis and take concrete actions, not react, not five days later decide to take any reciprocal action with India – which is unfortunately what we saw in this situation.”
However, he adds: “As far as domestic politics is concerned, the various political parties obviously have their differences. But when it comes to the issue of Kashmir, we all stand united.”
Although some Kashmiris feel Islamabad should do more, Khan expresses thanks to Pakistan for its response thus far.
“It is natural that the people in the street should expect more,” he says, “but I’ve heard from other government officials that Pakistan firmly believes that there should be a diplomatic and political solution. We do not go down the path of war-mongering, we do not want to stoke war hysteria as India has done. So Pakistan has shown restraint and responsibility.”
The UN has urged all sides to refrain from changing the status of Kashmir. Pakistan plans to take the issue to the UN Security Council with the help of its ally China, which also has a claim on a different part of the disputed Himalayan region.
“They [China] completely understand and endorse our point of view,” says Qureshi. “They have considered the Indian action as unilateral, unlawful, and they feel the matter should be resolved under the UN charter and according to the applicable Security Council resolutions.”
“What matters is what is right,” Zardari says. “And what is right is that for 70 years the people of Kashmir have been promised that they will be able to decide their own destiny. It’s for 70 years we have been told that the people of Kashmir will have a referendum and they will choose. We are saying allow for people to exercise their democratic rights. If the world believes in democracy, if the world believes in the freedom of choice, then the world should support the people of Kashmir.”
As the tough political talk on Kashmir has a direct impact on the lives of millions of people on both sides of the line of control, we sit down with three important people on the Pakistani side and ask: Will Pakistan be able to neutralise the Indian move; can diplomacy diffuse tensions; and will other powers like China get involved, and if so, what could this mean for Kashmiris?
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