Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The sudden outbreak of fighting between the Indian and Pakistani armies along the 'line of control' in Kashmir has led to renewed fears of a major nuclear conflict between the two states, quite apart from the effects on the civilians whose homes and towns have been smashed up by artillery and air strikes.
This fighting is different from any that has taken place in Kashmir since the 1947 war which followed the partition of the British Indian empire. Although there have been two other wars, in 1965 and 1971, there was little serious fighting in Kashmir, and the front line itself has not moved in over 50 years. The current internal conflict began in 1984 when Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi used factional politics to get rid of a state government which she did not like. Pakistan's intervention has been restricted to slipping guerrillas across the line of control to wage war against the Indian administration in the Vale of Kashmir, the core of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. An attempt to change the front line is an innovation, and this has certainly caused the violent Indian response.
The reason for Kashmir being so important to both states is that it underpins the reason for their existence. Pakistan came into being on the basis that not only were South Asian Muslims a distinct nationality, but that they would inevitably be discriminated against in a united India that would be dominated by a hostile Hindu nationality. The new Indian state was founded on the contrary idea that there was a non-confessional Indian nationality where all religions received equal treatment in a secular state. Kashmir was the only state where a Muslim majority was organised by an anti-partition political party, the National Conference of Shaikh Mohammed Abdullah.
This explains why Kashmir is so important. Kashmir inside India is a denial of the founding principle of Pakistan and puts the reason for the existence of the state into question. The opposite is true for India--it is a demonstration of the notion of a secular India. Neither ruling class can compromise and neither can allow the Kashmiri people to exercise self determination. That would undermine both ruling classes.
This explains why there has been no movement on the dispute since 1947, despite UN resolutions on the right of the Kashmiri people to decide their own future. The confrontation between the two states is rooted in the partition itself. They cannot exist except by being in confrontation with each other. The 'normal, low level' confrontation has been intensified by their arms race. Both developed nuclear weapons, which caused an uproar when they conducted the tests last year. More importantly, both have also been developing medium range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. These are now in an advanced stage where they could be operationally deployed. The existence of these weapons means that the general staffs have made contingency plans to use them. Any serious fighting, including the current situation in Kashmir, brings the possibility of escalation.
So why has the Pakistani army done this? The best bet is that it was an opportunist move when it discovered that India had foolishly abandoned front line positions on a mountain ridge in the middle of winter. The advantage of this was that they could dominate a strategic road to the Ladakh region where there is a confrontation across the Siachen glacier. It is quite possible that the sector commander simply presented the government with a fait accompli from which it could not back down without appearing to betray the vital Pakistani interest.
This has also pulled the rug from the détente that had been developed by prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee in February this year. A further complication has been the fall of the BJP led coalition and the consequent calling of an Indian election for September. Contrary to what might be assumed, the neo-fascist BJP has not been the most bellicose over defence issues.
The defence ministry is held by George Fernandez, the leader of their most reliable ally, the Samata Party. He is a long time social democrat, a rail union general secretary in the 1974 strike, and was jailed by Indira Gandhi during the emergency regime of 1975-77. He combines the common social democratic features of radical populist rhetoric with rabid national chauvinism, and initially allied with the BJP because they seemed to be the party most hostile to foreign multinationals! However, Fernandez has been the most avid promoter of an Indian nuclear force, the most hostile to China and Pakistan, and has gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with the military high command.
The conditions exist for this to expand into a very nasty war indeed. Only an overthrow of partition, which will mean overturning the ruling classes of both states, will bring an end to this nightmare.