When former U.S. President Bill Clinton left office, he called the India Pakistan border “the most dangerous place in the world,” according to the BBC.
It’s easy to see why: Both nations, armed with nuclear weapons, refuse to back down from the almost 70-year-long conflict. An India Pakistan war could have devastating consequences.
Short wars have been fought multiple times and skirmishes occur regularly. In fact, military skirmishes on the border are so frequent that Wikipedia has a web page that is dedicated to listing them by year.
Why is there a conflict?
Before the British arrived on the Indian subcontinent, it had been under control by the Muslim Mughal empire for more than 300 years, according to Emory University’s post-colonial studies page.
As a result, there had always been tensions between the Muslim and Hindu populations of India, and it was exacerbated by the British policy of “divide and rule,” which classified people differently based on their religion.
For instance, elections were separated by religions to ensure that Muslims were represented.
When the British ended their occupation of India in 1947, it was split in two: the primarily Hindu nation of India, and the Muslim nation of Pakistan.
Why was there a war?
Under the 1947 India Independence Act, the two nations were separate but the province of Kashmir, which lies between the two, was free to accede to either side.
It was ruled by an Indian maharaja, but its population was mainly Muslim. When it chose India, war soon ensued with Pakistan over the territory. Officially, more than 1,500 soldiers died on each side before the 1949 ceasefire.
The more severe conflict, however, was the massive exodus of around 17 million people either leaving Pakistan for India or vica versa.
This is one of the largest swaps of populations in history, and the ensuing riots and Hindu-Muslim violence left a million or more dead, according to the Asia Society.
Since then, there have been three India Pakistan war events fought over the disputed territory: in 1965, 1971, and an undeclared war in 1999, each resulting in thousands of casualties and many more refugees.
The latter conflict was especially worrying as both nations had recently completed successful tests of nuclear bombs many times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb.
The flood-lit border between India and Pakistan is visible from space as a thick, orange line. Photo courtesy of NASA via Wikimedia Commons.
What could happen?
According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, India has 110 nuclear warheads stockpiled, while Pakistan has 120. It’s unknown how many of these are deployed, meaning ready to fire.
India has a superior conventional army, with more than twice as many soldiers available and a larger air force and navy, according to Global Firepower.
According to one article in the Harvard-based Journal of International Security, this violates what Cold War scholars called the “stability/instability paradox,” which stated that the threat of nuclear war made conventional conflict more likely, because it meant that an India Pakistan war was less likely to reach the nuclear scale.
This has actually made the border less secure, as the two nations are fighting somewhat of a proxy war, according to Der Spiegel, but India’s military advantage prevents it from retaliating heavily out of fear of provoking a nuclear war.
While the border has been heating up lately, however, at least the political will for reconciliation is still present, as peace talks continue to inch forward.