India-Pakistan - After six months of a "phony war"

Jul/Aug 2002

India and Pakistan have now been at war for six months. One could talk about a "phony war" since, for the past six months the two sides have been trading verbal abuse without either side being willing to take the initiative of launching an offensive on the ground - for the time being at least, but this may change.

War it is, however. Over a million soldiers are stationed on both sides of the two countries' 2000-mile long common border. Both sides have been ready to launch an offensive for a long time already. A few weeks ago, military chiefs in both countries were even heard evaluating with equal cynicism the likely casualties should this war turn into a nuclear conflict. Their conclusion was that the estimated total casualties of between 6 and 12 million was "tolerable" given the size of the populations concerned. Which just goes to show how little the leaders of these countries care about their own people!

In the border zone, hundreds of thousands of farmers have already fled their villages. Those who were not driven out by artillery fire from the other side were forced out of their houses and lands by the army of their own side - so that mines could be planted to slow down a possible invasion. As always in similar circumstances, the general staffs thought about piling up unlimited supplies of shells and other lethal weapons, but they did not bother to prepare anything to aid the survival of the huge flood of men, women and children who were bound to become refugees as a result of their military exercises. On both sides makeshift refugee camps have been mushrooming but they are short of everything, particularly food and drinking water.

So, even before military operations have really started on the ground, the poor masses are already footing the bill of this war - not just in the border areas but everywhere else as well. Indeed, this state of war is generating a heavy chauvinist atmosphere - jingoism, "sacrifices" which are demanded from the population in the name of "national unity", emergency measures both in terms of budget cuts and restrictions on democratic rights, etc..

An offshoot of Bush's crusade

It should be recalled that this Indo-Pakistani war originated as an offshoot of Bush's "war against terrorism".

The leaders of the Indian BJP (National Indian Party, a Hindu fundamentalist party) have been seeking a rapprochement with the USA ever since they came to power in 1998. Instead, they saw the US leaders tightening their links with Pakistan during the US aggression against Afghanistan. No matter how much the Indian leaders disapproved, there was nothing they could do about this given Washington's military constraints. But as soon as the Taliban regime began to crumble, with Pakistan losing some of its strategic importance for the US, the Indian government sought to regain the initiative. The terrorist attack against the Indian Union parliament, on 13 December last year - which was blamed on a Muslim fundamentalist group based in Pakistan - provided the BJP leaders with the pretext they were looking for to jump on board Bush's crusade against terrorism and put the Pakistani regime of general Musharraf in the dock. Less than two weeks later all land connections between the two countries had been closed while 800,000 Indian soldiers were posted along Pakistan's border.

Today Musharraf's regime remains Bush's ally, helping with the US offensive against bin Laden's network, but above all with its war in Afghanistan (indeed, although the papers no longer mention it, this war is still going on). But at the same time, the Pakistani regime is the target of another anti-terrorist offensive, in whose name the Indian government has declared itself the USA's favoured ally. And Washington has done nothing to discourage this, quite the contrary. Of course, the USA has never been very choosy about the allies it uses in its great power games. Bush does not care about the fact that there is nothing to choose between the terrorist methods used by the BJP and those used by Pakistani Muslim fundamentalists. Not any more than he cared about the support given by the Pakistani military to fundamentalist terrorists, provided Musharraf's regime was willing to support the US aggression against Afghanistan. At the same time, US imperialism is certainly not averse to playing the two rival regional powers, India and Pakistan, against one another. This is a very old tactic used by imperialism to consolidate its domination, particularly in this part of the world.

By taking the risk of triggering ethnic confrontations which could have an impact far beyond Afghanistan, the US offensive against Afghanistan already involved significant dangers. But the dangers involved in an Indo-Pakistani war are immensely greater, if only because between them, these two countries contain one fifth of the planet's population.

