It’s quite unsettling to be riding a down escalator and seeing a large crowd of people congregating below, leaving no space to step off. But this was what I confronted after arriving at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi earlier this month. 

When I reached the bottom, I did the only thing possible: I pushed the people in front of me, and stepped awkwardly onto the only patch of floor I could see. The reason for the crowd was a temporary monitoring station—set up bizarrely close to the escalator—that was checking incoming travellers’ temperatures in an effort to stop corona virus from entering Pakistan.

Once I steadied myself and looked around, I saw many large posters describing the warning signs of the fast-spreading illness. However, dwarfing all these posters was a huge sign with photographs of the anguished faces of Kashmiri women. It was the first of many such signs I would see in Pakistan over the next few days. They lambasted Indian actions in Kashmir, and they called on the world to express solidarity with Kashmiris.

In Islamabad, an entire stretch of freeway leading in to the city from the airport—fittingly called the Kashmir Highway—featured dozens if not hundreds of these signs. They even included an image of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a senior politician who has been harshly critical of India’s actions in Kashmir.

Outside the Serena Hotel, where many foreign visitors to Islamabad stay, there were large posters of Kashmiri politicians as well as a “curfew clock” counting down the days, hours, and minutes since Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) had been placed “under curfew” (it likely was referring to when India locked the region down and imposed its communication ban). 

And on D Chowk, a large public square that frequently hosts protests and sit-ins, there were large signs with messages of solidarity that ranged from “Pakistanis Feel the Pain of Kashmiris” to “Time to Stand for Kashmiris.” 

I had arrived in Karachi on 5 February, Kashmir Solidarity Day in Pakistan, and most of the signs in both Karachi and Islamabad had been put up to mark the holiday. Many of them, in fact, were removed several days later. But Pakistan’s laser-like focus on Kashmir went much further than the signage. Indeed, during my visit to Karachi and Islamabad, Kashmir was everywhere. It was a regular feature in media coverage, a recurring theme in government statements, and the subject of dozens of conversations I had with Pakistanis from all walks of life.

None of this is surprising. But it is quite striking, given how much it contrasted with treatment of Kashmir in India, where I spent some time prior to coming to Pakistan.

Indeed, Kashmir was everywhere in Pakistan, but in India it was practically invisible. The focus of public debates was on just about everything else—from Donald Trump’s impending visit and the government’s new budget to efforts to evacuate Indian nationals from Wuhan and the final days of the New Delhi state election campaign. Again, no surprise here at all. For the Indian government, the Article 370 repeal brought any semblance of a dispute over J-K to a resounding end. So why bother talking about it any more? 

Of course, this isn’t just about one country amplifying Kashmir and the other country ignoring it. It’s also about the starkly different ways in which Kashmir is portrayed—and how each side wants it to be portrayed. Pakistan wants the world to wake up to the reality of injustice in Kashmir; India says all is well and wants the whole thing put to bed. Pakistan condemns Indian state repression in Kashmir; India speaks of bringing stability there. Pakistan warns of Indian false flag operations; India accuses Pakistan of infiltrating militants into Kashmir and sponsoring terror. Pakistan accuses India of perpetrating modern-day Nazism; India claims it is taking reasonable steps that are purely internal matters and none of Pakistan’s business.

Another disconnect lies in what is meant by the terms “Kashmir” and “Kashmiris.” Islamabad and many Pakistanis are frustrated that the world isn’t doing enough to support Kashmir, and particularly Kashmiri Muslims of the Kashmir Valley. But for New Delhi and many Indians, there is frustration that the world extends too much support to Kashmiri Muslims and has forgotten—or chooses to ignore—the tragic history of Kashmiri pandits and its lingering effects today. 

This tale of two contrasts about Kashmir serves as a microcosm of the India-Pakistan relationship on the whole, which at this moment in time could not be more disconnected or divergent.

The bilateral relationship was already in bad shape one year ago, when the attack in Pulwama in February 2019 led to a major crisis and a brief exchange of hostilities. It was set back even more after the Article 370 repeal and the passage of India’s new citizenship law. Potential confidence-building measures—in particular the recent opening of the Kartarpur Corridor—have done little to stabilize relations. During my time in India and Pakistan, I didn’t come across anyone who believed that either side had any political incentive to try to ease tensions. 

