India's airforce attack on separatist forces in the Kargil and Daras regions of Kashmir Wednesday stands as a serious escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan. The two countries, which have gone to war three times since independence and partition in 1947 - twice over Kashmir - have been engaged in sporadic ground clashes for quite some time on the Line of Control that separates Indian-administered Kashmir from the Pakistani controlled part of the province. Although the attack targeted militant separatists entrenched in a remote mountain range, Pakistan said Indian bombs landed in Pakistani territory and it has asserted its "right to retaliate in whatever manner considered appropriate," according to Agence France Presse (AFP).
BBC correspondent Chandrika Deshpande reported that India claimed initially that the attack was aimed at crushing a suicide mission of the Islamic militant group Tehrik-e-Jihad, which claimed responsibility over the weekend for the seizure of positions in the Batelik mountain range which includes Dras and Kargil. But the Indian army now claims to have proof of the involvement of the Pakistani army in the incursion and has additionally alleged Afghan Taleban mercenaries were involved. According to Deshpande, Pakistan denies providing anything more than moral support for the separatist fighters and says that Indian claims of Pakistani involvement have been fabricated to justify India's increasingly belligerent 30,000-strong military presence in the area.
The air strikes that began Monday were the first against Kashmiri separatists in 20 years. According to BBC monitoring of All India Radio, 160 people have been killed in what was called "the most serious crisis in [India-Pakistan] relations since last year's nuclear strikes." Although skirmishes along the Line of Control have been rekindled in the last three weeks, the air strikes represent a new low in Indo-Pakistani relations. India's action dangerously undermines the tenuous commitment to peace in Kashmir and an easing of Nuclear tensions reached by Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif and India's Atal Behari Vajpayee in the February 21 Lahore Declaration. According to Reuters, Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz called India's action "against the spirit of the Lahore Declaration" and said that "the two sides should not escalate" existing tensions.
While it is evident that separatist militants in Kashmir are causing considerable havoc, India's claims of Pakistani involvement have not been substantiated. A more documented cause for the breakdown in the Indo-Pakistani peace process is aggression by the Indian army. In March, Amnesty International blamed the Indian army for the unexplained disappearance of more than 800 mostly apolitical civilians. And according to Amnesty, since 1989 when India began increasing its military presence in Kashmir, an estimated 20-50,000 people have been killed. A 1992 Amnesty report additionally accused Indian soldiers of torture, rape and executions. The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) states in an online report that India consistently violates a 1949 and 1972 ceasefire on the Line of Control and has restricted UNMOGIP's efforts to monitor the situation.
The recent air strikes, which according to the BBC, "will raise concern from around the world," are a dangerous development considering last year's successful nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. Tensions that were eased at that time by the Lahore Declaration risk being brought to the surface once again. Although India's action follows recent skirmishes, the large-scale strikes on Monday and Wednesday represent a significant jump in tensions. And despite calls for restraint from Pakistan's Sartaj Aziz, the strained relations show no sign of abatement.
Both countries are intensely committed to defending every inch of claimed territory, even though many areas claimed by both sides are completely inhospitable. This seeming territorial irrationality, which sometimes creates pitch battles at elevations of 17,000 ft., together with issues of national pride, indicates India and Pakistan will avoid anything seen as a dishonorable peace settlement. The conflict comes at a time of political turmoil in India following the ousting of Vajpayee and the failure of the opposition to form a coalition government. So in order to resolve this crisis, the two sides may require nothing short of another miracle such as February's Lahore Declaration.