Why India and Pakistan must step back from the brink

With a heady nationalism driving both sides over disputed Kashmir, the arch-rivals now find themselves in uncharted territory

epa07401374 People burn picture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after reports of Pakistani Air Forces shooting down India fighter jets, in Karachi, Pakistan, 27 February 2019. According to media reports, the Pakistan Army on 27 February 2019 stated it shot down two Indian fighter jets that were flying in its airspace. The incident came a day after India had claimed that its warplanes bombed a militant training camp and killed a large number of militants near the Line of Control (LoC) inside Pakistan.  EPA/SHAHZAIB AKBER
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The Kashmir Valley is again serving as the epicentre of a dramatic spiral towards what could be a no-holds-barred confrontation between Pakistan and India.

A suicide car bomber ramming a bus carrying Indian paramilitaries in the disputed territory, which India blamed on Pakistan, followed by the first cross-border air raid in decades on Pakistani soil by the Indian air force, initiated the escalation and drew a new red line in the crisis over Kashmir.

India has limited any military action against Pakistan since the previous war in 1971 to Islamabad-administered areas of Kashmir. Tuesday’s strike changed that.

A day later, both sides said they had shot down each other’s warplanes after they crossed Kashmir’s de facto border, known as the Line of Control, bringing the arch-­rivals to the brink of a major confrontation.

One downed Indian pilot remains in Pakistan’s custody, Islamabad has closed its airspace “until further notice” and six Indian airports have been closed. India has sent thousands of troops to the disputed territory in a stand-off with Pakistan’s large army, arrested hundreds of Kashmiris in raids since the bombing and the Pakistani military has been placed on high alert.

All of this has combined to create the most precarious situation in the region for decades. Both sides now sit in uncharted territory and the Indian air force raid was, as one Indian commentator called it, a watershed moment in relations between the two countries.

The risks of a fourth war between the two nuclear-armed countries since independence from Britain in 1947, two of which were fought over Kashmir, appear too great for the international community to allow this to descend into a full-blown conflict.

The US, China, Britain and the European Union called for restraint from both sides and there is now a diplomatic rush at the global level, including the United Nations Security Council, to defuse tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad.

But the escalation has exposed the nationalist fervour on both sides of the Kashmir Valley that could drive the two countries to war. Pictures of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi up in flames, street celebrations, war songs and a beaten and captured Indian pilot being paraded on video for propaganda purposes exacerbated tensions.

Before the latest flare-up, there were promising signs of a major reconciliation between old foes after talks stalled in 2015 after violence in the disputed territory. Pakistan’s military approached India last year in a bid to resume peace talks and new Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to seek dialogue with his neighbour.

Mr Modi and Mr Khan must now show leadership and pull both countries back from the edge. Analysts say that is likely in the long term, because neither side wants more violence, but unlikely in the short term as the Indian premier contests an April election.

He has used the surprising air force raid to portray himself as a defender of the state and strong on security. “Today, I sense a fervour in the crowd,” he said on Tuesday. “The country is in safe hands.”

This brinkmanship for a boost at the polls means the crisis will probably be resolved in the long run. But the Hindu nationalist is playing a dangerous game as the threat of a Pakistani retaliation on Indian soil, and a nuclear escalation, remains real after New Delhi crossed the red line of an aerial attack on enemy soil.

The risk is that Mr Modi will come under pressure to conduct similar actions elsewhere in Pakistan in response to attacks by groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad.

It is now incumbent on Mr Modi to show that, despite the raids, he is serious about pulling New Delhi off the war path.

“India must not make the folly of mistaking Imran Khan’s peace overtures as a sign of Pakistan’s weakness,” says Rajeev Sharma, a New Delhi analyst on global strategic affairs.

“Instead it must consider a bilateral meeting in a neutral country as soon as possible.”

Mr Khan and Pakistani military officials have already made the first conciliatory moves, calling for talks with India to defuse the situation, and warning of a catastrophe if both sides did not negotiate their way out of this quagmire.