Quick, what's the first thing you think of when you hear about India and Pakistan? If you thought "impending nuclear war" you might be right! It should come as little surprise to most readers that the nations of India and Pakistan have nearly always had a very strained relationship. This week marks the seventy year anniversary of the formal creation of Pakistan as part of its separation from India. Over the past seven decades, India and Pakistan have formally gone to war several times. But the situation became drastically more complicated when both nations obtained nuclear weapons. So forget North Korea. This week, we'll break down the India-Pakistan conflict and how it remains one of the most volatile situations in the world.
As with many things throughout modern world history, part of the India-Pakistan conflict comes from the effects of British colonialism. The British began their colonial enterprise in India in 1600 as part of the East India Trading Company (as seen in several films about supposedly Caribbean pirates). Over the years, India became the "crown jewel of the British Empire" and was an extremely important part of the global spice, tea, and opium trade. This worked out really well for the British for a while, until the Nazis came and ruined everything.
The Second World War caused massive destruction to both the British colonies and the homeland. Colonialism was already on the way out at this time, probably because so many colonial subjects had served in the war under the pretense of "fighting freedom hating Nazis." So with Britain barely able to take care of its own homeland, it had to start dropping some of its expensive colonial projects. Reluctantly, this included India. Originally, Pakistan was considered a separate division of British India due to its cultural and religious differences. This also included Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka, which received their own independence from the British earlier. India is a predominantly Hindu society while Pakistan is almost entirely Muslim. When Indian independence began to take form (led by people like Mahatma Gandhi), many in Pakistan (and Bangladesh) feared that they would become an oppressed minority in a heavily class-based Indian society. The British worked out a system called the Mountbatten Plan, which called for a partition referendum and boundaries to be drawn if partition passed. Unfortunately, the lines of separation were not entirely clear. Both nations wanted access to several rivers along the border area, including the area known as Kashmir.
The partition proposal passed and both nations declared their independence in 1947, but the border issue wasn't quite resolved. In addition to territorial disputes, many Muslims remained on the Indian side and many Hindus and Sikhs remained on the Pakistani side. When partition and independence occurred, nearly fifteen million people fled across the border to take shelter in the religiously-dominated nation of their choice. In the chaos, nearly a million people died or suffered numerous other atrocities. Since then, Pakistan and India have been deeply distrusting of one another, with Pakistan basically assuming India wants to reincorporate Pakistan, and India assuming Pakistan wants to invade for territorial conquest. These tensions spilled over into outright war twice over the decades, with the war in 1971 leading to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan.
Naturally, this is exactly the type of hostile situation that would eventually include nuclear weapons. But as we've discussed many, many times before, nations don't really obtain nuclear weapons to use them. They get them in order to deter regime change. India became a nuclear power back in 1974 (you'll notice the lack of major wars after this year). Not wanting to be outdone, Pakistan managed to join the nuclear club as well in 1998. For now, neither nation seems crazy enough to actually attack the other (since this is exactly how deterrence works). But the real nuclear threat likely isn't from one state attacking another, it is from Pakistan's serious problem of domestic terrorist groups.
For decades, Pakistan has had a very serious problem of radical religious and militant groups rampaging throughout the country. Much like what has occurred in Afghanistan, organizations like the Pakistani Taliban have taken control of sections of the country and infiltrated government and security organizations. One group in particular, Lashkar-e-Taiba, is rumored to have some influence in the Pakistani Army and the ISI (Pakistan's main intelligence service). Part of the problem is that Pakistan often ends up supporting some radical groups in order to counter the effects of others. So the risk of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands is much higher in Pakistan than any other nuclear armed country. Most likely, this would lead to the creation of some sort of radiation bomb rather than a conventional nuclear blast (since it would be super hard to actually detonate the thing). Pakistan publicly claims they have their nuclear program under control, but many intelligence reports suggest that there are serious gaps in their nuclear security.
So what is the future of India and Pakistan moving forward? Well it certainly isn't looking good in the short term. The new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken an even harder stance against Pakistan than usual. Meanwhile, Pakistan is going through its own issues surrounding the election for Prime Minister in 2018. For now, both nations still seem to be level-headed enough to maintain the fragile peace between the two. But without a solid strategy between both nations for managing the India-Pakistan situation, there remain few substantial checks in place for preventing nuclear escalation on the far edges of the Middle East.