Above all, the Indian subcontinent is a powder keg. for the past 55 years this subcontinent has been paying dearly for the poisoned legacy of British colonial policies - the wall of blood created between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority in the run-up to independence and its partition between India and Pakistan. The bloodshed and forced deportation of millions of people left an indelible scar for several generations in both countries. It is precisely the hatred inherited from this past that the reactionary forces at the forefront of the political scene on both sides - whether in power as in India, or living in the shadow of the military dictatorship as in Pakistan - are trying to revive and whip up today for their own political benefit. By condoning the overbidding which is taking place between the Indian and Pakistani governments, US imperialism is encouraging these reactionary forces to drop any restraint, thereby taking the risk of a bloody explosion which could then go much further than just a border war.

The origins of the Kashmir conflict

The present "phony war" should not conceal the other, very real war taking place in Kashmir, the region bordering both India and Pakistan. The war Kashmir has virtually never stopped since the 1947 partition of India, even though it took different forms over time.

Kashmir was one of the components of an artificial kingdom put together in the middle of the 19th century by Britain in order to reward the Hindu Dogra dynasty for its loyalty to the British crown. For a whole century this dynasty imposed a ferocious dictatorship on the region's population. The Kashmiri population was relatively large (around half of the kingdom's population). It was homogeneous in ethnic and religious terms (mostly Muslim) and it had its own language. As a result the Kashmiris were seen as the main threat to the dynasty's rule and were the main target of the Dogra's repression. This helped to develop a certain national identity within its ranks.

At the time of Indian independence, the Kashmiri nationalists, although Muslims, did not identify with the Muslim League's aim to set up a "Muslim fatherland". Their main organisation, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's Muslim Conference, considered itself a secular organisation. To mark its distance from the Muslim League, it decided to change its name and became the National Conference. It was in favour of Kashmir becoming part of India on the basis of a certain autonomy, so as to preserve its national identity. But above all the National Conference wanted the end of the Dogra dynasty, which was represented at the time by a corrupt despot, "Sir" Harry Singh.

Independence year, 1947, started off in the Kashmir Valley with a tax boycott which was violently repressed, while Harry Singh was announcing his decision to remain independent from both India and Pakistan. In this, it seems that Singh was encouraged and supported by the Foreign Office. In these early days of the Cold War, Britain wanted to retain Kashmir within its orbit, given its strategic position and its common border with the Soviet Union. Eventually, however, the new Pakistani regime spoilt London's game by sending a contingent of armed paramilitaries into Kashmir. Harry Singh was left with no option but to request India's help. In return he had to agree to a phased integration of his kingdom into the Indian Union - which was eventually completed in 1954.

This was the spark that triggered the first Indo-Pakistani war from the end of 1947 till January 1949. Its outcome was the partition of Kashmir along what is today the so-called "Line of Control", which neither country has ever recognised as a legitimate border.

Subsequently, repeated infringements of this Line of Control by both sides led to constant border incidents usually involving artillery fire. In 1965, one such incident turned into open warfare when the Indian government chose to retaliate by sending Indian troops into Pakistan's Punjab province. The war lasted for three weeks but it did not change the situation in Kashmir. More recently, in 1999, the Pakistani army made an attempt to force India into accepting a fait accompli, by occupying the Kargil heights on the Indian side of the Line of Control. However, once again Pakistan was forced into a humiliating retreat, this time under US pressure.

Islam comes into the conflict

In 1951, the Kashmiri National Conference won an overwhelming victory in the province's first ever general election. However, due to the poisonous atmosphere created by Indo-Pakistani tensions, Sheikh Abdullah's demand for autonomy was considered an unacceptable risk by the Indian government. As a result Abdullah and his closest supporters ended up spending most of the following two decades in jail, while the Indian authorities managed to turn the National Conference into a pliable instrument for their policies.

