Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif drew attention to new developments in the very old dispute with India over Kashmir. The streets of its capital, Srinagar, have teemed with protests since July 8, when Indian security forces killed Burhan Wani, a popular commander of the Pakistan-based militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen. Almost immediately after Wani's death, Sharif slipped into a familiar refrain, citing the unrest as proof that Kashmiri Muslims are the victims of Indian authoritarianism and, as such, deserve the right to self-determination. Like clockwork, the Indian government shot back, blaming the unrest on Pakistan's dispatching militants to foment unrest. The specter of conflict between India and Pakistan might not be so concerning if they were not both nuclear powers — but they are.
Still, to focus on the international politics of India and Pakistan is to tell only half the story of Kashmir, which, as its own polity, has its own domestic political problems. Education levels there are rising, but unemployment, especially youth unemployment, remains worryingly high. (Unsurprisingly, young men are well represented at the protests.) The current generation of Kashmiri Muslims came of age under the writ of the Indian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which expands the authority of Indian troops stationed in the province whose presence they have grown to resent. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), moreover, is part of the political coalition that governs Kashmir — a notable presence, given that it wants to repeal the article of the Indian Constitution that gives Kashmir its autonomy. For most Kashmiri Muslims who remember that autonomy was a key reason Kashmir joined India after partition in 1947, this is an untenable position to take.
It is in this context that domestic and international politics intersect. Since the protests in Srinagar began, Modi's rhetoric has intensified. In stark contrast to the optimism he espoused in December 2015, when he made a surprise visit to Pakistan, he took thinly veiled swipes during his Independence Day speech, at the G-20 summit and at the India-ASEAN meeting. Modi's change of heart, of course, is part of an electoral strategy. In 2017, voters will go to the polls in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and thus most important electoral state. Winning the election demands that the BJP court two voting blocs that are historically hostile to one another: lower-caste Dalits and upper-caste Brahmins. Modi's Dalit outreach has rankled his upper-caste Hindu nationalist base, and this compels him to amplify his attacks on Pakistan in speeches as a tactic to appease the Hindu nationalists.
Now, however, Modi must adjust to new developments. On Sept. 18, unidentified militants killed 18 Indian soldiers at an army outpost in the border town of Uri. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh blamed Pakistan, calling the country a "terrorist state," while Islamabad issued a recrimination, saying New Delhi had no conclusive evidence implicating Pakistan. Modi, therefore, faces a dilemma: He needs to satisfy a Hindu nationalist base clamoring for military retaliation, and he must resist the urge to escalate a conflict with a fellow nuclear state.
But the prime minister has some time to think. On Sept. 20, Indian troops killed 10 militants who crossed the Line of Control from Pakistan. Such a show of force proved to Modi's nationalist constituents that he is willing to take action, all while avoiding an all-out cross-border strike.
The incident at Uri, notably, is problematic for Sharif, who found himself on the defensive at the U.N. General Assembly. After all, it is difficult to take the moral high ground if Pakistani militants are, in fact, conducting the attacks they are accused of conducting.
Ultimately, India and Pakistan understand they can never reclaim all of Kashmir. Yet because the issue has been implanted so deeply into the collective consciousness of the Indian and Pakistani voters, politicians on both sides of the border will continue championing the cause. The presence of nuclear weapons means the logic of mutually assured destruction will temper martial passions; the costs are simply too high. But that will not prevent them from exploiting the plight of Kashmir for political reasons.