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The Indian government risks a serious escalation of violence if the Pakistani government and militant groups in that country respond with even more attacks. Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

What escalating Kashmir attacks tell us about Modi’s changing foreign policy

Simmering tensions between India and Pakistan in the disputed state of Kashmir appear to have flared up again with an attack by militants on an Indian camp coming three days after India announced it had undertaken “surgical strikes” against militants in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

Since the 2014 election of the Hindu nationalist government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there have been several militant assaults against Indian military targets in the state.

The deadliest attack in two decades took place on September 18, and reports at the time said at least 17 Indian soldiers and all four attackers had been killed. India alleged the attack had been carried out by the Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM).

The BJP’s election manifesto pledged “zero tolerance” for terrorism. And the party’s leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had condemned the 2004-2014 Congress Party-led government’s policy of “strategic restraint” toward militant attacks by Pakistan-backed groups.

Despite this, the government stuck to the Congress formula of responding with diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to clamp down on groups such as JEM. But this changed last week, when the Indian strikes signalled a change in approach from strategic restraint to limited, pre-emptive self-defence.

The ongoing dispute

The Kashmir conflict is the legacy of the subcontinent’s decolonisation and the partition of British India into a state for Muslims (East and West Pakistan), and the secular state of India in 1947. At the time, some 535 “princely states” that had treaties with the British Crown became independent and could choose to join either India or Pakistan.

The current spate of militant attacks appears to take advantage of a new wave of unrest in Indian Kashmir. Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

Kashmir’s Hindu ruler signed a treaty of accession with India, but since the state has a Muslim majority, Pakistan has long claimed it as an essential part of the Pakistani nation.

India and Pakistan have fought several wars over Kashmir, including one in 1999 after both countries had become nuclear powers. The current de facto border dividing Kashmir into Pakistani and Indian-controlled regions – commonly known as the Line of Control – was established in 1972. It’s based on the ceasefire line resulting from Indian intervention in the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh in what had been East Pakistan.

But infiltration by Pakistan-based Islamist militant groups across the Line of Control became common in the 1990s as a separatist insurgency erupted in the Indian-controlled Kashmir. The uprising was fuelled by the Indian government’s unwillingness to uphold Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees autonomy for the state.

The current spate of militant attacks appears to take advantage of a new wave of unrest following the killing of Kashmiri militant leader, Burhan Wani, by Indian security forces on July 8. More than 80 people, mostly anti-government protesters, had been killed in the two months before the September 18 attack.

Disrupted road to peace

India and Pakistan came close to a negotiated solution to the Kashmir dispute during “back channel” talks that lasted from 2005 to 2008.

An Indian Border Security Force bunker near the fenced border with Pakistan. Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

These talks, which focused on building economic and people-to-people links, along with India’s strategic restraint policy, were the result of then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s economics-focused foreign policy. Singh believed that, in a globalised world, borders were less relevant and that a stable neighbourhood was necessary for India’s rise as an economic power.

But negotiations were suspended after the 2008 Mumbai attacks by the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba. The four-day assault by ten members of the group left 174 people dead and 308 wounded.

The Congress government responded to the Mumbai attacks with strategic restraint, focusing on diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to end its support of militant groups rather than using military force. Though cross-border raids by both the Indian and Pakistani armies continued after 2008, they went unacknowledged by the army.

Balancing economics and militarism

The Modi government has also placed economics at the centre of foreign policy. But important differences between the two governments reflect their disparate political ideologies and constituencies.

The Congress government was elected on a platform of “inclusive growth” that sought to address growing inequality. Its core voter base included the poor and minority groups. And its foreign policy statements often stressed its role in economic transformation and poverty alleviation within a framework of secularism and pluralism.

Modi’s key political constituency in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister before becoming a national leader, was what he calls the “neo-middle classes”. These are newly urbanised, religious, and aspirational Indians, whom Modi views as the future of India’s entrepreneurship-driven economic growth.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is at pains to not alienate Hindu nationalists. Danish Ismail/Reuters

In the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto, this group was highlighted as a key group requiring special attention at a national level. The emphasis on India as an “aspiring leading power” that began to appear in foreign policy statements from 2015 reflects both Modi’s nationalism and his desire to appeal to this neo-middle class constituency.

Strategic restraint to preemptive self-defence

But Modi’s focus on markets and economic liberalisation has also led to divisions in the Hindu nationalist movement. The grassroots organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which finds its core support among the traditional Hindu nationalist constituency of small traders and farmers, has opposed several BJP policies that are seen as too much in favour of the corporate sector and foreign capital.

The BJP’s willingness to publicise the army’s latest cross-border raid signals an attempt to appeal to both the neo-middle class and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh by invoking traditional Hindu nationalist themes of teaching Pakistan “to behave”, as BJP leader Ram Madhav has put it.

But the limited nature of the military response ensures the government’s economic priorities are not displaced, and that the international fall-out is not unmanageable.

This shift in policy is a significant gamble. As the latest attack on the Indian army camp shows, the government risks a serious escalation of violence if the Pakistani government and militant groups in that country respond with further attacks.

The fight for Kashmir provides the glue for Pakistani nationalism. For this reason, neither the Congress Party’s approach of making borders irrelevant, nor a military response reliant on the threat of escalating force has previously worked to convince the Pakistani leadership to end its support to militants.

Ultimately, only a return to the negotiating table and addressing Kashmiri grievances is likely to achieve regional stability.

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