In 2019, Kashmir was at the center of South Asia’s politics. That February, it was the site of a suicide bombing that triggered a dramatic India-Pakistan crisis; in August, the Indian government eliminated the autonomous status of the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir. In 2020, the coronavirus’s spread is the dominant story. What effects, if any, might the virus have on the politics of Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations? It is far too early to make any confident predictions, but there is little reason to expect South Asia’s growing public health crisis to substantially change the dynamics of conflict in the region.
The coronavirus poses a major threat to human well-being and economic development in South Asia. It is currently unclear what the trajectory of the virus will be, however, so only the most caveated predictions are possible. India has embarked on a major national lockdown in hopes of preventing a spread that would overwhelm its health capacity. Yet this aggressive effort to get ahead of the threat has also triggered huge migrations of laborers from urban centers and severe economic stress. The Indian-administered Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (downgraded from state status in August 2019) has seen a growing number of coronavirus cases amid concern that the health infrastructure will not be up to the task of managing the pandemic. Pakistan, by contrast, has not embraced a full-scale lockdown for fear of the economic consequences, running the risk of a devastating spike in infections.
What are the security implications of the coronavirus’s growth? An insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir has waxed and waned since the late 1980s; insurgent and terrorist violence are now comparatively low but persist, as do recurrent reports of government human rights abuses. Indian and Pakistani forces sometimes clash along the Line of Control. Mass protests have erupted in the past, but the need for social distancing to limit the spread of infections makes such gatherings less likely in the coming months. Since August, politicians have been detained and restrictions have remained on internet usage (which many Kashmiris claim makes education about the coronavirus unnecessarily difficult), as does a heavy security footprint. If the virus continues to aggressively spread in Kashmir, the need to focus on medical care and economic survival likely will limit open political resistance in the coming months, even as low-level India-Pakistan skirmishes and clashes between Indian security forces and anti-India militants continue.
The coronavirus also will be an early test of the government’s ability to provide effective governance, a key justification New Delhi offered for the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status last year. Inadequate management of the virus would further harden the negative views many in Kashmir hold toward India, raising the political stakes of the public health crisis. A grim, militarized status quo thus seems likely to endure in Kashmir, regardless of the virus’s course.
Narendra Modi’s government has shown little interest in negotiating with Pakistan, believing that the latter, especially its politically dominant military, exploited earlier Indian outreach. India’s national lockdown has created social and economic dislocation. If the coronavirus eludes government efforts to contain it, the national government and states will face intense pressures on health infrastructure and service provision, all while dealing with a growing economic crisis. This is not a situation in which New Delhi will be able to put serious effort into either negotiating with Pakistan or deviating from the current strategy in Kashmir. One might imagine that this combination of domestic and international stressors could create incentives for the Modi government to heighten tensions with Pakistan or to highlight its hardline credentials on security; however, a seriously elevated public health crisis would be all-consuming, pushing other issues to the sidelines and straining the readiness of India’s military establishment. Instead, it would more probably create inertia in key security and foreign policy choices, as the political leadership and bureaucratic apparatus grapple with the numerous critical implications of the coronavirus.
Pakistan is seeing a growing number of reported cases of the virus, against the backdrop of a struggling economy and a political system that has not delivered dramatic improvements in governance under Prime Minister Imran Khan. The military has become more visibly involved in efforts to control the virus, and it is clear that there is potential for a disastrous public health challenge. As in India, in a spreading coronavirus crisis Pakistan is most likely to focus inward on managing the pandemic, trying to limit the economic damage, and keep core state institutions and services functioning. The Pakistan Army has shown a propensity for risk-taking in the past, so anything is possible, but a major coronavirus crisis would force the military to dedicate its primary efforts internally. Key civilian and military players in Pakistan would have few incentives to devote political energy to foreign policy.
The course of the coronavirus in South Asia remains uncertain, and it is possible that radically unexpected developments will occur. The safest bet, however, is the entrenchment of the status quo, as both state actors and mass publics overwhelmingly focus their attention and effort on getting through the pandemic.