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Kashmir: Stuck in the Middle

08 August 2019

The row between India and Pakistan has escalated over the disputed Kashmir region which lies between the neighbouring countries. Both countries claim the region in its entirety but only control parts of it, with their respective territories separated by the Line of Control (LoC). Two out of three wars fought between the two countries have been over the Kashmir region. Tensions have risen within the last year due to a series of incidents; however, the row has further escalated within the last few days following India’s decision to strip Indian-administered Kashmir of its special constitutional status by revoking Article 370. In response, Pakistan has downgraded ties with India, expelling a top Indian diplomat and suspending trade.

Article 370 grants Indian-administered Kashmir special status, guaranteeing the disputed Muslim-majority state a significant amount of autonomy. The article forms the foundations of Kashmir’s complex relationship with India; however, a long-running separatist insurgency in the region has led to heightened military tensions in recent years, prompting many to speculate that insecurity in the area may be what motivated the Indian government to revoke most of Article 370. India has accused Pakistan of supporting separatist insurgents, although Pakistan has denied all allegations, claiming to only provide moral support to Kashmiris seeking self-determination. Many in the region don’t want to be governed by India, preferring Pakistani rule or independence. Approximately 60 percent of the region is Muslim, making it the only Muslim-majority state in India and demographically more aligned with Pakistan. The separatist insurgency first surfaced back in 1989; however, violent attacks have increased in frequency since 2016, following the death of Burhan Wani – an influential young Kashmiri militant leader. In February 2019, tensions flared up again after 40 Indian paramilitary security personnel were killed in a terrorist attack carried out by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant group. The attack sparked a diplomatic fallout between India and Pakistan, as India claimed Pakistan should have intervened in JeM's activity. A few weeks later, an Indian fighter jet was shot down by the Pakistani military for bombing an alleged militant hideout. The Indian pilot was held by the Pakistani authorities briefly before being repatriated. Pakistan's airspace in the Kashmir region was closed indefinitely before ultimately being re-opened in July.

Tens of thousands of Indian troops were allegedly deployed to the region ahead of the announcement, while tourists were also ordered to leave due to expectations of violent civil unrest. Since the revocation of Article 370 was announced on Monday, the region has been on lock down, with the Indian army deploying a heavy military presence to the area, enforcing a curfew and a communications black out. Reports of protest and unrest have emerged from the region, while at least one person has allegedly been killed in a police chase after violating the curfew in Srinagar. Pakistan has criticised India’s actions, claiming the region is being set up for ethnic cleansing. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to fight India's decision with the UN Security Council, claiming the move was a breach of international law. "I am afraid that [India] will now carry out ethnic cleansing in Kashmir", said Khan. "They will try to remove the local people and bring in others and make them a majority". So far, Pakistan has suspended all trade between the two countries, recalled its top ambassador from Delhi, expelled his Indian counterpart from Islamabad, and shut down Pakistani airspace to all Indian flights. Khan has also reportedly instructed the Pakistani armed forces to remain vigilant. On Thursday morning it was announced that Pakistan was shutting down its cross-border Samjhauta Express rail service, which usually operates between Pakistan's Lahore and the Indian capital of New Delhi.

The UN has expressed concern that the restrictions being enforced by the Indian government in the region are likely to “exacerbate the human rights situation” – highlighting the telecommunications ban, the arbitrary detention of local leaders, and the ban on political assembly as particularly concerning.  Neighbouring China has also criticised India's move by calling it 'unacceptable'. India has responded to China by saying the issue is an ‘internal matter’. Part of the Kashmir region bordering western China was ceded to China by Pakistan in the China-Pakistan Boundary Agreement of 1963, while China also claims the Chinese-administered Aksai Chin border area, which India claims is part of Ladakh in Indian-administered Kashmir. As well as revoking autonomy in the Indian territory, proposals have also been made to separate the Indian-administered region into two distinct regions: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

The situation on the ground in Kashmir is difficult to fully grasp due to the communications blackout, which has been in effect since Sunday evening. The few reports which have surfaced from the region indicate protests have been taking place, while soldiers continue to patrol the streets. Instances of civil unrest and stone-throwing have been reported. As of Wednesday, it’s believed as many as 100 local leaders and activists have been detained. "No-one knows what is happening in other parts of the state - we can't talk to anyone else. People are concerned - they don't know what is happening, they don't know what is going to happen", said BBC reporter Aamir Peerzada in Srinagar on Monday. Kashmiris in other parts of the country have said that they haven’t been able to contact their families for several days now. On Thursday, Indian intelligence agencies warned of a high risk of terrorist attacks in the city of Mumbai and in the Jammu and Kashmir region, where JeM militants are allegedly planning to target the security forces. Nineteen airports have been placed on high alert in response to the heightened terror threat. On Friday it was reported that the curfew was being temporarily relaxed to allow Muslims to attend Friday prayers.

 It’s feared that the revocation of Article 370 may have stirred up dormant separatist insurgent cells, with the decision to strip the region of its autonomy no doubt irreversibly changing Kashmiris’ relationship with New Delhi. On top of that, Pakistan has responded to India’s move by condemning it absolutely – further escalating already heightened diplomatic tensions over the region. India has responded by saying they “regret” Pakistan’s involvement, claiming again that the issue is an internal matter in a statement which ignores and undermines Pakistan’s claim over the disputed territory.