The Indian government’s decision to change the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir has very different implications depending on the perspective – from the point of view of the country’s domestic policy or the larger regional situation.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had long promised in its election manifestos to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which guaranteed special autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The decisive victory of the party and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allowed this to be done with almost no resistance within the country.
This step taken by Narendra Modi’s government seems quite logical in the framework of India’s internal structure. It makes no sense to have an administrative unit with the authority to repeal national laws on its territory. Lifting the ban on non-residents buying property in Kashmir should also bring in an influx of investment and a fast economic revival in the region. Finally, creating a separate administrative division for Ladakh with its Buddhist population also seems justified from the historical and cultural point of view.
However, from the point of view of international politics, the Indian government’s step appears fraught with considerable risks.
One of the external factors that prompted the decision was Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington in late July. During his visit, Donald Trump promised to mediate between Pakistan and India on the Kashmir issue, which Islamabad saw as a major diplomatic victory. As a reminder, ever since the onset of the Kashmir crisis, which coincided with India and Pakistan gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan has sought international involvement in resolving the issue, while India has insisted that it is a purely bilateral matter and rejected any international mediation.
The abolition of the special status for Kashmir in this context can be viewed as a proactive measure aimed at neutralizing Pakistan’s potentially growing role in the region. It was also agreed during Imran Khan’s visit to Washington that Pakistan would play a special role in the future development of Afghanistan, when (and if) the US pulls out, and the Taliban will most likely come to power in Afghanistan. According to some Indian observers, agreement on these issues is expected following the US-Taliban talks underway in Qatar.
Naturally, it was Islamabad that showed the sharpest reaction to the revocation of Article 370. Pakistan expelled Indian diplomats, recalled its own ones and announced the closure of a number of trade and cultural exchange programs, as well as its intention to raise the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council. An official statement by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said that “Pakistan will exercise all possible options to counter the illegal steps.”
Pakistan's main regional ally, China, generally supported this stance, albeit in a more diplomatic manner, urging both sides to refrain from unilateral moves that could aggravate the situation in the region. The heads of leading Islamic states spoke of India’s actions with varying degrees of disapproval.
In this regard, the question arises: how far can tensions rise between the two main geopolitical rivals in South Asia in the current circumstances?
It seems that the most alarmist assumptions in the media are overstating the problem. To begin with, although no one questions Pakistan’s sovereignty, including in foreign policy affairs, this does not mean Islamabad can act without even taking into consideration the opinion of its main partners – primarily China, the United States and Saudi Arabia. And all these countries, while expressing concern over the current situation, are still unequivocally urging both parties to refrain from any drastic steps.
China is especially interested in stability in the region in the context of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project partly located in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. On the one hand, China might benefit from the ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan, as this diverts New Delhi’s attention and resources from a possible direct confrontation with Beijing. On the other hand, an open armed Indo-Pakistani conflict (where India has an a priori advantage) will thwart any plans to arrange a short-cut to the energy resources of the Gulf.
Pakistan, where politics is still largely driven by the military, also has little interest in over-escalating the conflict. Ongoing tension does allow the military to redirect financial flows in their interests, but a full-scale war would be suicidal for Pakistani statehood. And, of course, India and Pakistan both having nuclear weapons acts as the main deterrent.
Another question is how non-state actors will behave and whether the situation will lead to increased terrorist activity. On the one hand, conditions are in place for an upsurge: the discontent of a large part of the Muslim population of Jammu and Kashmir with the government’s decision is a breeding ground for anti-government sentiment. On the other hand, cross-border terrorism has long become a sad reality in Kashmir, so the additional troops sent there along with the abolition of Article 370 should effectively deal with this threat.
The Afghan Taliban movement’s reaction was indicative in this context. On the one hand, it expressed “deep sadness” over the “difficulties and hardships for the Muslim population,” and on the other hand – echoing the statements by the leadership of most states on the situation in Kashmir – urged the parties “to prevent the spread of crisis and resolve the issue in a calm and composed manner” and not to turn Afghanistan “into the theater of competition between other countries.”
All the above suggests a cautiously optimistic conclusion that, although a temporary escalation in Kashmir cannot be ruled out, in the long term, a conflict on a larger scale is still unlikely.