On paper, Kashmir retained a degree of autonomy which was enshrined in article 370 of the Indian constitution. But in reality, this autonomy was reduced to the ritual rubber-stamping of New Delhi's decisions by the Kashmiri parliament. Whenever Kashmiri politicians failed to show enough enthusiasm, the Indian authorities always managed to find others who were willing to be bribed into replacing the culprits. While corruption was growing, conditions for the Kashmiri population were going from bad to worse. The Indian government did not see any point in making capital investment in a region which was bound to be devastated at any time by a border conflict with Pakistan - and local politicians were much too busy lining their pockets to pay any attention to the state of public infrastructure or anything else.

All this brought the National Conference into disrepute, thereby opening the way to new political forces. By the early 1960s traditional Muslim political parties, which were modelled on Pakistan's Muslim League, began to emerge and to demand the re-unification of Kashmir within Pakistan, in the name of religion. Quite logically, these parties enjoyed the material and political support of the Pakistani government and this alone convinced many clan leaders to drop out of the National Conference.

It was also during this period that a new nationalist movement, which was to gain a significant level of influence among the youth, was formed - the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Although it was permeated by religion, which it used as a kind of national banner, the JKLF stood for a "Free Greater Kashmir", which would be independent from both India and Pakistan, and whose geographic legitimacy was based on the borders of the 15th century Kashmiri kingdom! Despite this, the JKLF claimed to be a modernist organisation, in favour of a secular democracy, with even some elements of social-democracy in it, thus relying on international institutions such as the UN to initiate negotiations aimed at resolving the Kashmir conflict.

By the end of the 1970s, however, the situation in Kashmir changed dramatically, as a result of the rapid growth of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Pakistan, with the support of the then Pakistani dictator, general Zia, and the help of US dollars originally meant to finance the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation. The policy developed by the Pakistani secret services during this period was probably inspired by the example given by the CIA in Afghanistan. They channelled their help and weapons to those Kashmiri fundamentalist groups willing to launch an armed struggle. And the first armed operations carried out in Kashmir by these groups resulted retaliation by the Indian government in the form of blind, violent repression and the suspension of Kashmir's local democratic institutions. This, in turn, led to a brutal radicalisation among the Kashmiri youth and even the JKLF had no option but to declare its support for the armed struggle for fear of losing influence.

However this failed to save the JKLF or to stop the rising tide of fundamentalism. All the more so, as from the end of the 1980s, many Kashmiri youth who had joined the Afghan resistance, returned home. And most of them joined the growing ranks of the fundamentalist guerillas. Soon after this, other activists arrived in Kashmir. This time they were experienced Pakistani or Afghan fundamentalists who were looking for new battles to fight and they became the military instructors of the Kashmiri guerilla groups. It was during this period, that Hizbul Mujahedeen, the armed wing of the fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami, absorbed all the existing fundamentalist guerillas, by resorting to all kinds of manoeuvres and often to murder.

A lever for the Pakistani army

From 1989, a brutal escalation took place in Kashmir - an escalation of terrorism on the part of the fundamentalists, on the one hand, and an escalation of repression by the Indian army. Hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris belonging to minorities (Hindus, Sikhs and even Shiite Muslims) fled Kashmir in order to escape from the fundamentalist terror. At the same time the Indian contingent stationed in Kashmir was increased to 500,000 men, both regular troops and auxiliaries, such as the so-called Special Task Force, a militia recruited among the local mafia to carry out the dirtiest tasks for the Indian army. In addition to being subjected to the terrorism of the fundamentalists, the Kashmiri population was now subjected to the state terrorism of the Indian government.

Eight years later, in 1997, a delegation of the Indian Peoples Tribunal on environment and human rights to Srinagar, Kashmir's capital, brought back this description of the town: "The appearance of the city as well as the villages around it is that of war ravaged places. Predominance of the security forces patrolling with guns, bunkers all over. Army occupation of civilian areas has become a prominent and almost permanent feature of Kashmir. It looks like a big prison. Overall fear psychosis prevails in every strata of society, especially among women and children. Anybody can get interrogated any time of the day and night. Even old and very young are not spared. During such interrogations they are physically, mentally and sexually abused."

