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Why Britain should worry about Kashmir

August 27, 2020 8:55 PM
By Paul Reynolds, CLD executive member in Libdem Voice

Paul ReynoldsKashmir is one of those decades-long conflicts which rarely makes it into the mainstream UK media; until recently. In June this year 20 Indian soldiers died in fighting with Chinese soldiers, on the border between Indian-administered and Chinese-administered Kashmir.

So what is the nature of the conflict and why has it become much more dangerous this year ?

Central to the recent upsurge in violence, lies China-India relations. To understand, we must start with 'British India'.

After Indian independence following WW2, Kashmir was divided into Pakistan administered and Indian administered territory, with two smaller areas controlled by China. Both the Pakistani and Indian administered sides are majority Muslim, except (Buddhist) Ladakh, on the Chinese border.

India and Pakistan have more than once gone to war over territory, and so have India and China.

When Indian administered Kashmir was established, the spectre of future Kashmiri independence was raised, and significant autonomy provided for in Article 370 of the Indian Constitutions, later also by Article 35A.

Among these provisions were restricted involvement of the Indian state (foreign policy, defence etc). Land ownership and receipt of public services like education and health were restricted to Kashmiris. Article 370, leading potentially to independence, was a factor in the measure of acceptance by Kashmiris of Indian administration early on.

However, in the late 1980s an insurgency by Muslim Kashmiris against Indian administration started, with various forms of support, overt and covert, from Pakistan. This rise in violence against Indian rule was largely a result of gradual erosion of autonomy and democracy; and fading prospects of independence.

Over the decades Kashmir became a nationalist issue in Pakistan, but even more so in India, where political declarations that 'all of Kashmir was India' were prompted by the Hindu nationalist RSS party.

However, a ceasefire in 2003 brought new optimism, and the Indian government set up a series of Working Groups to examine steps to resolve the Kashmir conflict.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks ended peace efforts, and further fuelled Indian nationalism.

In the 2014 election BJP leaders declared their intent to revoke Articles 370 and 35A, and bring Kashmir under central control from Delhi. After the Indian elections in April 2019, the BJP were in a stronger position. Thus, in the Summer of 2019 India revoked Articles 370 and 35A, downgraded Kashmir to a union territory, split off Ladakh, and bypassed the local Kashmiri politicians. This led to an increase in insurgency activity and a spiral of reduced human rights and conflict.

This has worried China for one key reason; the 'Belt and Road Initiative'. This is the Chinese economy looking overland towards Europe, Middle East and South Asia, together with massive infrastructure investment. This is leader Xi Jinping's megaproject; to keep growth going, to access oil in Western China, and as insurance against a maritime blockade.

Key parts of Belt and Road Initiative run through Pakistani Kashmir down to the Chinese-run Gwadar port and military installation, in Pakistan. A major conflict in Kashmir would involve China and scupper much of BRI; and likely end the political career of Xi Jinping. The 'China-Pakistan Corridor', as known, is already fragile due to poor Pakistani governance. China-Pakistan relations could fracture, too.

China and India have become rivals. Trade between them is surprisingly small. China protested at the revocation of Article 370, and border fighting has tested Indian defences.

The US (and now UK) have demonised China this year, in part due to US elections, and sided with nationalist-run India over Kashmir. The scene is set for a major conflict where mistakes could lead to a devastating war. The UK will be blamed, at least in part.

Instead the UK should accept its responsibilities and promote a return to a 3-way ceasefire and peace-building measures, rather than taking sides in pursuit of trade deals, whilst giving up on China to please the US.