In India, taking a hard line on Pakistan is perceived to pay off politically. The ruling BJP trumpeted the Balakot strikes on the campaign trail last year, and its tough talk on Pakistan likely helped it win reelection in a landslide. That said, the BJP’s recent loss in the New Delhi state election, which featured BJP candidates accusing anti-government protestors of being Pakistan supporters, may change—albeit only modestly—this perception.

In Pakistan, emotions are still raw about the Article 370 repeal, and the idea of extending a hand to India is a complete non-starter politically. Additionally, one of Islamabad’s main motivations for seeking dialogue in recent years—renegotiating the status of J-K—is no longer relevant, given that India has permanently taken it off the table by incorporating it into a union territory. New Delhi now says that any future dialogue with Islamabad over Kashmir would relate to Pakistan-administered Kashmir. And that’s not something that Pakistan wants to talk about.

Bilateral tensions go beyond Kashmir, of course. Islamabad’s prominent role in facilitating fast-moving U.S.-Taliban talks in Afghanistan is concerning for New Delhi. Additionally, Pakistan’s ever-strong alliance with China, India’s strategic rival, is problematic for New Delhi. Beijing—impelled by its Belt and Road Initiative—is expanding its investments and influence across India’s broader backyard, amid Indian fears that China-funded infrastructure projects—including the Gwadar port in Pakistan—could one day be used for military purposes. 

Meanwhile, Islamabad resents New Delhi’s attempts to isolate Pakistan diplomatically and its use of every global platform to brand Pakistan as a terrorist state (just as Islamabad angers New Delhi by using every global platform to call on the world to mediate in Kashmir, thereby “internationalizing” an issue that for India is a strictly internal and at most a bilateral matter).

Moreover, each side believes the other leverages its large global diaspora to cause trouble. India blames Pakistanis in the United Kingdom and United States for lobbying legislators to be critical of Indian domestic policies, and Pakistan blames Indian-Americans for helping stoke anti-Pakistan sentiment in Washington.

For all these reasons, a potential ice-breaking opportunity stands a strong chance of getting squandered. In October, India will host a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting. This means that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will invite leaders from all SCO member states, including—theoretically—Pakistan. It seems hard to imagine, however, that the political mood in either country will allow each side to prepare the grounds for Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to visit India in only eight months’ time. 

All this said, any discussion about India-Pakistan tensions must come back to Kashmir, because it’s the core driver of decades of tensions and multiple wars. And any discussion about tensions over Kashmir needs to focus on Kashmiris, too. This isn’t as obvious a point as it may seem. One often hears that India and Pakistan dominate narratives on Kashmir, to the point that Kashmiri views are often drowned out. This criticism is often expressed with reference to the United States, where panel discussions on Kashmir sometimes don’t feature Kashmiri panelists. 

One day when I was in Islamabad, a friend took me to a shop that sells shawls and scarves. The owners told me that some of their merchandise comes from Kashmir, and because of the restrictions imposed there, their supplies were down given the difficulties of shipping goods out of Kashmir. It was yet another reminder of the ways in which heavy-handed Indian security measures in Kashmir can impact the daily lives—and livelihoods—of Kashmiris, as well as Pakistanis. More broadly, it was a useful reminder that amid all the analytical and scholarly discussions of India-Pakistan tensions, it’s important not to get detached from the human element of it all.

The trend lines are not good for India-Pakistan relations. There are no off ramps in sight to defuse tensions. With the relationship in a deep freeze, a serious crisis—or even a limited conflict—is only one potential provocation away. And if there is another crisis, it is bound to be more serious than the one precipitated by the attack in Pulwama a year ago. And that’s because, thanks to India’s repeal of Article 370 last August, relations are worse now than they were last February. 

In effect, the next crisis will be harder to deescalate, meaning that prospects for a limited conflict are very real—even though New Delhi and Islamabad, both overwhelmed by economic crises they’re struggling to ease, have no appetite for a war that neither can afford to fight.

Indeed, difficulties in deescalation could lead to more escalation. Nuclear weapons may prevent the two sides from waging a hot war, but they clearly don’t prevent limited conflict under the nuclear umbrella—as evidenced by the exchange of hostilities during the Pulwama/Balakot crisis. And the higher the two sides climb up the escalation ladder, the closer they get to bumping up against the nuclear threshold. 

And that’s an unsettling thought, to say the least.

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

The story appeared in our 17-23 February 2020 print edition.

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