This terrorist spiral has reached the point where even a section of the Kashmiri fundamentalists has began to worry about its consequences. There was a split in Hizbul Mujahedeen, in May this year, and for once, those who were expelled for advocating a cease-fire are still alive, for the time being, at least - which probably means that they have a large enough following to be feared by the Hizbul leadership. Not all the advocates of a cease-fire have been as lucky as that. For instance, in May as well, Abdul Ghali Lone, one of the leaders of the All Parties Hurryiat Conference, which brings together most of the Kashmiri opposition parties, was executed by gunmen for having publicly denounced the role played by "foreign terrorists" in Kashmir.

The Pakistani army does not take kindly to these tendencies which are developing, not for the first time either, among Kashmiri fundamentalists in support of a compromise. This is why the Pakistani military has been relying increasingly on Pakistani terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (the army of believers), to carry out terrorist operations both in Kashmir and in India. Over the past months these Pakistani groups have been reinforced by Afghan fighters who fled Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban. And by now they feel strong enough to fight the Kashmiri Hizbul, in order to take control of areas along the Line of Control which play a vital role in the supply of weapons coming from Pakistan.

And while the Pakistani army is waging a full-blown terrorist war by proxy against both India and Kashmir, the Indian army is carrying on its war of terror against the Kashmiri population.

A fragile dictatorship

What are the objectives of the Pakistani army in the present Indo-Pakistani war? For starters, the odds are that given the choice, the Pakistani military would not have chosen to go for an open war.

Indeed it is one thing for Musharraf to allow his generals to wage a covert war against India by manipulating terrorist groups in Kashmir and in India, in the hope that one day the Kashmiri powder keg will become so expensive for the Indian government that it will choose to get rid of the problem by pulling out altogether - a retreat that Musharraf will then be able to portray as a victory for Pakistan. But it is quite another thing for the Pakistani army to engage in an open war against the Indian army, which is considerably larger and much better equipped. As things stand at present, the situation can only go against Musharraf. All the more so, as the demands made on him by Bush to get his own house in order, by ridding Pakistan of its terrorists, are very unhelpful. Even though Bush has probably no intention, at least not in the predictable future, to go further than verbal remonstrations.

However, the Indian government has not given Musharraf any choice, while Musharraf cannot afford to be accused of weakness by politicians or rival generals. Nor can he afford to defy openly Bush's instructions, for fear of losing his support - and he needs Bush a lot more than Bush needs him.

The days when Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup, back in 1999, have long been forgotten. At the time he enjoyed the tacit support of a whole section of the population which hoped that he was going to reverse the extensive corruption and catastrophic economic decay which characterised the previous regime. But this is no longer the case.

Instead of ending corruption Musharraf only targeted a handful of individuals chosen among his most determined political opponents. But what else could he have been expected to do, when the army itself is the main agent of corruption in the country by far?

Indeed the Pakistani army sits on a huge economic empire whose executive is none other than Musharraf himself, in his capacity as chief of staff. This empire is made of four "foundations" whose combined assets are valued at $5bn. The largest of the four, the Fauji Foundation, is the country's largest industrial conglomerate and its activities include food-processing, chemical plants and the production of construction material, among other things. The army is also the country's largest landowner and "gentleman farmer", thanks to its takeover of land abandoned by its owners at the time of partition. In Punjab alone, a total of 600,000 people make a living out of toiling the army's land, and they have to pay the army by handing over half of their crop. Such a huge empire must allow quite a few generals to line their pockets. But it must also fund all sorts of dubious activities, such as, for instance, the delivery of weapons to fundamentalists in Kashmir. No wonder the army is not too pro-active in fighting corruption!

