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Government forces in riot gear are patrolling Kashmir, four days after India announced a change to the contested territory’s political status. Until then, India’s only Muslim-majority region had enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. Nick Schifrin talks to retired Amb. Frank Wisner about the decades-long dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and what’s at stake.
Today, in a part of the world that has helped spark three wars, tens of thousands of troops are patrolling the streets. They are Indian government forces in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
And it's been four days since the Indian government changed the status of Kashmir, which is India's only Muslim-majority region.
Up until this week, Kashmir had a large degree of autonomy. The government's decision has sparked protests over a long-disputed area claimed by both India and Pakistan, where fighting has killed tens of thousands of people over the last few decades.
Today in Kashmir, the streets are empty. Soldiers enforce a strict military curfew. Hundreds have been arrested. Fear has driven many inside, and many others are trying to leave, but are stuck with limited transport.
Sagir Alam (through translator):
The government made the situation worse. There are no arrangements for us to leave, nor is there is any arrangement for food. We have been lying here, hungry.
In an unprecedented clampdown, India has blocked Internet and phone in the primarily Muslim region. And, today, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called this — quote — "the beginning of a new era."
Narendra Modi (through translator):
I and the whole nation have taken a historic decision. An arrangement in which our brothers and sisters from Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh had been deprived of their rights, which had been a great obstacle in their development, has been removed as a result of all our efforts.
On Monday, Modi's government lifted article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which enabled Kashmiris to write their own laws.
India says it's a national security decision, because Pakistan has supported militant groups who have launched many attacks inside Kashmir.
Narendra Modi (through translator):
We will all get together and rid Jammu and Kashmir of terrorism and separatism. Ease of living will increase for our citizens.
But critics describe the Modi government as overtly biased in favor of the majority Hindu population, at the expense of India's 180 million Muslims. Protesters demonstrated in New Delhi and in Karachi, Pakistan, where they burned an effigy of Modi.
Pakistan halted trade with India and downgraded diplomatic relations, and criticized India for its move in what Pakistan calls Indian-occupied Kashmir, or IOK.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman:
IOK has been converted into the largest prison in the world and in the history of mankind. More than 14 million humans are incarcerated in their homes.
Last month, President Trump met with Pakistan's prime minister and offered his assistance.
President Donald Trump:
If I can help, I would love to be a mediator.
But there's a reason why prior presidents have avoided that offer. Kashmir is located at the northernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, at the nexus of India, Pakistan and China. Kashmir has been in dispute since the 1947 partition.
India now controls the larger portion. The two sides are separated by the line of control. The countries fought over control of Kashmir in 1947, and in a larger war in 1971. Conflict sparked again in 1999. The two nuclear nations were pushed into a cease-fire over concerns of a nuclear war.
But the conflict has long simmered. Today, Pakistan suspended the Friendship Express train that runs across the border, and warned that tensions could remain high.
And we examine where things go from here with Ambassador Frank Wisner. He had a nearly-40-year diplomatic career and served in senior positions in both the state and Defense Departments during Republican and Democratic administrations.
He was ambassador to India during the Clinton administration.
Ambassador, thank you very much for coming on the "NewsHour."
Fundamentally, what does it mean that Kashmir's status has been shifted?
Well, it means a great deal.
The regime under which Kashmir has lived since the late 1940s has given it a measure of autonomy that mixes very deeply with the psychology and sense of belonging of the overwhelming majority of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
Removing that is going to understandably create a great deal of ruction. It will create a lot of emotion across the border with Pakistan. And it will create a certain amount of attention on the global stage.
And we have seen that emotion both in India and Pakistan and global stage. Here we are talking about it.
The BJP, the ruling party in India, and its prime minister, Narendra Modi, have been talking about this move for a long time. But why do you think they have made it now?
Well, that's precisely the point. They have signaled well in advance that the party, if returned with a new mandate, would go to Parliament and seek a change that would not only end the special status, but would sever the territory of Jammu and Kashmir into two portions and have them both centrally ruled.
They chose this time, and they chose it very carefully, once they had in place a comprehensive plan to control the consequences of a political decision that the government made very carefully.
They deployed forces. They closed off telecommunications. They have closed down radio. They have picked up people who might be in opposition. It was a carefully set out and very carefully deployed plan.
And you said they would be able to accept or manage the political consequences.
Will there be political consequence for them for this move?
They have taken all the legal steps the Indian system would call for.
Will that calm the passions of those on the ground in Kashmir? No, it won't. Will it make others uneasy, Indian Muslims? Will it calm those in Pakistan who continue to claim that Pakistan has a legitimate say in the future of Kashmir? None of those will happen.
The government is not trying to satisfy those audiences.
We saw in the story that played just a few minutes ago President Trump weighing in on this when he was asked by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office. He said that he wouldn't mind being a mediator.
Did that statement impact the timing of this?
In my view, it did not.
This was much too carefully planned. There were too many moving parts in play. I can't say that the president's statement received anything but negative reactions in India, but I don't think it was a triggering event.
You talk about the emotions running high.
We saw protests both in Delhi and, of course, in multiple places in Pakistan. How fundamental is this for Pakistan? These countries have fought three wars in the past. Is this something that could cause there to be more conflict?
Well, I do not predict that there will be open conflict between India and Pakistan. I think that's probably unlikely.
But will there be a rise in the short run in jihadi terrorist attempts to cross the border from Pakistan into Indian — the Indian side? I think that's highly possible.
Can you imagine circumstances in which there will be a higher level of militancy within Kashmir — Jammu and Kashmir? I can imagine that as well. But I don't see overall warfare between the two sides.
What one must worry about, though, is with an increase in low-level jihadi violence, that India retaliates, Pakistan retaliates, and you can have a very unpleasant circumstance.
And, fundamentally, is that the main U.S. interest here, that these two countries' conflict doesn't happen and tensions decrease?
Well, clearly, that's in American interests.
But I would underscore a separate point. India is a great nation. It is a major factor on the world stage. We are moving into a world order in which large nations have to keep some sense of balance. We need a balanced relationship with India. We are not in a position to tell India what to do one way or the other.
India will pursue its own ambitions. And its government, elected with an overwhelming majority, has taken this decision. Whether that's a popular one outside of India or inside Kashmir or Pakistan, it is the decision of the Indian government, and they intend to make it stick.
Ambassador Frank Wisner, thank you so much.
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