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Explainer: Why are India and Pakistan - both nuclear powers - on the brink of a major confrontation?

The countries have been in a dispute for over 70 years in relation to the Kashmir region.

n Indian paramilitary solider fires tear gas shell towards Kashmiri protesters in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, on Tuesday.
n Indian paramilitary solider fires tear gas shell towards Kashmiri protesters in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, on Tuesday.
Image: Dar Yasin/AP/Press Association Images

TENSIONS BETWEEN INDIA and Pakistan in recent weeks have reached highs not seen in decades.

Events over the last few weeks have sparked fears around the world that there could be a war between the two nuclear powers. 

Today Pakistan said that it had shot down and Indian fighter jet that had entered into its airspace in the Pakistan-controlled portion of the Kashmir region.

Pakistan state media has also released footage which apparently shows a captured Indian fighter pilot being interrogated. India for its part has also said that it has shot down a Pakistani warplane.

The latest incidents were sparked by a militant suicide attack in the India-controlled portion of Kashmir earlier this month, which killed over 40 Indian paramilitaries.

But recent events are just the latest in a long line of conflicts between the two countries and separatist militants over the status of the region of Kashmir.

The dispute stretches back over 70 years and has resulted in multiple wars and tens of thousands of deaths, first beginning with the departure of Britain in 1947 and the end of colonial rule. 

What are the origins of the dispute? 

India and Pakistan achieved independence from Britain in 1947 after many decades of colonial rule. The Indian subcontinent was split into the two countries under the Independence Act.

Under that act, Kashmir – a scenic Himalayan region in the north of both countries and sharing a border with China – was free to accede to either India or Pakistan. 

As a Muslim majority region, it was expected to go to Pakistan.

However, the local ruler at the time, Hari Singh, chose India, sparking an immediate war between the two countries which lasted two years. 

Cloudy Day in Srinagar, India - 25 Feb 2019. Kashmiri boatmen are seen paddling their shikaras during a cloudy day in Srinagar, Kashmir. Source: Idrees Abbas/SOPA Images/Sipa USA

The war was inconclusive and India retained control of the state of Jammu and Kashmir while Pakistan controlled the territory of Azad Kashmir and Balistan which became Pakistan-Administered Kashmir.

Nothing was settled, however, and both countries fought a second brief war in 1965 over the region.

Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in India which is a majority Muslim. Many of its inhabitants do not want to be controlled by India and would rather independence or to be part of Pakistan.

(Part of Kashmir is also controlled by China)

What are relations like between India and Pakistan?

Since independence, relations between India and Pakistan have been fraught with difficulty. 

The countries fought another war in 1971 over Pakistani rule in what was then East Pakistan.

India supported Bengali nationalists in what would later become Bangladesh. During the war India’s air force conducted bombing raids inside Pakistan. 

A ceasefire line agreed after that war between the India- and Pakistan-administered areas of Kashmir is known as the Line of Control.

Both countries have fought over this line in the decades since. In 1999 a fierce battle was waged between the two over the line which many called an undeclared war. 

Pakistan India Pakistani soldiers patrol in the area where India launched airstrikes in Jaba, near Balakot, Pakistan Source: Aqeel Ahmed

A ceasefire was declared in 2003 between the two countries which has mostly held since. There were hopes at the time of relations improving between the two.

However, this mostly came to nothing. 

The tensions between the two have potentially huge global ramifications since both powers confirmed in the late-90s that they have nuclear capabilities. 

Insurgency 

The disputes between the two governments are bolstered by an ongoing insurgency by Kashmiri militants which kicked off in 1989. 

Many Kashmir citizens resent the rule of India and what they see as the heavy-handed actions of its forces in the region. Many Kashmiris want either independence or to join Pakistan.  

The insurgency is inseparable from the general dispute between the two nations, as India has long accused Pakistan of arming and training Kashmiri militants to carry out attacks in its area.

Pakistan has always denied this. 

So what’s the latest?

2016

Military action has been ramping up in recent years in the region.

In 2016, a young Kashmiri militant leader – 22-year-old Burhan Wani – was killed in clashes with security forces. 

Burhan had a strong social media presence and was very popular. According to the BBC, he is largely credited with reviving and re-legitimising the image of militancy in the area.  

Burhan Muzaffar death Kashmiri protesters throw stones at police during clashes in 2016 following the death of Burhan Wani. Source: Hindustan Times

His death sparked huge protests and violence which crackdowns and multiple deaths.  

Later in the year, India launched what it calls “surgical strikes” on targets in Pakistani Kashmir.

This came less than two weeks after a militant attack on an Indian army base left 19 soldiers dead. Pakistan denied the strikes took place.

In November, seven Indian soldiers were killed after militants disguised as policemen storm a major army base near the frontier with Pakistan.

2019

The suicide attack on 14 February which left over 40 Indian paramilitary troops dead in the Indian-administered area of Kashmir shocked India, with prime minister Narendra Modi promising a swift response. 

The militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack. 

India said yesterday that it had launched a “preemptive” against what it calls JeM’s “biggest training camp”, killing “a very large number” of militants. 

KASHMIR-SRINAGAR-AIRCRAFT CRASH People and Indian army gather near the wreckage of an Indian aircraft after it crashed at village Garend Kalan of Budgam, about 34 km south of Srinagar city, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

It was India’s first air strike on undisputed Pakistani soil since the 1971 war.

Since then, both Pakistan and India have said they had shot down each other’s warplanes, which is a dramatic escalation. 

Pakistan state media have also released footage purporting to show a captured Indian pilot being interrogated. 

Meanwhile, India’s foreign ministry demanded the “immediate and safe return” of the pilot, calling on Pakistan to ensure no harm comes to him.

So what happens next?

The US, along with China and the European Union, have all called for cooler heads to prevail in the crisis.

Meanwhile, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for talks with India to defuse the situation, warning of the potentially catastrophic consequences should “better sense” not prevail.

“Can we afford any miscalculation with the kind of weapons that we have and you have?” he said in a televised statement.

In a sign of the deepening crisis, Pakistan has also closed its airspace “until further notice”.

At least six airports have been shuttered in India, and a vast area north of New Delhi was closed to civilian flights.

Both sides have tried to play down the threat of war, however both will need to step back from the brink and work to stop the situation deteriorating any further. 

With reporting from Associated Press and © – AFP 2019     

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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