ISLAMABAD - Pakistan and India are locked in almost daily military clashes across their Kashmir frontier, but the president of the Pakistani-ruled part of the disputed territory says the coronavirus pandemic has for now diminished chances, if any, of the tensions escalating into a full-blown war.
Islamabad and New Delhi routinely accuse each other of firing the first shot that started the clashes in violation of a 2003 mutual truce across what is referred to as the Kashmir Line of Control (LoC). Critics say the increased violence in recent years, however, already has rendered the truce ineffective.
The clashes have caused dozens of casualties on both sides, mostly civilians living in villages close to the LoC.
“I don’t foresee a war in the near future,” said President Masood Khan of Azad (independent) Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), the official name Pakistan uses for the part of the divided region it administers.
India controls the remaining two-thirds of the largely Muslim Himalayan region, claimed by both of the nuclear-armed rival nations.
“Right now, the world is preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, and nobody seriously expects India and Pakistan to go to war. And we do not know what the world would look like once this pandemic is over,” Khan told VOA in an interview at his camp office in the Pakistani capital.
Pakistan and India already have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which remains the primary source of mutual tensions. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of arming and training Muslim separatists who are agitating for more autonomy or total independence from India, the majority Hindu nation.
Pakistani officials deny the country is militarily supporting the separatists, saying Islamabad is only providing “moral, political and diplomatic” support to Kashmiris fighting against “occupation" of India.
“What is disappointing and concerning for me is that Kashmir has disappeared from the radar screen of the world once again, I mean the kind of attention that you saw in August [and in several subsequent months] last year has vaporized,” Khan noted.
In August 2019, the Indian government unilaterally stripped the Muslim-majority region’s autonomy and imposed tight security measures, including restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly. New Delhi also cut off roads, internet, and phone access, and it arrested Kashmiri leaders, including religious leaders.
The clampdown was meant to counter violent backlash from Kashmiris, although phone lines and internet restrictions have since been partially restored. Many of the detainees remain in jail.
India defended its decision to change the status of Kashmir, saying it would bring development and prosperity to the region mired in conflict for several decades.
Pakistan denounced the actions, saying the dispute in Kashmir is internationally recognized under a decades-old United Nations resolution, and that neither country can unilaterally alter the status.
Global human rights groups have been demanding India lift the restrictions in Kashmir, accusing Indian security forces of subjecting residents of the Muslim region to torture.
The deteriorating rights conditions in Kashmir also prompted U.S. congressional committees late last year to hold special hearings to discuss the situation and demand Indian authorities ease the restrictions.
New Delhi has dismissed international concerns, maintaining Kashmir-related steps were an internal matter for India.
India was nearing 30,000 coronavirus cases, including about 950 deaths Tuesday. They included 546 patients and seven fatalities from Indian Kashmir. Pakistan’s confirmed COVID-19 cases stood at 14,000 and deaths of more than 300.
President Khan alleged the coronavirus clampdown that India has extended to Kashmir has further disrupted lives and isolated from the rest of the world millions of besieged residents of the region.
Khan said that as of Tuesday, the pandemic has infected 65 people in AJK and there have been no deaths so far. “But the situation on the other side [Indian Kashmir] is dark and dismal,” he said, adding the number of cases could be much higher in Indian Kashmir but are not being reported because of restrictions on movement and media.
On Tuesday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its annual report also documented concerns over India’s Kashmir related steps.
“The restrictions on movement and assembly limited the ability to attend prayers and religious ceremonies. USCIRF also received several reports of mosques being closed, imams and Muslim leaders arrested and detained, and threats and violence by extremist groups,” the report noted.
There was no immediate reaction from India to the report by the independent and bipartisan U.S. federal government entity, which monitors, analyses and reports on threats to religious freedom.
“In 2019, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault,” USCIRF said, referring to new anti-Muslim laws and mob lynchings of members of the minority community.