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Narendra Modi’s revocation of autonomy of the only Muslim majority state in India, Kashmir, caught the world by surprise, and not least Kashmiris themselves.

Before India’s unilateral action, Kashmir enjoyed a high level of autonomy, including having its own constitution.

Henceforth, the state will be ruled from New Delhi. The action has fuelled anger in Kashmir and Pakistan, and revived fears of a conventional or even nuclear war between the rival nations of India and Pakistan.

Since electing to become part of India in 1947, Indian-controlled Kashmir has experienced violent clashes between Muslim militants and Indian security forces.

India accuses Pakistan of giving these militants tacit and material support. Pakistan refutes the accusations but has never hidden its desire to see Indian-controlled Kashmir “liberated” and becoming part of Pakistan. This acrimonious relationship has led to two wars and numerous border skirmishes. For most of these wars and skirmishes, the two states had no nuclear weapons. Since becoming nuclear powers, every time there is an escalation of political issues, as there is now in the wake of Modi’s revocation of Kashmiri autonomy, the world quakes in its boots.

The fear is justified. There are several factors that make a nuclear war between Pakistan and India a possibility. Unlike the Soviet Union and the US, the two adversaries share a common border. The former two have ideological differences.

In the case of India and Pakistan, political differences or geopolitical competition is conflated with religion.

Religious differences, like their racial and tribal equivalents, make disagreements much harder to solve because the views of belligerent parties are clouded by notions of innate supremacy of the one and inferiority of the other. In such cases, reason is replaced by emotion and illusions of divine destiny.

By contrast, America and the Soviet Union understood the notion of a “balance of terror.” In other words, each understood that a pre-emptive strike could not eliminate all nuclear capability of the other, and a retaliatory nuclear strike would be catastrophic. Except for a brief moment of insanity when President Ronald Reagan opined that the US could win a limited nuclear exchange, everyone knew there was no such thing as a limited or winnable nuclear war.

A nuclear or even a full-scale conventional war between India and Pakistan could lead to World War Three. Consider the following. What would China, which is an ally of Pakistan, and has border disputes with India, do were Pakistan attacked? And if China were to join the war in support of Pakistan, how would Russia, which is a friend of India, and which once had border disputes with China, react? Would the US and other nuclear powers remain neutral in the face of a war threatening global geopolitical and commercial stability, and irreparable environmental destruction?

Modi argues that Kashmir autonomy encouraged terrorism and secessionist ambitions, and that full integration into India will bring development and peace to the region. The opposite is likely to happen. Angered by this unilateral move, many moderate Kashmir leaders now say that they feel betrayed by India. No doubt, their allegiance to the Indian state will be tested, and many may choose to support, openly or covertly, separatist ideology.

The Muslim population of Kashmir and larger India, which has always felt marginalised by the Hindu majority, will read into Modi’s action a clear and systematic attempt to further marginalise them, with obvious adverse consequences for peace and development, not only in Kashmir but also in the whole Indian state.

Pakistan has now downgraded diplomatic ties with India and suspended cultural co-operation. Imran Khan has vowed that his country will stand by the people of Kashmir and warned that any incursion by India into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir will be met by decisive force.

The problem is that Modi has no face-saving way of rescinding his decision and, therefore, the situation is likely to get worse rather than better.

Nationalist ideologies are on the ascendance across the globe. In Bosnia, it resulted in the Srebrenica genocide. Buddhist nationalism has led to ethnic cleansing and massacre of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. Islamic nationalism wages wars of extermination in Iraq and the Maghreb.

In Africa, ethnic nationalism is often stoked as a means to political power. In 1994, ethnic nationalism claimed over a million lives in Rwanda. The world either removes religious, racial and ethnic nationalism from political and geo-political considerations, or prepares itself for a conventional and/or a nuclear Armageddon.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator