Who Is Worried About Kashmir?

Deadly cross-border fighting has renewed tensions between India and Pakistan.

On Tuesday, following what Reuters characterized as Kashmir's highest single-day death toll in over a decade, Indian and Pakistani troops continued to exchange gunfire along the disputed border. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri villagers reportedly fled the violence.

Some may be too fully immersed in the dual wars on Ebola and ISIS to notice, but ratcheted up violence between two nuclear powers over turf that the two have fought three wars over might seem like a big deal. Is it though?

To find out, I reached out to Dr. Daniel S. Markey, who is a Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The potential for this to get worse is real," Markey told me. "But it would take more than this kind of event to tip it into that area."

We discussed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office in late May and whose recent presence in the United States so benumbed journalists that they ran out of synonyms for "rockstar."

During his visit, the media also focused on the sudden American about-face vis-a-vis Modi, whose arrival ended a decade-long travel ban by the United States for his alleged role in the communal riots in India's Gujurat state. Roughly 2,000 Muslims died in Gujarat, where Modi served as chief minister. I wondered if this perception of him was fueling any enmity on the Pakistani side. Markey's initial answer was "Not directly."

"The turn for his worse along the border happened before he came into office." Markey explained. "So that's part of why it's difficult to tell this story."

He added, though, that Nodi's hardline approach "certainly has the potential to escalate more conflict."

Surprisingly, or maybe counterintuitively, Markey also said that Modi's rise to power played in Pakistan as something hopeful given that the last prime minister from the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Atal Vajpayee, "extended what he called 'a hand of friendship' to Pakistan."

Pakistan's enthusiasm may be premature. "What's sort of odd about this is: A hawk is a hawk," Markey said. "And Modi's a hawk."

As The New York Times noted, one precipitating factor in the recent crisis was the cancellation of high-level Indian-Pakistani talks earlier this summer.

"That dates back to the decision by the Pakistani government to meet with Kashmiri separatists, which they considered to be a 'business-as-usual' approach and Modi's government declared that this is unacceptable and called off the foreign secretary talks," Markey said. "This was a downgrading in the relationship from the earlier, more hopeful approach that Modi seemed to be taking when he first got into office and had invited all the heads of state from around the region including [Pakistani] Prime Minister Sharif."

He added that the two premiers didn't meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and were critical of each other in their speeches. And, as Professor Brahma Chellaney told Reuters, there is the matter of the escalating violence: "What we are seeing on the border is unusual in terms of its ferocity and the sudden eruption in violence."

India continues to blame Pakistan for using artillery as cover to allow the crossing of militants over into India while Pakistan says the Indian shooting was unprovoked. Despite this dispute, the language dispatched by the two governments about the violence remains relatively demure.

As Hari Kumar writes, the Pakistani government says it “lodged strong protest” against Indian action through diplomatic channels and the Indian army said an “equal effective response of unprovoked firing was given” in response to Pakistani fire, hardly a Patton speech. Markey says that this is a good sign.

"If it plays into a diplomatic dynamic in which Modi is a taking a harder line and the Pakistani army is not inclined to back down," he said, then, "you can begin to get an escalatory spiral."

Given that the 2003 ceasefire has more or less held, despite its shares of incidents (including the highly deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks), it may be early for talk of nuclear war.