Going by the signals emanating from Almaty and Singapore, and from Washington, New Delhi and Islamabad, the level of official rhetoric of India-Pakistan hostility has come down by a few decibels during the past week. This must be heartily welcomed. But the lowering of the pitch of hostility is not consistent and pervasive, nor yet reflected on the ground. The military mobilisation at the border remains as frightful as ever with more than a million soldiers eyeball-to-eyeball, and on high alert. Not only is this the greatest military mobilisation anywhere since World War II. It has an extraordinarily scary and unique nuclear dimension too.
Compounding this grim reality are shrill calls to discard all diplomatic options in favour of “decisive battles” to settle India-Pakistan disputes “once and for all.” These calls emanate from official sources (e.g. Ministers Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Uma Bharati and I.D. Swamy), political leaders (e.g. Jana Krishnamurthy and Giriraj Kishore), and Right-wing commentators known more for obsessive militarism than for wisdom. As if this weren’t bad enough, there is generalised smugness about the danger of a nuclear catastrophe, whose very possibility is being denied.
Hopefully, if present trends continue, some of the war hysteria will get diffused as the realisation sinks in of how seriously alarmed is the rest of the world about a possible nuclear outbreak in South Asia. The news of thousands of foreign nationals leaving, tourist and hotel bookings being cancelled, business contracts being put on hold, and the economy being badly hit will have an impact, favouring a cooling of India-Pakistan tensions. As will the visits of Messrs Rumsfeld and Armitage.
The best news, however, is that New Delhi says General Pervez Musharraf finally seems to be acting on his assurance that he would put an end to infiltration of militants into Kashmir. The Indian government has intercepted messages to this effect. If this trend holds, Pakistan will have substantively addressed the issue that aroused India’s anger and precipitated the present crisis in the first place.
The time has come to defuse tensions, de-escalate the alert level and demobilise troops. It is important to reiterate the argument against war and even against “limited strikes.” Politically, in the present circumstances, war against Pakistan is an inappropriate and wrong means to resolve the issue of “cross-border terrorism.” There is no doubt whatever that Islamabad has over the years fomented and supported such terrorism. But there is plenty of doubt about its involvement in recent incidents like the May 14 Kaluchak killings and Abdul Gani Lone’s assassination. No clinching evidence exists of this. Pakistan’s relationship to jehadi militants changed post-September 11, especially after the stationing of US troops on its soil. It makes little sense for Gen Musharraf to order the ISI to conduct terrorist operations when he is under close US watch. If rogue elements carried out such operations, it makes no sense for India to punish the non-rogues.
Militarily, war is a bad, high-risk option. There exist no military targets close to the border, which match specific political objectives and which can be attacked without provoking major retaliation, with a spiralling potential for full-scale confrontation. There is some ambiguity even about the existence of the 36 (or is it 70?) makeshift “training camps” in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Indian army itself believes many have been disbanded. Hitting non-specific targets risks reprisal. There are no crisis-limitation mechanisms, and no confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan, to prevent limited engagements from escalating to full-scale war.
Full-scale war spells a likely nuclear catastrophe. In nuclear war, there are no winners, only losers. It doesn’t matter if a nuclear adversary has 15 or 60 atomic bombs. One bomb can produce a Hiroshima lakhs of deaths, and devastation lasting thousands of years. Nuclear weapons are Great Equalisers. The damage they cause is mind-boggling. Studies show that a single nuclear bomb is liable to kill 800,000 people in Mumbai or Karachi, and poison vast swathes of land, and water and vegetation, with over 200 radioactive toxins, some of which won’t decay for hundreds, even thousands, of years. For instance, the half-life of Plutonium-239 is 24,400 years. And the half-life of Uranium-235 is 710 million years!
There can be conventional wars that are just, e.g. against tyranny and occupation, or for liberation. There can never be just nuclear wars. There is no justice or legality in a war that kills non-combatant civilians massively, and produces damage lasting a number of generations. Yet, our hawks irresponsibly talk of “calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.”
