BY: SACHI MADAN, DIRECTOR OF PARTNERSHIPS
I’m writing this article while sitting at a Coffee Bean at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, on my way home to Seattle after visiting my family in Chandigarh, India. We’ve been in a state of frenzy for the past couple of days as flights were suspended, some airports were closed, and the flight that we did manage to find is severely delayed and much longer than we expected because the airspace above Pakistan has been shut (it ended up taking us 43 hours of traveling to get home!) Why? Well, that’s a tale as old as time itself.
Let’s begin with a brief history lesson into one of the most complicated feuds known. India and Pakistan were one country under British rule, but in 1947, after gaining their independence, they decided to split into two countries. There was the secular but predominantly Hindu state of India, and the Muslim state of Pakistan. The process of what is commonly referred to as ‘Partition’ was messy, as Muslims from the Indian territory migrated to Pakistan, and Hindus from the Pakistani territory migrated to India. My own grandparents were refugees in this crisis, and have described horrific tales that were all too common for those migrating at the time. Family members were slaughtered before their eyes, sanitation and basic necessities were lacking, and finding a new home took months, if not years. Part of today’s animosity is an aftereffect of Partition, with acts of violence scarring generations to come.
This long-lasting conflict is epitomized in a territorial dispute over Kashmir (the red region in the image above). Pakistan claims ownership of Kashmir due to its majority Muslim population. India, meanwhile, currently formally rules over it due to the Maharaja of Kashmir choosing to join India in 1947 after receiving military aid from India due to a Pakistani insurgency in Kashmir. The result of this war was a ceasefire line, and Pakistan declaring Kashmir’s choice to join India in 1947 illegitimate outside the context of war. The two countries experienced conflict again in 1965, 1971 (creating another country, Bangladesh), and 1989. In 1999, the Kargil War erupted, tearing the countries farther away from a solution and leading to a military coup in Pakistan. Since then, both countries have sponsored terrorist attacks against each other, built an arsenal of nuclear weapons, and killed thousands of civilians in Kashmir.
After a two-decade steady stream of attacks against each country, tensions recently flared up again. On February 14 of this year, 46 Indian soldiers died in Pulwama, an Indian controlled district of Kashmir, in what was the deadliest attack on Indian forces in the region since 1989. Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistani terrorist organization working to make Kashmir a part of Pakistan, took responsibility for the suicide bombing. In return, India began surgical air strikes on February 26, with Pakistan striking back less than 24 hours later. Pakistan also captured an Indian pilot, releasing footage of the captive wing commander blindfolded and bleeding. On Friday, March 1, the pilot was released as a peace gesture on behalf of Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan.
But there are some major points of analysis regarding this recent flare-up, some that I only really came to understand after being in India, in the heat of things, while the conflict arose.
The first is that this is the first major escalation since both countries developed nuclear programs, which changes the way the tensions are characterized. With an ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, both countries should be trying to dial down the conflict for fear of mutual destruction. Both India and Pakistan possess between 140 to 150 nuclear weapons, and Pakistan announced that its military is preparing for “all eventualities.” The threat of nuclear warfare is grave and could devastate the lives of billions of people. As Business Insider says, it could even cause global destruction through food shortages and the crippling of the ozone layer.
Another important factor to note is that India has an election coming up in April. Modi is speculated to have conducted the first cross-border air strike by India in almost 50 years in order to spark nationalistic sentiments in voters and encourage them to re-elect his party, the BJP. This comes at a time when, according to Forbes, Modi’s position is weaker than before. The boost in nationalism may help to give him a boost at the polls, one that he greatly needs. If this is the case, it also comes at the cost of innocent lives and the danger of fueling a destructive war.
While tensions have now decreased, the threat of war, and now nuclear war remains imminent. Growing up as Indian or Pakistani, we are often kept within an “us” and “them” mentality. One thing that I did notice within my close family and friends in India was the generational gap, where younger, well-educated people were generally more open to holding their government accountable, carrying less intolerance for the other side, and advocating for a more peaceful or diplomatic approach to the crisis. If this is a general pattern that exists across the two countries, we could see Generation Z changing the game of international affairs in South Asia once they rise to power. Thus, I urge Indians and Pakistanis in Generation Z to keep an open mind about each other, realize that war tears apart both countries, and aim to work towards a diplomatic solution between the two countries.
Photo Credits: https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/01/asia/india-pakistan-military-balance-intl/index.html