With tensions at a tipping point between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, residents of the area and experts fear the situation between the two nuclear powers may spin out of control.
“The two sides are now engaged in a dangerous escalatory cycle that could go nuclear if one or the other side miscalculates and overreacts. Neither side wants to look weak even if actions design to show resolve risk self-destruction,” Daryl Kimball, executive director at the Arms Control Association, told Fox News. “India and Pakistan each possess more than one hundred nuclear weapons, many of which are short-range missile systems. A series of tit-for-tat military strikes can likely lead to catastrophic results.”
Islamabad and New Delhi have offered conflicting accounts of what really happened on Wednesday, when Pakistan claimed it shot down two Indian planes. India, meanwhile, said shot down a Pakistani fighter, and lost just one plane.
India’s declared that it used its bombers to strike “a very large number” of militants in a functioning terrorist-training camp in Pakistan territory. But Pakistan officials have disputed the claim – insisting that a barren hilltop was HIT, and no deaths ensued. They claim to have one of the downed Indian pilots in custody.
These latest altercations stemmed from a Feb. 14 suicide attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitary officers in Pulwama, on the Indian-administered side of the disputed Kashmir. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, facing a general election in May, has been under domestic pressure to execute a show of force in the aftermath of the terrorist strike, of which militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility.
“I was leaving my shop for some work at around 3:30 pm when a loud blast shattered windows of my shop and some other nearby houses were also hit with this wave,” Altaf, a 45-year-old who runs his own store making gravestones in Pulwama, recalled to Fox News, speaking of the day of the attack. “The intensity of the blast was quite high, and we could only see misty fumes and hear loud cries from the other side of the road.”
Altaf remembered seeing a militant van ram into a convoy, killing dozens, a moment he said he cannot erase from his mind.
The incident has prompted airstrikes by the Indian side, which has in turn riled up local Pakistanis. For one, Yasmeen Raja, the 48-year-old chairperson of the Muslim Khawateen Markaz (MKM) – the female wing of the Jammu and Kashmir liberation from (JKLF) political party – said that since the attack, they have all been subject to raids and what she alleges to be unlawful imprisonments by Indian forces.
“It has been ages, we are yet to get justice for our blood,” she said. “We want independence from Indian atrocities and tyrannical rule.”
The suicide bomber at the center of the Pulwama attack was identified as 20-year-old JeM member Adil Ahmed Dar. And while Raja dismissed terrorist groups as being an easy target to blame, she anticipates there will be more attacks.
“Every Kashmiri boy is a militant like Adil, and will turn out to be a militant to fight against Indian atrocities, having no links with these banned organizations in Pakistan,” she continued. “We are done with bearing any more assaults. Since the Indian occupation on Kashmir, we are with Pakistan, and will jihad against India if a war breaks out between the two.”
For now, the worries of ongoing and heightening battles between the two are only festering.
Before Wednesday’s inflammatory clash in the skies, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo engaged with foreign ministers from both India and Pakistan, encouraging both to “exercise restraint” and “avoid further military activity.” But he so far has not prevailed.
Residents on both sides of the heavily-militarized de facto frontier – known as the Line of Control (LOC) and severing through the Jammu and Kashmir – witnessed fiery exchanges between the two sides after nightfall, sending hundreds of villagers fleeing through the mountainous terrain to close by towns.
For those in and around the Jammu and Kashmir area, the conflict has been a long and simmering one, of which many see its coming to a head as inevitable – framed not only by military skirmishes but also vast and often underreported human rights abuses.
The Jammu and Kashmir has been gripped with violence since the British Indian Empire partition created India and Pakistan in 1947, spurring decades of diplomatic tensions between Hindu-dominant India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The unofficial, 435-mile militarized border between the two countries, referred to as the Line of Control (LOC), is claimed land by both countries, and continues to be the largest militarily-occupied territory in the world.
Despite a brittle ceasefire established in 2003, countless violations have been recorded in recent years. Scores continue to lose their lives in the gunfire and shelling, with both sides blaming each other.
Human rights experts accuse the Indian army of operating under the heavy-handed, emergency Armed Forces Special Powers Act, put into effect in 1990, authorizing the military to destroy personal property and use deadly force and make arrests. The roughly eight million people living in the region are also said to be under the heightened surveillance of some 700,000 Indian soldiers. Critics have described their response to local protests by youth, frustrated by high unemployment and little opportunity, as critically “disproportionate.”
On the flip side, India and much of the international community have for decades bemoaned Pakistan’s alleged harboring and support of militant groups with the specific role of crossing the border to wage attacks on the Indian population, thus thwarting any prospect of real peace.
“For the world, it is not an issue. But for us it is absolutely the issue,” lamented the spokesperson for the Pakistan Armed Forces, Asif Ghafoor, to Fox News last year. “India doesn’t want a third party involved but we want the U.S. to play a role in resolving this.”
The latest uptick has those on both sides of country lines awash with dread. While hospitals on the India side are reported to be drawing red crosses on their buildings in the quest to avoid becoming a potential Pakistan military target, Pakistanis are prepping for whatever may unfold next. Air space was largely shut down for commercial flights following the Wednesday fracas.
“The situation is not good, there is a lot of worries this time,” one former Pakistani diplomat noted. “Both countries are stressing each other to calm down, we can only hope sense prevails.”
Other analysts remain optimistic.
“There will potentially be more air force actions in both directions across the Line of Control (LoC) but likely no further escalation beyond that,” Parag Khanna, founding partner of FutureMap and author of The Future is Asian. “India wanted to make clear that it cannot only send a warning but also use its air force to directly punish Pakistan for harboring terrorist groups.”