The shelling has become so intense in recent weeks that more than 36,000 residents of villages close to the border have been moved to safety.
Besides cross-border violence, last year was also one of the bloodiest in recent history in the state of Jammu and Kashmir itself. The Indian government has taken an extremely tough stance on violence in the state, especially on incursions by Pakistan-backed militants, who are trained in camps on the other side of the border and are sent by the Pakistani intelligence services and its defense forces. Last year, Indian forces killed more than 200 militants, many of them close to the border, but several in other parts of the state.
The government has also cracked down hard on dissent within the state, especially the actions of some youths, who are pelting the police and paramilitary forces with stones. The hard-line approach adopted since 2014 by the Indian government under Narendra Modi, leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, should not come as a surprise. After all, Modi was elected after attacking the rival Congress Party for being “soft” on Pakistan.
What does come as a surprise is the bizarre relationship Modi’s BJP has had with the Kashmiri People’s Democratic Party since May 2014. The two parties entered into a very uneasy coalition to run the state government and sharp differences of opinion between the two have sprung forth on several issues; and it often appears that the parties stand on opposite sides of most issues afflicting the state. Yet the coalition endures.
The police crackdown on local protests, which India alleges are sponsored by Islamabad, has left the situation in the state even more fragile than before, with frequent interruptions to schools and businesses, especially in the Kashmir Valley.
Yet, when he took over as prime minister, Modi did engage in a bit of realpolitik. He invited the leaders of all India’s neighbors to his swearing-in ceremony and subsequently also paid a surprise visit to Pakistan's then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The issue remains one of the prickliest in the world, as it has many sub-plots and a number of regional actors who try to influence developments to suit their own interests.
Ranvir S. Nayar
However, rather predictably, the bonhomie did not last long and relations between India and Pakistan nose-dived to historic lows. The two sides now refuse to meet or even talk to each other, not just to resolve the Kashmir issue but also several bilateral matters, which are crucial for building a good relationship.
India believes that each time the political leaders on both sides begin talking peace, the Pakistan military establishment and the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) get uncomfortable and destabilize the Islamabad government. As an example they use the recent change at the helm, when Sharif — a politician believed to be good for India-Pakistan peace — was forced out.
The heightened tensions and conflict have disrupted normal life in the state, which has caused the economy to suffer as it depends largely on horticulture, handicrafts and tourism, all of which are severely impacted by violence.
The state’s economy has been running largely on handouts from the federal government, which between 2000 and 2016 disbursed almost 10 percent of its total budget for states to Jammu and Kashmir, even though it only accounts for 1 percent of the population. In these 16 years, the federal government has contributed about $19 billion to the state, accounting for almost 60 percent of its budget.
Despite this largesse, India has been unable to reap the benefits of any goodwill because of large-scale corruption and inefficiencies in the disbursement of these funds. During my frequent travels to Kashmir, common citizens have told me that large chunks of this money get creamed off by political parties and government officials, leaving little for its people.
However, some key infrastructure projects have been opened in the state, including all-weather road networks, power stations and railways. India has always viewed a robust economy and employment opportunities for the local youth as the best antidote to violence and, in the periods of relative peace, this has borne fruit as most locals have a stake in preserving peace.
The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is also one of the main reasons behind India’s criticism of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the One Belt One Road plan, as New Delhi fears China has barely-veiled geostrategic ambitions underlying these economic projects. The CPEC has obliged India to boost its own spending on developing the infrastructure in the state and other border areas, which could bring its own economic benefits.
The Kashmir issue remains one of the prickliest in the world, as it is not simply about religion or social problems. It has numerous sub-plots and a number of regional actors who try to influence the developments for their own goals. To find a lasting solution, both India and Pakistan need to take numerous measures regarding the population in the divided state as well as each other.
A strong, democratic and truly independent government in Pakistan is perhaps the first such requirement. As long as the government in Islamabad remains vulnerable to the whims of the military or the ISI, it will have difficulty reaching out to India in any meaningful manner. India, for its part, needs to allow space for local dissent and also ensure that the governance of the state is cleaner and more effective than in the recent past.
There is little role for the international community as India has always strongly rejected any third-party involvement in this dispute. India and Pakistan are neighbors with a shared heritage and history, and it is in their best interests to find a viable and lasting solution to bring peace not only to Jammu and Kashmir, but the entire region.
— Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.