The clouds of war were gathering fast before the coronavirus crisis began. Will the pandemic postpone conflict between the two nuclear-powered arch-rivals, centered on the flashpoint territory of Kashmir – or make it more likely?
Diplomatic and military tensions between India and Pakistan have soared since New Delhi scrapped the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, on August 5, 2019.
From ceasefire violations marked with high-intensity shelling to Pakistan’s battling words in international fora and on social media (with Turkey backing up every syllable), it seemed as if war or, at the minimum, extensive skirmishes leading to ever more tense and fragile stand-offs, was imminent between the two nuclear-powered arch-rivals.
During the last few months, several Pakistani government ministers, including its prime minister, Imran Khan, openly threatened a “befitting response” to India’s moves in Kashmir, and warned of a “nightmare scenario” which could end up in a nuclear war (he warned of a similar dire scenario over India’s new citizenship laws.
India also ramped up the rhetoric, with an unusual declaration by Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar that, the part of Kashmir now under Pakistan’s control was part of India and that “one day” India would regain “physical jurisdiction” over it.
Then came the global coronavirus crisis. For once, India and Pakistan have been forced to confront a pandemic that is an equally potentially devastating threat to them both, bearing in mind their poor health infrastructures. But is the threat of COVID-19 and its associated disruption and necessary diversion of resources enough to postpone a full-fledged war between India and Pakistan? Will the summer of 2020 be peaceful, or not?
Thus far, the coronavirus pandemic has far from silenced conflict on the border between India and Pakistan. Since India’s revocation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status last August, there has been an upward spike in cross-border infiltration, and since the virus crisis emerged, that spike has climbed further. According to the latest Indian intelligence assessment, 375-400 terrorists are waiting to infiltrate from Pakistan. And that spike in hostilities isn’t confined to the Line of Control.
Pakistan-backed militants are making sustained attempts to infiltrate into India via the international border in the Jammu region, the Punjab border, and even the long coastline of Gujarat. Recently, there have been several reported cases of Pakistani army smuggling weapons over those borders by drones.
According to my own sources, at least eight consignments of weapons have arrived in Kashmir, including one – intercepted by Indian police – that comprised guns and hand grenades which, together with a future consignment of AK-47s, were intended for the targeted killings of politicians and police personnel. That cell was part of the newly-formed terrorist group, “The Resistance Front,” and communicated with its handler in Pakistan over the encrypted messaging platform Telegram.
The last month of coronavirus lockdown has not even meant a hiatus in gruesome terror attacks. In 2020, so far, 36 terror attacks have been committed in Indian-controlled Kashmir, with 61 terrorists and 17 soldiers killed.
Since the Indian state’s primary focus now is battling the corona pandemic, its special forces are not pro-actively initiating offensive encounters with terrorists, technically referred to as cordon-and–search-operations. For Pakistan-backed militant groups, that is a valuable opportunity. Cont