Is India prepared for war? From the way that some politicians and the media are talking, the country appears to be on the brink of a belligerent move to take on Pakistan wholesale. In the past, India’s actions have tended to be couched in defensive terms – responding to a provocation from Pakistan – or aimed at terrorists and not the Pakistani state. After the Indian Air Force strike on Balakot earlier this year, New Delhi took pains to insist the move was not a “military action” and was aimed purely at preventing a terror attack that it had intelligence about.
Yet now there is talk of using the military to cloak what India calls Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the portions of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir that are currently in Islamabad’s possession. First, Home Minister Amit Shah said his government would sacrifice their lives for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, then Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that henceforth talks with Pakistan will only be about these territories of the former princely state.
Following this, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar – when asked about Rajnath Singh’s statement – said, “Our position has, is and will always be very clear on PoK, that it is part of India and we expect one day we will have physical jurisdiction over it.” That final bit, that India will one day have physical jurisdiction, has added to some of the war talk.
What does all of this mean?
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On paper, there is nothing new about India’s assertion that the entire former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, including the section held by Pakistan, is part of India. This is the very reason that Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed area and that the line dividing the two countries is a Line of Control and not an international border. Jaishankar’s statement is simply a restatement of the position India has had since 1949.
But over the years, it has also become apparent that both countries would, for the most part, be comfortable with turning the Line of Control into an actual border. India and Pakistan have come close to this twice, first during talks over the 1972 Simla Agreement and then in the 1999-2009 decade when Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was on the brink of signing a deal.
The specifics may have been slightly different, but the broad outlines are the same. The Line of Control would become a border. This would not be capitulation from India’s part but pragmatism. India already has trouble dealing with a disaffected population in the Kashmir valley – as the current situation makes evident. The thought of adding huge swathes of land with even less of a connection to the country, would only mean an even bigger security threat and political challenge.
Most policymakers know this, which is why it is extremely dangerous to sell the idea that troops will one day pour into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and return it to Indian hands. Even the small section of analysts who would like to see this area be part of India again knows that it cannot happen unless the Kashmiris on both sides also want this. Quite clearly, at the moment, this is not the case.
Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satyapal Malik made this point most clearlyin remarks on Wednesday. “Over the last 10-15 days, I have been seeing that many of our ministers, who don’t get a chance to speak on international issues, have been talking of attacks on PoK, how we will take back PoK, will capture PoK, that PoK is the next target,” he said. “This is their thinking. I say if PoK is our next target, instead of war, we can take it back on the basis of development of Jammu and Kashmir.”
While India’s approach to development of Jammu and Kashmir, without taking along the people of the state, is also problematic, his strategic point is accurate: unless the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir see a point in joining India, any attempt to militarily regain it would be to risk nuclear war only to annex another deeply disaffected population.
Of course, from a negotiation perspective, it makes sense for India to assert the position it holds on paper. All of Jammu and Kashmir belongs to India, which would make any grant of land to Pakistan a concession from New Delhi. But this is talk that belongs on diplomatic platforms. Whipping up public sentiment about military intervention is irresponsible behaviour, at a time when relations between the countries are already tense. Calmer heads and talk ought to prevail.