By Mike Marqusee
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India and Pakistan: Merchants of Death

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
As India and Pakistan compete for American support the danger of nuclear war continues to threaten the subcontinent.
Issue 265

We are being told that we can breathe a sigh of relief. India and Pakistan, it seems, have stepped back from the brink of the worst human catastrophe since the Second World War. As so often in the past, people around the planet are being assured that they can ‘learn to stop worrying and love the bomb’.

Unfortunately, a glance at the reality of the continuing south Asian crisis and the forces driving it forward leave no room for such complacency.

On one side is a government controlled by Hindu fundamentalists, enamoured of privatisation, globalisation and multinational corporations, a key partner in the US war against terror and a major purchaser of British arms. On the other is a military dictatorship enamoured of privatisation, globalisation and multinational corporations, a key partner in the US war against terror and a major purchaser of British arms.

Both countries are armed with nuclear weapons, both countries boast a per capita GDP of about $2,000 per annum, and in both something like 40 percent of the population live in poverty.

It is nearly ten years since the Hindu right, organised through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) the cadre based Hindu fundamentalist organisation and its linked cultural and political organisations, orchestrated the demolition of the historic Babri mosque in Ayodhya in north India. That was an act of criminal vandalism and intolerance every bit as reprehensible as the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The parties responsible for it now sit in the Indian cabinet, and are acclaimed in Washington and London as indispensable allies. They arrived at this eminence thanks to the fertile interface between globalisation and national and religious identity. Simultaneously the Indian elite embraced both a competitive consumerism and an aggressive form of religiously-based nationalism. With the decline of the Congress Party, the Hindu communalist BJP–though never securing more than about a fifth of the vote–has been able to form and sustain a government with the support of a wide range of regional allies.

Soon after the BJP captured power in 1998, it tested a nuclear weapon. It did so not in pursuit of any perceived strategic need, but in order to enter the exclusive club of nuclear weapons states, as a short cut to global prestige, a status-seeking stunt more efficacious, and for India more achievable, than winning the football World Cup. Pakistan responded in kind. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), we were told, would henceforth assure peace and stability on the subcontinent. A year later the Kargil war broke out along the Line of Control in Kashmir–the fourth military conflict between the two countries since partition. Like the Israeli right, the Indian right saw 11 September as a historic opportunity. India would have a chance to align itself with the global superpower in a crusade against Islamic terrorism–the Hindu chauvinists’ designated enemy within (India’s 130 million Muslims) and without (the state of Pakistan). The government initiated a crackdown on civil liberties and Indian Muslims came under increased pressure.

After the bomb attack on the Indian parliament on 13 December, the BJP government claimed the same prerogative as the US after 11 September–to strike across borders at those they alleged were ‘harbouring terrorists’. But it seems that this prerogative is reserved for the global superpower; India had to content itself with a massive military mobilisation along the border– again Pakistan responded in kind. The troops are still there: 1 million of them on high alert, eyeball to eyeball, in what is probably the largest military mobilisation anywhere since 1945.

Slaughter of thousands

At the end of January the BJP suffered electoral setbacks in Uttar Pradesh and other states. Within days a pogrom against Muslims was launched in the BJP-controlled state of Gujarat. State officials, local police and activists of the ruling party collaborated in the slaughter of thousands of Muslims, while government ministers muttered about ‘majority rights’. Both the US and Britain said little and did less. Indeed, in February the US conducted its first ever joint military exercises with Indian troops in India.

In May jihadi militants went on a killing spree in Kaluchak in Jammu. Abdul Gani Lone, a Kashmiri leader critical of both India and Pakistan, was assassinated. India renewed its demand that Pakistan stop cross-border infiltration, and intensified its threats of military attack. During this most recent and frightening escalation of tensions, the rhetoric of the hawks on the Indian side of the border was particularly surreal. The dangers of nuclear war were dismissed with smug superciliousness. Assuming (probably wrongly) that at the end of the game the US would ensure India had the winning hand, they seemed to enjoy goading and mocking the Pakistanis.

Because of India’s conventional military superiority, Pakistan has refused to issue a no first use declaration in regard to its nuclear weapons (for that matter, so has Britain). And hawks in Pakistan have been every bit as shrill and as casual about a nuclear exchange as their Indian counterparts.

Meanwhile, the military dictatorship continues to stumble its way through the awkward adjustment demanded by the US after 11 September–an adjustment made both more urgent and more difficult by the confrontation with India. For two decades Pakistani society has been poisoned by the effluvia from the US-backed holy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The fateful triangle of the US/CIA, Pakistan/ISI and the militant jihadi organisations corrupted institutions, sabotaged democracy, unleashed sectarian violence, fuelled the drug trade and promoted a gun culture.

After 11 September the US demanded that General Musharraf broke with the Taliban, precipitating a clash with right wing Islamists in Pakistan itself. Thanks to US support, and the hostility of the bulk of the population toward the jihadis (complemented by an equal aversion to the US), Musharraf emerged from the early rounds of this contest as the likely victor. However, the process is still incomplete, as the recent suicide bombing of the US consulate in Karachi demonstrated, and the ultimate outcome is hard to foresee.

