Another Border: Top of the World Tensions

Recent headlines from India about COVID infections have distracted attention from a place in South Asia, sometimes called the world’s most dangerous.  It’s a place of beauty, complex demography and sky-high topography.  It’s also in dispute, and – you guessed it – connected to the ’60s era.

The merged region of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) proper is about twice the size of New Jersey and has preoccupied India and Pakistan since the British partition created these two countries in 1947.  At the entrance to the Himalayas, India has administered the northern region according to a UN-sanctioned agreement since 1949 with a guaranteed autonomy under Article 370 of India’s Constitution. The territory was fenced by a ceasefire line established by Indian and Pakistani negotiators that year. And this sought literally to “wall off the problem.”

To use Hamlet’s word, however, there’s a “rub” here – several in fact. Hindu India, after all, is supervising a Muslim-majority on its side of the fence in Jammu and Kashmir, and has done so since Partition. This might not seem like a big deal to those in Iowa or Brooklyn – but in this region, it’s important. It been a source of sectarian friction for decades, and unfortunately serves as a rationale for periodic disruptions by militant Islamic groups – sometimes sponsored by Pakistan. Sometimes not.

And there is the additional “rub” with China which shares a border to both South Asian countries. Everybody has territorial ambitions.

That’s all nice until you realize that everybody here has atomic weapons too – a geographical situation where three nuclear powers come together found no where else on earth.

Whatever you call it, this “blog,” “column,” or “monthly brief” simply explains the on-going relevance of 1960s-era events and issues to today.  It assumes also that it is hard to understand the present without understanding the past – in this case, our period from 1960 to 1975.

In fact our period created what we see today at the top of the world.

From 1962 to 1971, several conflicts took place (below) having to do with the Kashmir-Jammu territory – some more serious than others – that established the boundaries of the region.

  • 1962 Sino-Indian War (Oct-Nov, 10,000 killed/captured/wounded) – India humbled; China takes about 20% of the original princely state (before 1947); becomes Akai China [see map]; so-called “Line of Actual Control” created between Akai China and Indian Ladakh; agreed to demilitarize in 1996.
  • 1963 Sino-Pakistan Agreement – China acquires 2000 sq. miles from Pakistan, including the famous inhospitable. Transkarakorum Tract [see map]; still claimed by India.
  • 1965 Indo-Pakistan War (Aug-Sept, 13,000 killed/captured) – no permanent territorial change; ceasefire fire of 1949 retained.
  • 1971 Indo-Pakistan War over East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh); ends with Simla Accords of July 1972 that turns the long-time ceasefire line into a so-called “Line of Control.”

This list of territorial claims and shifts might have a sort of “coda” with India’s occupation of the dramatic 1000 square-mile Siachen Glacier in 1984 to turn it into a military base (Operation Meghdoot), which Pakistan claims for itself.

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT. The 1960s period – its skirmishes and agreements – created what we see on a map today.

For twenty years from the the mid-1980s, there was sporadic low-level back-and-forth frictions between Pakistan and India along the “Line of Control” and in the Kashmir Valley proper, mainly spurred by attacks from Islamic militants financed by Pakistan or reacting to Pakistani propaganda.

In 2003, hopes for peace came when the two powers signed an official “ceasefire.” High-level contacts between Pakistan and India became more frequent, interrupted only by the terrible Bombay (Mumbai) attacks of July 2008. Tentative trade resumed along the 50-year-old Line of Control. In January 2011, India’s Home Secretary even announced that India would draw down military forces in Kashmir throughout the year.

Then the relevance of our Project becomes glaring because we are reminded the present boundaries of J&K locked into place as a result of the 1960s.

With the election of Narendra Modi as Indian prime minister in 2014, things began to change for Jammu-Kashmir.  He had campaigned partially on ending Jammu-Kashmiri autonomy under Article 370 of the Constitution, and with his reelection by even wider margins in 2019, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained confidence to try for repeal.

Events between the elections of 2014 and 2019 triggered India’s decision to revoke Jammu-Kashmir’s autonomy. For the first time, the BJP became part of the governing coalition in the state assembly of J&K in February 2015. A year later, Islamic militants attacked an Indian army base in the western Kashmiri town Uri, killing 18; several Pakistanis were killed in clashes with Indian troops on the border of the “Northern Areas” (sometimes called Gilgit-Baltistan); Indian artillery shelled terrorist bases in Azad (Pakastani) Kashmir; and India killed the commander of one of the leading terrorist groups inciting violence in the region.


In the first third of 2019, Indian army personnel were again targeted – this time a moving convoy – killing more than soldiers; and Pakistan declared in February that it would retaliate “at any time and place of its choosing” after Indian airstrikes hit terrorist bases on Pakistani soil. In February and March, several dogfights between jets claimed at least one fighter each, maybe more, on the Indian and Pakistan sides.

On August 5, Prime Minister Modi announced that India would revoke Article 370 of the Constitution, which the Parliament did the next day, putting Jammu-Kashmir under all laws and provisions of the federal Indian Constitution, and uniting it formally to the other Indian states. India imposed a total communications (phone/internet) clampdown and suspension of civil liberties. Pakistan broke diplomatic relations on August 7, and suspended bilateral trade.

While the United Nations Security Counsel met over the issue of Kashmir for the first time since 1971, Modi and the BJP justified the suspension of the “special status” that J&K enjoyed for 70 years on the basis that without stability and peace, the region could never develop economically, and the Parliament’s “Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act” would benefit all people in the long run.

As COVID-19 paralyzed the world in 2020, this was where the situation stood – with India consolidating its position in Jammu-Kashmir, and Pakistan holding firm on the unacceptability of what it viewed as India’s unilateral and precipitate action. The 1960s era borders have held. With Article 370 gone, conditions within these borders have changed.

As 2021 emerges and the virus recedes, the top of the world in South Asia is dangerous and changeable. Until now Kashmir has been a remote regional – even local – issue. Depending how developments play out, it threatens to escalate to an issue with international heft like Taiwan or Palestine.  Especially with China asserting itself in new ways.

China’s push to expand its influence has increased in the past decade in the South China Sea and around the world. One of its highest profile initiatives is its “Belt and Road” project.  By the map nearby, the “road” part skirts quite near the Jammu-Kashmir as it intersects Xinjiang. This is showing itself in the form of China building infrastructure such as roads, towers, and power stations along the Chinese-Indian “Line of Actual Control” established in 1962, specifically in the Galvan Valley.  In June of 2020 and indeed as recently as this month – May 2021 – there were unconfirmed reports of Indian soldiers and Chinese PLA troops facing off in far eastern Ladakh.

Prime Minister Modi’s abrogation of Kashmiri autonomy was apparently to bring economic progress to the region by increasing stability under Indian control. It may have also come from an interest to control its far-northern flank in preparation for problems with China. By inflaming Pakistan, it may created more problems for itself than it solved. Time will tell.

Developments in Jammu and Kashmir may have provided an opening for China to draw closer to Pakistan. It can champion the rights of Muslims in a Hindu land, thereby improving its somewhat sullied reputation with Muslims by its actions against Xighurs in Xinjiang.

With the United States appearing less resolute in things international and conciliatory towards China, three powers with atomic capacity remain at odds. Events of the our 1960s period explain the configuration of territory on which the world focuses.

For now, India has decided to be more watchful than ever. In 2020, she bought two Sea Guardian drones to patrol the Indian Ocean. In March of this year, she announced a deal to buy 30 MQ-9 “Reaper” drones from General Atomics for $3 billion – ten for each of its three services. India is ever watchful. The world will be watching too.

Reaper Drone

Until next month,
May 7, 2021

Leave a Reply