This is an extraordinary proposition. Pakistan isn’t bluffing. There is no doubt that it possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to many big Indian cities. By teasing, chiding or challenging Pakistan to use them, our hawks are in fact threatening millions of us citizens with genocide. This is morally sickening. It is irrelevant that India has a second-strike capability and Pakistan lacks it. Retaliation against a first strike can only be an act of senseless revenge, not one of gaining security.
A second reason why hawks like K. Subrahmanyam and Brahma Chellaney cavalierly dismiss Pakistan’s nuclear threat lies in their fond hope that the US will somehow “neutralise” Islamabad’s arsenal before it can be used. The assumption is that the US knows where each missile and warhead is stored, and can safely, reliably, destroy these with its own weapons. Alternatively, Gen Musharraf will voluntarily hand America the key to his arsenal.
This assumption is dangerously wrong. No Pakistani ruler will give up control over that jealously guarded strategic “asset” or “trump card.” There have been credible reports since October that Islamabad has been looking for (and found?) sanctuaries for its nuclear weapons, possibly in China. It has also dispersed them within its own territory. The US cannot find or destroy such weapons without risking a catastrophe. The costs of American failure in this regard will be colossal. Clearly, our hawks’ uninformed but wildly wishful thinking knows no bounds.
Diplomatically, India has not exhausted all its options to impel Pakistan to sever links with Kashmiri “freedom-fighting” terrorists. It hasn’t even attempted to move the UN Security Council invoking Resolution 1373 which obligates all states to act against terrorism on pain of punitive sanctions. New Delhi has only practised “coercive” diplomacy based on nuclear brinkmanship. This is now working against it, just as it is working against Pakistan. There is all-round condemnation the world over of “irresponsible South Asians”the caption of a New York Times editorial for causing today’s stand-off.
The exodus of diplomats and citizens of many major states from South Asia will have damaging consequences. Aid cut-offs and sanctions could follow if the standoff continues. Gen Musharraf seems to have understood this and ratcheted down his bellicose rhetoric. Mr Vajpayee too must read the writing on the wall especially because there is action on the ground, via interception of militants’ border-crossing.
This is not a plea for trusting Pakistan and naively accepting that the interception is permanent. This must be rigorously verified. The verification should be done not by the US, the UK or NATO, as is being proposed by the Americans. It is best done by a neutral, independent multilateral agency on an institutionalised long-term basis. The road-map for troop demobilisation and restoration of full diplomatic relations should now be clear:
India and Pakistan should thin out their troops and withdraw from the International Border and the Line of Control. They must immediately hold a summit to formalise a solemn commitment to oppose terrorism and violence in all its forms, to negotiate serious confidence-building measures, to sanitise their border, and discuss all disputes and differences in the spirit of the 1972 Shimla Accord and the 1999 Lahore agreement. Above all, they must move towards reducing the nuclear danger either through bilateral denuclearisation, or by creating a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia, which all major states respect and guarantee.
Perhaps the greatest lesson from the present crisis is that there is no alternative to ridding this part of the world of nuclear weapons. So long as these weapons exist in South Asia the world’s sole region to have experienced a continuous hot-cold war for half a century between the same two contiguous rivals, there will always be a danger of nuclear catastrophe. Preventing one is the legitimate business not just of India and Pakistan, but of the whole world. The consequences of nuclear war are global. The global community has every right to prevent such a war.
New Delhi and Islamabad must not wait until such nuclear-restraint arrangements are put in place. They must return to the Shimla-Lahore agenda after rapidly restoring diplomatic relations and communication links. A Shimla-II will, of course, demand will and boldness on the part of Messrs Vajpayee and Musharraf. In India, Mr Vajpayee must be pressed by all political leaders and the public to shed the sectarian sub-agenda behind the border build-up related to the BJP’s narrow political calculations of diverting attention from misgovernance and the Gujarat carnage, while fomenting communalism.