The border between India and Pakistan has again become a dangerous place, with violence going in both directions in the past couple of weeks. On February 14, the Pakistan-based Islamic terrorist group Jaish-e- Mohammed (“Army of Mohammed”) or JeM, conducted a suicide bombing attack in the Indian-controlled section of Kashmir – a region heavily disputed by both countries – that killed 40 Indian police officers. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised that here would be a “huge price” to pay for the attacks, and Indian forces have since been battling members of the militant group over the past two weeks. That battle dramatically crossed borders today as Indian fighter planes bombed a JeM camp inside Pakistan, a move that is being downplayed by the Pakistani government but that represents a significant escalation of tensions between the two countries during a time when conditions within both nations make the likelihood of war between them grow. In other words: while the official reaction may be that this is not a big deal, the unofficial reaction to these events should be a hearty “oh ****, not this again.”
JeM and the Homicides (seriously, don’t try to hide your violence behind cutesy or noble sounding acronyms) emerged in 2000, and many have accused Pakistani security forces, which have a history of involvement with terror groups including al-Qaeda, of creating the group to use in its overall fight with India. Since the creation of modern India and Pakistan in 1947 during decolonization of the region from British control, the two countries have faced severe tensions over the border region of Jammu and Kashmir, or Kashmir for short. During decolonization, it was decided to partition the region into two countries based on religion – a Hindu-dominated India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan – a foolproof plan for ending ethno-religious strife if ever there was one. The process led to massive amounts of violence – perhaps one million people are believed to have died during the sorting between the two new countries – and a long-running dispute over which country should control the border region of Kashmir.
Both India and Pakistan exercise de facto control of portions of the region. The two countries regularly skirmish over Kashmir, and have thrice engaged in full-blown war over the region, in 1947, 1965 and 1999 (and, just for good measure, the countries also fought a war in 1971 over the region of East Pakistan, which eventually became the independent country of Bangladesh). In their rivalry, both countries developed nuclear weapons, thus severely raising the stakes for future conflicts.
Pakistan has had a long and complicated history with terrorism. Publicly, the country’s top leadership has generally distanced itself from terrorist groups, especially after September 11, 2001. However, these groups are often tolerated when they serve useful purposes for the Pakistani government, most notably in its long-standing fight against India. Although groups like JeM are officially banned, they generally operate in plain sight (Pakistani officials are occasionally shocked- shocked– to find that terrorism is going on there), not to mention active support from the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The ISI has a long history of sponsoring Islamic fighters; in addition to supporting militants in Kashmir – including during a 1988 mission codenamed Operation Tupac that tragically predicted the simillarly named rapper’s Bomb First (NSFW) mentaliy – the ISI was also very active in arming the Islamic mujahideen in neighboring Afghanistan against Soviet forces following the Soviet invasion of 1979, as documented in the now very uncomfortable to watch Rambo III. When these fighters – who were of course also being supported by the American government because surely there was no danger worse than communism nor ever would be – later grew into the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the ISI maintained relations with both. JeM, which emerged in 2000, is also tied to both of these groups, much to the dismay of Pakistan’s “ally”, the United States.
It’s widely believed that the ISI actively shielded Osama bin Ladan, who apparently lived for years in relative comfort in Pakistan while being pursued in what was possibly the most intense manhunt in human history; it was no oversight that the Obama administration did not officially tell the Pakistani government when it discovered bin Laden’s whereabouts and instead simply sent in Navy Seals to kill him in a surprise operation. The use of terror groups by the ISI is a continuing source of tension between the US and Pakistan, ostensible allies, and has had deadly consequences for Indian-Pakistani relations.
Meanwhile, recent political events in India have also heightened tensions between the two countries. Although India is a predominantly-Hindu country, it contains a very sizable Muslim population (India has the third largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan itself), and although tensions exist between the two groups, Indian national governments have generally been officially secular. However, around the turn of the century, a Hindu-nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, emerged as a major force in Indian politics and has been the ruling party since 2014, led by now Prime Minister Modi.
The party’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies, toned down but not ended since Modi became PM, have led to significant instances of Hindu-Muslim violence within India, and the party has adopted a hardline approach concerning Pakistan as well. It was during the BJP’s previous time in power that India and Pakistan conducted rival nuclear tests and fought the two country’s last war. That war was conducted within Kashmir; today’s bombing was the first official cross-border strike between the two countries since the 1971 war; in other words, even if it’s being downplayed publicly, it’s kind of a big – and scary – deal.