An unfinished argument

NEW YORK • It was almost inevitable that fighting would break out again between India and Pakistan.

On Wednesday, Pakistani and Indian fighter jets skirmished over Indian-controlled territory in the disputed border state of Jammu and Kashmir. At least one Indian jet was shot down, with Pakistan capturing its pilot. The incursion came just one day after Indian aircraft flew into Pakistan and attacked near the town of Balakot. Now there are fears that hostilities could escalate between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, which were created by the bloody partition of British India more than 70 years ago and have coexisted uneasily ever since.

1 WHAT ARE THE ROOTS OF THE CONFLICT?

When the British finally gave up their colony of India in August 1947, they agreed to divide it into two countries: Pakistan, with a Muslim majority, and India, with a Hindu majority. (Bangladesh was initially part of Pakistan but gained its own independence in 1971 after a short war between India and Pakistan.)

Left undecided was the status of Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state in the Himalayas that had been ruled by a local prince.

Fighting quickly broke out, and both countries eventually sent in troops, with Pakistan occupying one-third of the state and India two-thirds. Although the prince signed an agreement for the territory to become part of India, the United Nations later recommended that an election be held to let the people decide.

That election never took place, and both countries continue to administer their portions of the former princely territory while hoping to get full control of it.

2 WHY DID THE SITUATION ERUPT NOW?

The immediate cause was the Feb 14 suicide bombing by a young Islamic militant, who blew up a convoy of trucks carrying paramilitary forces in Pulwama in southern Kashmir, killing at least 40.

But there are also broader political forces at work. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is up for re-election in May, and he is eager to avenge a bombing that has stirred outrage.

Pakistan, for its part, has a new Prime Minister, Mr Imran Khan, who was elected last year with the backing of his country's powerful military. Mr Khan wants to show that he can stand up to India, even as the country's economy is so weak that he is seeking bailouts from Saudi Arabia and China.

3 CAN GLOBAL POWERS HELP CALM THE SITUATION?

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on leaders in both countries to avoid escalating the situation. He also said Pakistan must take "meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil".

Under President Donald Trump, US foreign policy has shifted away from Pakistan, a long-time recipient of US aid, towards India, which the administration views as a bulwark against China's rising influence in Asia.

China, meanwhile, has become a close ally and financial patron of Pakistan. The Chinese urged both countries to exercise restraint after India's foray into Pakistani airspace.

4 WHAT IS LIKELY TO HAPPEN NEXT?

Dr Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the school of international affairs at O. P. Jindal Global University outside New Delhi, predicted that the military conflict would subside soon.

He worried instead that Pakistan-backed militants would carry out terrorist attacks in India. "The terrorist threat has not gone away," he said.

Prime Minister Khan has urged India to settle matters through talks. "All big wars have been due to miscalculation," he said in a televised address. "My question to India is that given the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation?"

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2019, with the headline 'An unfinished argument'. Print Edition | Subscribe