India's decision two days ago to revoke most of Article 370 of its constitution and annex the part of Jammu & Kashmir it holds has sent Subcontinental and transcontinental punditocracy into a frenzy of analysis, interpretation, speculation, and prediction. Several scenarios have risen to the surface.
The most interesting of these, generating a lot of chatter on the Internet - and elsewhere, no doubt - is a conspiracy theory that India's move is part of a brilliant coordinated strategy between India, Pakistan, and the US to eventually make the LoC an international border with minimal political cost to either government. There are many variations of this theory, but the basic idea is this. First, India moves into its part of Jammu & Kashmir and annexes it, allowing the BJP government to look heroic and turning the LoC into an international border, with a buffer territory - Pakistani Jammu & Kashmir - on the other side. Then, after a suitable interval of making noises and writing plaintive but futile missives to the UN, Pakistan declares that the situation is intolerable and annexes its part, thus making the LoC an actual international border. Uncle Sam rewards Pakistan for this daring act by allowing it to negotiate a favorable settlement in Afghanistan, thus fulfilling Pakistan's dream of "strategic depth". Some sort of free cross-border movement is negotiated for Kashmiris on either side of the border. China secures CPEC. Everyone is left happy and dreaming of visits to Oslo.
I think this scenario is extremely unlikely to be true - though it makes for a good movie plot. First, it assumes that the Muslim population of Kashmir will just roll over, which it absolutely won't. Second, the institutional commitment to "all-or-nothing" is too strong in both India and Pakistan to make this an easy process. In particular, Pakistan has a large number of uncontrollable militants who can create complete chaos in the country at the slightest suspicion that Kashmiris had been "sold out". And third, it will leave the Pakistan Army wondering where its next meal will come from. In other words, this fanciful solution is too cold-bloodedly rational to be realistic. And it requires more finesse than politicians in India, Pakistan, or the US can currently muster.
So what else can happen?
If India’s hopes turn out to be true, nothing much. Everyone will give up, recognize the new situation as fait accompli, and live happily ever after. That has about as much chance of coming to pass as Donald Trump converting to Islam. Some have suggested that the situation will escalate inevitably towards war – and then nuclear conflict – between India and Pakistan, which is a prospect too frightening to be contemplated. If that's where this is going, we need to stop worrying about climate change, and focus only on changing the climate – quickly. However, this scenario too seems to be unlikely in the short term. The Pakistani leadership has been caught by surprise – especially after Trump’s vague comments about American mediation during his meeting with the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan. For things to escalate quickly into war at this point would require either extreme stupidity from India or extreme recklessness from Pakistan. The likelier scenario – more insidiously cruel – is an endless war of attrition.
Since Partition, the fervor of the Muslim population in Indian J&K for self-determination has been tempered by the concessions of Article 370 and the presence of pro-India leadership from Shaikh Abdullah onwards. Now 370 is gone, and so is the credibility of the leaders who preferred staying with India. The Indian action will likely align all Kashmiri Muslim leadership towards the same purpose: Freedom from India. That will inevitably lead to a much more organized insurgency in the region than has been the case so far - and one with much stronger commitment from the local populace. Politically, Indian leadership will have no choice but to fight the insurgency, leading to a brutal guerilla conflict. The insurgency will have clear supply lines from Pakistan, which will see itself as supporting a just war of liberation with complete support from the Pakistani public. Also inevitably, the Pakistani part of J&K will become a staging ground for all this. There will be cross-border attacks, a refugee crisis, and other ramifications for Pakistan, but Indian forces will be bogged down in difficult terrain and among a hostile population for year after year after year. India will also have squandered much of its international legitimacy on the Kashmir issue, having unilaterally flouted UN resolutions and chosen a maximalist course. It will still get by due to its economic heft, but some of the shine will definitely be off. Clearly, the Indian government has decided that this is a price worth paying, but the judgment of history is yet to come.
There have been comparisons of India's annexation of J&K with the hypothetical case of Israel annexing the West Bank. A more apt and real comparison is with the US in Iraq or even the Soviets in Afghanistan: A powerful military fighting a deep-rooted insurgency in a difficult region that has a long border with a hostile power. This sort of thing never ends well, though if it comes to pass, those who suffer the most will be the people of Jammu & Kashmir - as was the case in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Another comparison that is perhaps too apt and sensitive to be contemplated is with the Pakistani army in East Pakistan in 1971. In that case, things escalated to a real war, and one side was decisively defeated. Many in Pakistan have, ever since, thirsted for revenge, but there seemed no prospect of an opportunity. And suddenly, here we are!
There is currently much rejoicing in large parts of the Indian Right about Prime Minister Modi’s masterstroke. The bereft looks of Pakistani leaders and the ineffectual protests of Indian liberals only reinforce this triumphalist euphoria. To a dispassionate observer, however, the current situation is more reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. The war in Iraq had just begun then.
One thing, though, is clear. South Asia is changed forever by this hinge moment in its history. Many things that were not possible are suddenly possible, including some very, very bad ones – and perhaps a few less bad ones. It is a time when visionary leaders could remake the entire future of the Subcontinent, but the path to that future is perilous, and vision is too rare in Kaliyuga.