India has demanded that Pakistan put a halt to all cross-border infiltration, and Musharraf appears to have made genuine efforts in this regard. But there are limits to what his or indeed any Pakistani regime can or will do. The jihadi internationalists are an autonomous and well armed force, and what is seen as the cause of Kashmir, if not the methods of the jihadis, enjoys widespread support in Pakistan. In addition, whatever may or may not happen on the Pakistani side of the border, there will continue to be serious grievances against, and resistance to, the Indian government among Kashmiris themselves.

Overall the war on terror has entrenched both military rule and IMF diktat in Pakistan. Musharraf’s recent referendum was a far more corrupt exercise than Mugabe’s election in Zimbabwe, but was subject to none of the same odium. In return for debt rescheduling, utilities and other state-owned industries are being privatised, and US corporations are carving up deals in the energy, banking and communications sectors. Even before 11 September something like 80 percent of Pakistan’s total government spending was eaten up by debt servicing and military expenditure. Since then that double vice has been tightened, and the vast majority of Pakistani people are the losers.

Human rights violations

In the western media coverage of the south Asian crisis, the substantial and permanent US military presence inside Pakistan post 11 September is rarely mentioned. Nor is the fact that the US has de facto control of much of Pakistan’s airspace. Nor is the fact that FBI agents operate openly in Pakistan, stopping and checking citizens of the country more or less as they please.

In the current crisis Kashmir both is and is not the issue. For more than a decade the Indian military has waged a bloody counter-insurgency, marked by human rights violations, outright atrocities, and a systematic contempt for Kashmiri opinion. With the rise of the BJP, and especially after the massacre in Gujarat, this counter-insurgency looks less and less like a test of Indian secularism and more and more an assertion of Hindu dominance. The jihadis who have entered the state from outside have also been guilty of atrocities, have communalised and militarised the conflict, and in the end–like the Indian troops–remain unaccountable to the Kashmiri people.

The elites of both countries have seen Kashmir as nothing more than an instrument of their own domestic agendas, not least as a means to distract their populations from their own repeated failures. IA Rehman, the director of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, describes the Kashmir card as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel, on either side of the border’. Arundhati Roy recently made a similar point: ‘For the governments of India and Pakistan, Kashmir is not a problem, it’s their perennial and spectacularly successful solution. Kashmir is the rabbit they pull out of their hats every time they need a rabbit. Unfortunately, it’s a radioactive rabbit now, and it’s careening out of control.’ The victims are more than 1 billion human beings across the subcontinent, especially the people of Kashmir, in all their diversity, on both sides of the Line of Control. Now an even more powerful and unaccountable external force has arrived on the scene–the US.

The crisis in south Asia unfolds within a global context. Even as the west preaches peace to the south Asian neighbours it sells both of them the weapons with which to destroy themselves. The hypocrisy on arms sales is matched by the nuclear hypocrisy–whereby it’s okay for rich, white countries of the west to possess weapons of mass destruction but not others. Above all, the escalation of the crisis to its current pitch owes much to the ‘war on terror’. The new US paradigm for global governance has legitimised the use of overwhelming military force in response to ‘acts of terrorism’; it has legitimised a self serving definition of terrorism and a double standard in relation to human rights; it has legitimised Islamophobia–and in India that means legitimising Hindu communalism; and it has sparked an unhealthy competition between India and Pakistan as each vies to win the palm as the US’s number one ally in the region.

Nuclear war is not in the interests of the US, the Indian or Pakistani ruling classes–but brinksmanship is. And in brinksmanship there is an ever-present danger. Any number of events or accidents could turn Mutually Assured Destruction from a deterrent scenario into an unstoppable infernal machine.

The continuing military confrontation poses an imminent and unacceptable danger to the peoples of south Asia and beyond. Therefore, the immediate demand from the peace movement on either side of the border is for de-escalation–a pull back of troops from both sides of the border. Beyond that there is the task of nuclear disarmament, and the need to challenge the communalism and militarism that have led to the present impasse.

Precariously but profitably integrated into the global ruling class, the elites of India and Pakistan have been able to push their countries to the brink of disaster because of the weakness of the countervailing forces from below. As in so many other theatres of war post 11 September–in the Middle East, in the US itself–what we are seeing in south Asia is in part the result of the long term decline of the left. In the absence of a broad based, well organised and dynamically promoted socialist alternative, the communal and military ‘answers’ to the failures and corruption of capitalist democracy are likely to prevail.

Yet the enthusiasm for war or even for religious-based identity remains confined to a minority in both Pakistan and India. For most people on either side of the border, the urgent issue is now, as it has always been, relief from poverty. So while the challenge facing the peace movement in south Asia is daunting, it is by no means impossibly quixotic. We in Britain need to step up our efforts to support them with practical and political solidarity.

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