By Isha Mahajan
Over the past 70 years, Kashmir – a snowy mountainous region occupied by military troops on the India-Pakistan border – has been the center of communal violence and displacement, affecting people living in and around this territory adversely. The impact was initially felt by the people living in Kashmir and has grown to affect the religious groups and foreign policies of these countries.
The attacks in Pulwama in February of this year led to the killing of nine, people including four soldiers and a policeman in a gun battle in Indian administered Kashmir. This event enabled Kashmir to dominate the headlines once again and highlighted the decades-old conflict between these neighboring countries.
The relevance of this issue in today’s time continues to grow because India and Pakistan now hold strong significance in the field of international relations as they both possess nuclear weapons.
When exactly did this all start?
In 1947, after decades of fighting for self-rule and the end of British colonialism, people across the Indian subcontinent won their independence from the European power. Upon leaving, the British government enacted the Indian Independence Act, a legislation that ordered the demarcation of India and Pakistan into separate nations. It was to be done in such a way that the Muslim majorities of the region were allocated to the west of the Punjab border which is currently seen as Pakistan, and the east of the Bengal border which is known today as Bangladesh.
Kashmir was one of the princely states in the undivided India and was given the choice to accede to whichever dominion it preferred. However, Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of Kashmir, wanted it to remain independent. It is widely believed that a tribal force attack in Kashmir received Pakistani backing and, as a result, Singh chose to accede to India. Indian troops were allowed to be airlifted to Kashmir and the Maharaja signed an agreement for the territory to become a part of India in 1947. This decision of acceding to India has been widely disputed and has become a source of the modern day tension.
What is the cultural connection between these two countries?
A lot of people like to migrate out of India and Pakistan in search of better education and employment opportunities. But when they leave behind their home countries, they are faced with having to interact with citizens from a country that they are taught from an early age is made up of the enemy. They often end up carrying some of their prejudices from home with them. Ironically, however, they often find themselves relating most to each other in these foreign environments given their cultural similarities.
“It’s interesting because we have so many Pakistani friends here at UMass but at the same time we have family members back at home, who tell us to be wary every time something like [the Pulwama attacks in Kashmir] happens, and then there are always two sides of me,” said Viraj Ayar, a senior studying political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “One side that thinks about my relationships with people who are Pakistani and then the political side of me that thinks how one should act in a situation like these.”
As the two countries were originally one, they share similarities in language, food and even patriarchal beliefs in their individual societies. In essence, they have more in common in terms of culture. But political tensions often overpower the commonalities.
“Indian movies have always been popular in Pakistan,” said Natasha Khan, an international student at UMass studying Public Health. “Personally, I’ve never felt any animosity towards people from India. It’s just the way history is taught in our countries, it is focused on telling us that we were right and the other side wasn’t.”
Khan recalled visiting India with a sports team during high school and said that people were very welcoming and friendly. “I assume that if they were to visit Pakistan, we would have been as welcoming as them,” Khan added.
How do these tensions impact foreign relations with the US?
“I think for a long time, people who have taken interest in world affairs have understood that the India-Pakistan relationship is one of the most important ones, not only because the two countries have traditionally been rivals but because they are going to be the two most important countries of the next century,” said Paul Musgrave, a political science professor at UMass.
Musgrave said that the U.S. has historically shared closer ties with Pakistan; however, in recent years, the growing economic power of India has shifted relations in that region. He believed that under the Permit Raj, a series of industrial regulations between 1947 and 1990, India as an economic entity was not relevant to America. But as India’s economy grew and liberated itself, the U.S. has become far more interested in maintaining American-Indian relations.
Some of these changing dynamics can also be observed by the way U.S. President Trump has made an effort to reach out to Hindu Americans, suggesting that President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi might be looking to form stronger ties. Much of President Trump’s foreign policy decisions are based in the economy, which may make him more inclined to strengthen ties with India.
Other than the historic tensions between the two countries, the conflict also holds geographical significance. While India shares borders with China and Pakistan, Pakistan has historically had a stronger relationship with both China and the U.S., leaving India at a disadvantage.
And, in the U.S., foreign policy experts are concerned with Pakistan’s strong relationship with China, given the economic tensions between China and the U.S. That creates room for improved economic relations between India. While, traditionally, the U.S. has managed to maintain decent relations with India and Pakistan, the current environment in Washington has shifted further away from Pakistan.
“It’s a more important and more dangerous neighborhood than it was forty years ago,” said Musgrave, referring to regional conflicts. “India has fought multiple wars with Pakistan and a war with China and tensions over border disputes with both of them. Those are exactly the kinds of highly politicized and difficult-to-resolve confrontations that eventually could lead one side to miscalculate.”