Kashmir gunbattle underscores India-Pakistan tensions

January 7, 2010

srinagar hotelA nearly 24-hour gunbattle this week between militants and Indian security forces in the centre of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, is a powerful reminder of the tensions in the region at the heart of enmity between India and Pakistan. Two people were killed along with the two militants -  one of whom was described by police as a Pakistani - in the biggest attack in Srinagar in two years.  Hundreds of people, who had become accustomed to relative calm after years of separatist violence, had to be rescued from nearby buildings.

The attack itself might or might not turn out to be an isolated incident.  But what is troubling is that it took place within the context of a deterioration in relations between India and Pakistan.

After plummeting following the attack on Mumbai in November 2008, relations improved enough between India and Pakistan for their leaders to hold two rounds of talks on the sidelines of international meetings last year. As recently as July, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to keep the lines of communication open with Pakistan. Since then the atmosphere has soured considerably, in part because of information which followed the arrest in Chicago of American David Headley which suggested the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for Mumbai might be planning new attacks in India.

Not only are the two countries not talking, but they appear to be on a collision course over both Afghanistan and Kashmir.

For much of last year, and indeed the year before, policy debates about Afghanistan included the possibility of easing tensions between Islamabad and Delhi to reduce their long-standing rivalry there and to encourage Pakistan to focus on battling Islamist militants rather than on its traditional enemy India.  But the  framework for debate has been shifting almost imperceptibly but fairly steadily for months now into a discussion - at least inside India – of whether Indian troops should be sent to Afghanistan to help secure the peace there. (See here, here, and here for some recent coverage of this.) 

That would be a red rag to a bull to Pakistan, which would find itself facing a perceived threat from its much bigger neighbour to the east along with Indian troops in Afghanistan to the west. In the short term it would reduce further its willingness to target groups like the Afghan Taliban in the “Quetta shura” led by Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network that it might want to use to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. In the longer term it could lead to both countries backing opposing forces in a renewed civil war in Afghanistan.

On the Kashmir front, the atmosphere has become equally sour, even before the latest violence in Srinagar.  (Although Delhi said late last year it was pulling out some troops from Jammu and Kashmir, this covered a fraction of its security forces inside the region. It did not apply to troops deployed along the international border and Line of Control which divides the disputed region between India and Pakistan, and therefore had no impact on relations between the two neighbours.)

Islamabad reacted angrily this month to a comment by the Indian army chief that India should be prepared to fight wars simultaneously against both Pakistan and China.  Even President Asif Ali Zardari, who had taken a notably softer stance on the Kashmir dispute when he first took office, has hardened his language. This week he described Kashmir as the “jugular vein” of Pakistan - a revival of a phrase used to suggest that the country’s very survival had been threatened by Indian control over a large part of the disputed region.

India and Pakistan had moved a long distance away from that kind of language during a thaw which developed in 2003, leading to a ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC), and an eventual opening up of  travel and trade between the two sides of the disputed region. In the bitter days immediately after Mumbai the ceasefire held, and the trade across the LoC continued. It is a sign of the times that even the cross-LoC trade appears to be stuttering to a halt.

(Hotel in Srinagar is set on fire during gunbattle/photo by Fayaz Kabli)

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