The hyperbole has been accompanied by drastic action: India’s envoy to Pakistan has been sent home; diplomatic relations have been downgraded; trade, such it was, has been halted; and Bollywood (without which no Pakistani wedding is complete) has been banned from domestic screens.
Pakistan has painted itself into a corner, with no road map to make its way back. It says it will reconsider the decision to downgrade diplomatic ties if India reverts its Kashmir move. Since that is not about to happen — short of a legal ruling by India’s Supreme Court — how will Pakistan backpedal its way from the dead end?
Its response has been knee-jerk, unfathomable — and, above all, ironic. Every outburst and flailing against India only validates the Modi government and rallies Indian public opinion behind it. In other words, while claiming to lash out at him, Pakistan is only making Modi look better, even among those Indians who do not agree with the prime minister’s handling of Kashmir.
First, there is the mystery of why Pakistan would get so publicly agitated over a provision of the Indian constitution. For decades, its deep state has run “training camps” for Kashmiri militant groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen and nurtured terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Before 9/11, when the world was still more indulgent of such nomenclatures, Pakistan called them “freedom fighters.” Pakistan’s entire Kashmir policy is based on the patronage of those who want secession from India and are prepared to kill or die for it. That it is now tying itself in knots over Article 370 would mean that it intrinsically accepts the terms on which Jammu and Kashmir negotiated its accession to India. Is Pakistan really fighting for Indian constitutionalism? In that case, even the parts of the erstwhile kingdom that it holds in its control since its raiders invaded India in 1947 — the area that India calls Pakistan-occupied Kashmir — should be looked at through the prism of the same constitutional framework.
Pakistan’s allegation is that by withdrawing Kashmir’s special status, the Bharatiya Janata Party wants to alter the demographics of what has been India’s only Muslim-majority state. But, in fact, Indian historians are reminding Pakistan that in the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan — parts of the former princely kingdom that came into Pakistan’s control after the defection of British military officers — tinkering with religious composition was very much part of Pakistan’s strategy. India has pointed out that in the 1970s it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who changed the state subject rules so that Sunnis could be pushed into an otherwise Shiite-majority area. This was followed by military dictator Zia-Ul-Haq, whose aggressive Islamization drive across Pakistan is well documented; on his watch, sectarianism in Gilgit was consciously fueled, including the notorious massacre of hundreds of Shiites in the region by a religious militia.
The Modi government’s actions in Kashmir have led to a robust debate within India. While the prime minister appears to have scored points on domestic politics, his government has also had to face vocal criticism about the extended communication clampdown in Kashmir, the detention of mainstream Kashmiri politicians and the unilateralism with which such a big decision was made. It will take several months before we are able to determine how this impacts the three-decade-old insurgency in the region.
But the moment Pakistan frames its conversation in terms of internationalizing the Kashmir issue, or its leaders make patently untrue and ludicrous statements, Indians will close ranks. Even Kashmiris who have been scathing about the decision to take away Article 370 realize that Pakistan is doing them no favors. Shah Faesal, a civil servant turned Kashmiri politician, told me Pakistan’s response “only vindicates the Modi government and helps them tighten the screws on us.“
No Indian, not even the most anti-establishment citizen, wants to be seen as reinforcing Pakistan’s position on Kashmir.
And on the world stage there are few takers for Pakistan’s position, something its foreign affairs minister even admits. Russia has already endorsed the Indian position. Pakistan’s main benefactor, China, is the most likely to be unhappy with India — not so much on behalf of Islamabad but because of its own boundary disputes with India. But how much attention can it afford to expend on this given the battle it faces in Hong Kong?
And President Trump? The U.S. leader perhaps triggered India into taking an earlier decision than intended with his unthinking offer to mediate on Kashmir. But his 2020 reelection bid is tied in part to delivering on his promise to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. For this, he needs Khan and the Pakistani army to focus on the endgame. Would he really want another military conflagration to erupt between India and Pakistan?
Yet, in India, there is an expectation that Pakistan will not draw the line at proclamations, denunciations and downgraded diplomatic relations. There is talk in the highest levels of the military about Pakistan escalating its asymmetric warfare against India by unleashing more terrorist attacks, either within Kashmir or elsewhere in India. In February this year, an attack in Kashmir, which India linked to the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-E-Mohammed, took the two nations to the brink of war. Khan has more than alluded to the fact that similar attacks could take place, even though he denies Pakistan’s responsibility for them.
If there were to be a violent response from Pakistan in the form of a terrorist strike, you can be sure that any domestic disagreement on Modi’s Kashmir doctrine would be buried.
Pakistan’s interference is only making the Indian prime minister stronger. The biggest favor it could do for the Kashmiri people at this stage would be to stay out.