India, Pakistan Spar Under a Lengthening Nuclear Shadow

This past April 18, India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee raised many hopes when he offered Pakistan “the hand of friendship” from a public rally at Srinagar, the capital of Indian Kashmir. The greatest of these hopes was that South Asia’s long, dark night of confrontation, bitter hostility and dangerous brinkmanship that began with a terrorist attack on India’s Parliament building in December 2001 would soon end. At the very least, the two states would restore their badly damaged diplomatic relations and communication links. Optimists even predicted a high-level dialogue for reconciliation.

Five and a half months later, that hope is on the verge of turning into despair. All that the two nuclear rivals have done is restore ambassador-level relations and the Lahore-Delhi bus service, with a reduced, twice-weekly, frequency. Air and rail links between them still remain severed. Their embassies continue to work at half their original strength. And legal trade between them, which holds the potential of prosperity for both, remains non-existent.

Worse, the two governments are back to trading abuses and insults in international forums even as they accelerate their nuclear programmes and move towards actually deploying missiles. Dangerously, especially from the short-term point of view, there are growing skirmishes between their soldiers along the Jammu and Kashmir border.

Ironically, there is little pressure on New Delhi and Islamabad in favour of restraint and nuclear and conventional crisis-diffusion. South Asia rolls unfettered and unbridled towards the brink of what may be yet another bloody confrontation.

The week beginning September 22 saw both India and Pakistan unleash a fusillade of hostile rhetoric and serious charges in the United National General Assembly. Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf fired the first shot when he attacked India for its “brutal suppression of the Kashmiris’ demand for self-determination and freedom from Indian occupation” while urging the UN and the major powers to intervene to resolve the “dangerous” dispute.

In a tat-for-tat reply the next day, Vajpayee assailed Pakistan for using “cross-border terrorism” as “a tool of blackmail”. He also accused Musharraf of having made “a public admission for the first time that Pakistan is sponsoring terrorism in … Kashmir. After claiming that there is an indigenous struggle in Kashmir, he has offered to encourage a general cessation of violence… in return for ‘reciprocal obligations and restraints’.”

Both questioned each other’s credentials as leaders of civilised and responsible states. Musharraf demanded, without naming India, that states which occupy and suppress other peoples, and defy the resolutions of the [Security] Council have no credentials to aspire for [its] permanent membership”. Indian leaders dismissed these remarks as “rubbish” and the result of Pakistan’s “annual itch” on Kashmir. Since then, the level of abuse has plumbed even lower depths, with each calling the other “bloody-minded” and the “fountainhead” or “mother” of “all terrorism”.

Behind this intense hostility is growing competition between New Delhi and Islamabad to court Washington as a “strategic ally” at the cost of marginalising each other, as well as domestic political factors.

India believes that it may be near a break-through in persuading the United States to open talks on three sensitive issues, which have encapsulated the limits of their bilateral relationship so far: transfer of civilian nuclear technology (which stands rejected and discredited in the U.S. and most other developed countries); cooperation in space research; and sale of dual-purpose technologies, which could be diverted to military use. India, which – disgracefully – became the first nation to welcome President Bush’s ballistic missile defence plans in May 2001, also hopes to get some crumbs of BMD technology. It is trying to press its advantage and its image as a victim of terrorism, like the U.S. or Israel (although there is little in common between them).

Pakistan has come under critical scrutiny of the U.S. for its ambiguous role in fighting terrorism and its failure to fully seal the Afghanistan border. For instance, The New York Times recently said that Pakistan’s conduct “falls well short of what Americans are entitled to expect from an ally…” It “still provides Kashmiri terrorists with sanctuary and access to areas bordering Indian-ruled territory. Wresting Kashmir … remains an open goal of Pakistani policy, with violence considered a legitimate tool.” Therefore, unless Islamabad changes, “America must look for ways to reduce its dependence” on it.

Yet, Musharraf knows there is no way the US can afford to dispense with him. America would like to push him into the mould of “moderate Islam”, but it needs him badly. He too is trying to leverage this to raise the Kashmir issue.

The important thing is that both the Vajpayee and Musharraf governments are out of sync with their own publics, which stand for normalisation of relations and reconciliation. Ever since the Lahore-Delhi bus service was resumed, there have been any number of friendly visits of citizens’ delegations, businessmen, schoolchildren, journalists and parliamentarians. These are the most encouraging aspect of the current situation.

This contrasts sharply with the reluctant, extremely guarded, and almost mean-spirited official-level exchanges. The two governments, especially Pakistan’s, are clamping down on citizens’ visits through the simple expedient of holding up visas. The worst cases of such denial are the cancellations of the visits of a judges’ and lawyers’ delegation and a high-powered Indian businessmen’s group.

New Delhi has gradually hardened its insistence that there can be no dialogue with Pakistan until “cross-border terrorism” is fully ended. Underlying this is its reluctance to put the Kashmir issue on the table, besides the reality of Pakistani support to Kashmiri secessionists. Islamabad has questioned India’s willingness to discuss Kashmir.

Underlying the failure to negotiate normalisation is deep-seated resentment and suspicion on both sides. It is as if both states had become slaves to a compelling degenerative logic, which militates against reasonable behaviour. It is as if both had vowed to ensure that the half-truce would collapse – by making self-fulfilling prophesies of doom.

India and Pakistan may be moving perilously close to the brink of yet another military confrontation. On September 1, India’s newly formed Nuclear Control Authority held its first-ever meeting and took “a number of decisions” on the further development of the “strategic (nuclear) forces programme”. These decisions will “consolidate India’s nuclear deterrence”.

Reactively, just two days later, Pakistan too held a meeting of its National Control Authority. This decided to make “qualitative upgrades” in its nuclear programme. India is building two underground shelters to protect its Cabinet from a possible decapitating strike.

Matters are grim at the conventional level too, with ambushes and killing of soldiers in the Rajouri sector of the Kashmir border. An Indian newspaper (The Hindustan Times) has reported two particularly grisly incidents. Last month, Pakistani troops crossed the border and killed four Indian soldiers in an ambush. They chopped off the head of a dead soldier and carried it back as a trophy. In ghastly, ferocious retaliation, Indian soldiers “shot dead nine Pakistani soldiers. And for gruesome impact, [they] brought back the heads of two Pakistani soldiers.”

This is utterly repulsive and nauseating. Killing enemy soldiers is legally permitted only when war is declared. In no other circumstances do soldiers enjoy immunity under international law. Killing one another casually is illegal and unacceptable. And mutilating bodies is downright barbaric. Such medieval practices are impermissible under all circumstances. The fact that India and Pakistan have stooped so low speaks extremely poorly of their leaders and of the prospect of mutual reconciliation.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.