By Praful Bidwai
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Kashmir: The Dance of Death

This article is over 22 years, 1 months old
The possibility of war between India and Pakistan refutes the idea that nuclear weapons act as a deterrent.
Issue 264

When India detonated five nuclear bombs four years ago many of its leaders, especially BJP ministers, convinced themselves that New Delhi had now staked an irrefutable claim to both international prestige and security. When Nawaz Sharif set off six of his own blasts in ‘retaliation’, he boasted: ‘Ab Pakistan hamesha ke liye mahfooz ho gaya.’ (‘Now Pakistan has become safe forever.’)

Strategic ‘experts’ in both countries duly spun out fanciful rationalisations for the blasts. India and Pakistan, they prophesied, would both become more secure. ‘Maturity’ and ‘sobriety’, would be infused into their fraught relationship. South Asia would become ‘stable’. India and Pakistan would gain in global stature and expand their room for independent manoeuvre. And of course, as the theory of nuclear deterrence ordains, India and Pakistan, being nuclear powers, would never go to war again. Their leaders, however reckless, would be compelled to realise that even conventional war is unacceptably risky. Doesn’t deterrence theory tell you that? The US and the USSR didn’t exchange a single shot during the Cold War.

Today, all these predictions stand demolished–many times over. The hope that India and Pakistan would behave with ‘maturity’ lies in tatters as they confront each other with more than a million troops, but without a clearly defined political purpose. The barbaric Jammu terrorist attack has further aggravated matters. New Delhi blames it on Pakistan-sponsored militants.

‘Limited strikes’ by India seem imminent. So does ‘retaliation’ by Pakistan, leading to a full-scale conventional conflict. Indian and Pakistani leaders may well bend to the inexorable logic of action-reaction, escalate that conflict to the nuclear plane, and thus finally disprove deterrence theory–with catastrophic consequences for their peoples. Four years on, it should be plain that nuclear weapons have failed to deliver to India and Pakistan any of the ‘beneficial’ things they were meant to give. But they have fulfilled the most dismal of pessimistic projections.

I personally plead guilty to some such projections. Pokharan-Chagai, Achin Vanaik and I co-authored ‘South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament’ (since published by Oxford University Press), in which we argued that nuclear weapons would degrade India and Pakistan’s security. In India, we said, they would disastrously strengthen the forces of nationalism, militarism, and communalism. Their strategic, social, economic, and political costs would prove onerous. On Pakistan, our analysis was even more sombre: ‘In…retrospect, [nuclearisation] might well be seen as the final act that precipitated a decisive historical transformation of the Pakistan polity, dramatically reversing for a long time to come the difficult process of democratic consolidation. One hopes this will not be the case, but it could be…

‘The systemic crisis of legitimacy, the increasing loss of the state’s moral purpose, the inability of Islam to provide the foundations of a viable state, have all contributed to the growing failure of the Pakistani political system…If Pakistan proceeds to manufacture and deploy nuclear weapons…the economic consequences could become unbearable…’

Regrettably, these forecasts have largely materialised. A particularly corrosive consequence of nuclearisation, mediated by the 1999 Kargil war, has been Pakistan’s greatly deepened crisis of governance. Pakistan got a major break because of Pervez Musharraf’s decision to execute a U-turn on his Afghan policy and join the US’s ‘war on terrorism’. Musharraf took some action against jihadi fundamentalists, haltingly and hesitantly. But the recent downside in this is only too obvious. To return to Kargil, it has turned out to be a more horrific story than we all imagined. In a sensational report, the ‘Sunday Times’ (London) has revealed that the Pakistani army mobilised its nuclear arsenal against India during that war without the knowledge of prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Citing Bruce Riedel, a senior White House adviser, the story says that US intelligence had gathered ‘disturbing information’, suggesting India and Pakistan ‘were heading for a deadly descent into full-scale conflict, with a danger of nuclear cataclysm’. Although Riedel is silent on India’s counter-preparations, it is almost inconceivable that New Delhi would not have drawn up plans for using nuclear weapons.

Sharif was told the truth about Pakistan’s nuclear preparations by Bill Clinton in Washington. Pakistan’s army tightly controls all information about nuclear activities–to the point of keeping the civilian leadership in the dark. Earlier, Benazir Bhutto too had to beg the CIA to brief her on Islamabad’s nuclear capability. Her own army denied her that–when she was prime minister! When reminded by Clinton of how the US and the USSR had come close to nuclear war over Cuba in 1962, an ‘exhausted’ Sharif recognised the ‘catastrophic’ danger, and ‘said he was against [the preparations], but worried for his life back in Pakistan’. This prepared the ground for an end to the Kargil conflict–much to Musharraf’s annoyance. The rest is history.

Nuclear escalation

This gives a hair-raising edge to the well founded fears expressed by many analysts, including me, that the Kargil conflict had a dangerous nuclear-escalation potential. I once counted that India and Pakistan exchanged nuclear threats no fewer than 13 times during that seven week long war–itself the world’s biggest ever conventional conflict between two nuclear weapons states. The disclosure that we were on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe in 1999 should chill many spines. In nuclear war it doesn’t take two to tango. A single adventurist move can have catastrophic consequences for millions of people. Wreaking nuclear devastation upon the adversary after he has used a nuclear weapon against you can only be an act of mindless revenge, not of regaining your security.

Such a dangerous stand-off may again be imminent. Pakistan and India have not only failed to evolve a stable deterrent equation, they probably cannot do so. Nuclear weapons will always be a strategic liability for them. India’s rulers are discovering that time and again. As for Pakistan, nuclear weapons figure in Musharraf’s 12 January address as a constraint, as something to be guarded and protected, not as a means with which to negotiate around Washington’s demand to ‘cooperate’ with its Afghan operation. So much for nukes expanding your room for independent policy-making or giving you a greater voice in the world!

Nuclear weapons have failed to bestow great-power status upon India too. India’s profile has recently risen in the US more because of silicon valley immigrants than because of factors intrinsic to India, and in spite of nuclear weapons–largely because the Vajpayee government has entered into a subordinate partnership with the US. That is no invitation to the world’s high table.

There are no worthy arguments for nuclear weapons. There are many strong ones for ridding south Asia of these instruments of genocide. The strongest one comes from the grave threat of annihilation which they pose to millions of us non-combatant civilians.

South Asia will remain the world’s most dangerous place so long as it has nuclear weapons–the globe’s only region where two strategic rivals have remained locked in a continuous hot-cold war for half a century, and where countless disputes and events can suddenly precipitate a terrible crisis with ‘potential to escalate’. To become even minimally secure, south Asia must come out of the bomb’s dark shadow.


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