LETTER FROM PAKISTAN:
Tensions Thaw, but Is Peace Possible in South Asia?
Its global unpopularity notwithstanding, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” will go down in history as the modern resurrection of a dangerous precedent: the preemptive strike, a norm in medieval times when survival of the fittest was the only law that mattered.
The fallout of this war was immediate for South Asia, home of two Third World nuclear powers—India and Pakistan—who have fought three full-scale wars in the their half century as sovereign nations. The outstanding issue inflaming both countries remains control of Kashmir—a sparsely populated, Muslim-majority state in northern India.
What is feared most is that if the stage were set for another round of fighting—not very unlikely given the current mood and geo-political tensions—this time the war would be nuclear. That is why people within the region and around the world want both countries to sit and talk peace.
But the million-dollar question is: are state forces that bank on an environment of acrimony and hostility willing to see a genuine process of dialogue through to a final settlement of enduring peace?
First, let us look at the state actors calling the shots.
Immediately after the war in Iraq was over, Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha said his country has a much better case to take preemptive military action against Pakistan than the US had in Iraq (i.e., Pakistan’s continued support to Muslim militants in Kashmir, and its proven possession of weapons of mass destruction). Hawks on the Pakistani side called India a fit case for the same treatment since it dictates to the Kashmiri people rather than honoring their right to self-determination .
Even so, the mood changed overnight on April 18 when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpai addressed a rally in Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, and, in a dramatic move, offered to re-open dialogue with Pakistan to resolve the tensions.
Pakistan reciprocated the move immediately. Pakistani Prime Minster Zafarullah Jamali phoned Mr. Vajpai, inviting him for peace talks in Islamabad. Since then, full diplomatic ties between the two countries have been restored, along with the reestablishment of rail, road, and air links, which were severed last year after an attack on the Indian Parliament that India blamed on Pakistan-sponsored militants.
At the time of the attack, the two countries had moved their forces eyeball-to-eyeball along their borders. The standoff lasted months, leaving the world wondering if two nuclear neighbors would keep going down the path of mutual destruction. But for now, cooler heads have prevailed.
The animosity between the two South Asian nations is not an ancient grudge but a product of recent history. Both India and Pakistan were carved out of British India in August, 1947. The Muslim political leadership of the time argued that the Muslim population of South Asia should form a separate state, as Islam and Hinduism were separate nations. Partition of South Asia on communal lines left millions of people dead and displaced, in one of the British Empire’s stupidest political decisions. This divide, which many people called a river of fire and blood, resulted in the single largest episode of a mass population uprooting in modern history.
At the time, Kashmir was a Muslim majority state that had semi-autonomous status in British India. However, Kashmir’s Hindu ruler opted to join Indian territory rather than concede to the wishes of the majority Muslim population. Pakistan organized a Muslim rebellion in Kashmir and tried to capture the state by force. This tiny Himalayan State, which the people of South Asia call paradise on earth for its scenic beauty, was divided into two parts: Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and Indian Kashmir.
Both countries have been in a state of war over this decision ever since. Pakistan wants Kashmir to be its territory in its entirety; India calls Kashmir an integral part of the Indian republic.
Nationalistic Kashmiri groups are fed up with both countries and want a self-administered, autonomous Kashmir. But their voice is unheard. What a pity that today they are not even a party to the dialogue!
The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the largest political group in both Indian and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, advocates Kashmir’s total independence. JKLF says Pakistani-sponsored Jihadi groups are foreign terrorists who spoil Kashmir’s political case by adding a religious, militaristic element into its otherwise secular, nationalistic struggle.
With no civilian leadership in Pakistan, the military remains the country’s sole architect of Kashmir policy, which is a two-pronged strategy: to bleed India through Jihad in Kashmir, thus weakening India’s security and ultimately its economy; and to keep the Kashmir issue in global focus.
The Biggest Losers
The biggest losers of this policy have been the Pakistani people themselves. The military, assuming the grandiose role of national savior and guardian, has done away with civil rights and basic freedoms. Every five or ten years, one or another group of military men takes control of Pakistan, leaving civilians without civil rule, let alone real democracy. As is said in private meetings in Pakistan: “To liberate Kashmir from India, our Generals have taken away our freedom.” The menace of fundamentalist groups is part and parcel of this, having mushroomed out of our pro-Jihad policy.
In addition, Pakistan’s belligerence has strengthened Hindu fundamentalist groups across the border. Traditionally, the secular Indian National Congress has governed India since the Partition. However, in the last decade, a hard-line Hindu party accountable to an unelected body has gained power. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political façade of a Hindu fanatic cartel, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (R.S.S.), which advocates the destruction of Pakistan and the supremacy of a theocracy over a secular India. P.M. Vajpai is viewed as a moderate among this clique. However, his party’s strength is in its anti-Pakistan tirades. Every terrorist act on Indian soil that has any trace of Pakistan’s blessing ends in BJP’s electoral gain.
It is widely believed that the US is playing a vital behind-the- scenes role in the sudden thaw. Political analysts say the US has a strategic interest in a stable, trouble-free South Asia because of its economic interests in India and its political support of Pakistan’s military government. As one political commentator remarked recently, “It is unfortunate that we begin to behave decently towards each other when prodded by some superpower.”
But, I am not optimistic about the situation. It was created by the forces currently in control of both states to help them snatch power from real representatives of the people. Hindu revivalist forces under the banner of RSS and Pakistan’s military will not let peace prevail at the cost and peril of their influence. Both are strong enough to frustrate, at the last moment, any move to achieve a peaceful settlement before it voids the raison d’être of their political authority.
The “thaw,” as I see it, is only a gimmick, only a buying of time. A real solution to the political violence would not involve any expectation that governments that embrace hard-line, fundamentalist ideologies as political creeds will sit and talk to each other. Instead, peace advocates should help secular civil society groups and democratic forces in both countries strengthen their respective constituencies.
What we see, on the contrary, is a paradox in the United States’ policy in the region. On one hand it offers its support to the militarized forces who run South Asian state affairs, while in same breath it harangues for peace.
Peace only comes when priorities are well set and in line with universal values of truth and honesty. Alas, that is what we lack most in the political climate of this region.
Ali Ahmed Rind, trained in medicine, writes on geopolitical matters for the Pakistan daily press. He has been a correspondent for The Baltimore Chronicle since October 2001.
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This story was published on June 4, 2003.