As to the economic situation, it has not improved, not even after the US agreed additional loans and the rescheduling of some of the country's debt in return for its support against Afghanistan. True there have been changes in the economy over the past three years, a lot of changes in fact, but not for the better. During Musharraf's first two years, for instance, 90,000 public sector employees were thrown out of their jobs and 40 state-owned companies were privatised. All kinds of consumer taxation has been introduced while the price of petrol was increased fourfold. Privatisations resulted in huge price increases: 200% for water, 300% for refined sugar. All existing benefits have been terminated while wages have remained frozen despite a 40% rate of inflation. In other words the majority of the population has every reason to want to make Musharraf pay for this drastic degradation in its standard of living.

As a result Musharraf has to resort to sordid cheating in order to be able to pose as a "democrat" in front of Bush without allowing the discontented to voice their frustrations. This was illustrated by the referendum held on 30 April this year, in which voters were asked to say whether they were in favour of giving Musharraf an additional five years as president. The proclaimed results were denounced as a farce and a fraud by virtually everyone in Pakistan: a 97.7% "yes" vote on a 70% turnout, when no election in Pakistan has ever seen a turnout higher than 36%!

For the general elections, which are due to take place at the end of this year, Musharraf had to make some concessions, by allowing political parties to stand candidates (which was not the case in last year's local elections). But for the time being these parties are still banned from intervening publicly in their own name and Musharraf was careful not to give any hint as to when they will be allowed to launch their election campaigns. This goes to show how insecure the regime is feeling!

For the time being Musharraf is trying to make as much political capital as possible out of the India-Pakistani war, by blackmailing the politicians of the main parties into supporting his government's policy on this issue, in the name of Pakistan and Islam. However Musharraf remains most vulnerable to attacks coming from his right - that is from the fundamentalists, who have no reason whatsoever to fear a military adventure which is most likely to benefit them. And this is one of the dangers of the present situation on Pakistan's side.

The BJP and the anti-Muslim pogroms

On the Indian side, the logic of the BJP leaders' policy is crystal clear. Their only preoccupation is to remain in power.

In the last all-India parliamentary election, in 1999, the BJP managed to use the Kargil incidents to prop up nationalist feelings in the electorate, primarily to its own advantage. Since then, however, its scores have gone down drastically in most state assembly elections. This is due to a succession of corruption scandals involving leading figures of the BJP and Hindu hierarchy but above all, to the rapid deterioration of the economy which affects the large majority of the population. So, last year, out of the 800 seats which were to be renewed in state assemblies, the BJP only managed to win 11. True, the BJP was already weak in these states. But the ruling coalition as a whole had very strong positions, and most of the BJP's allies experienced catastrophic losses. This year, however, the BJP was defending very strong positions in several states. In Punjab, where the BJP was in power in alliance with a regionalist party, it has lost 80% of its seats in the state assembly. The worst blow came in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in the country in terms of population (more than 10% of the Indian population). This was a state in which the BJP held power on its own and yet it lost 50% of its seats. Almost at the same time, it was overthrown in its oldest urban stronghold, Delhi, where it lost three quarters of its seats on the local council.

In order to stop this catastrophic downfall, the BJP is trying to rally public opinion around the Hindu identity that it claims to represent. It uses the Indo-Pakistani war to call for national unity against the Pakistani "enemy" while using the threat of "Muslim terrorism." But for the time being, the fact is that this demagogy has been unable to rebuild the BJP's vote.

However the BJP has shown that it is also prepared to resort to the old methods which it used so effectively in the early 1990s, at the beginning of its march to power - methods which involve helping the anti-Muslim prejudices which exist among the population to be vented openly and freely, even if it results in a bloodbath. And in this respect the Indo-Pakistani war can be used as an additional catalyst.

This is exactly what has happened over the past few months in the state of Gujarat, one of two states in which the BJP is still in office. Between 27 February and the end of May, this state has seen the largest and most bloody wave of anti-Muslim pogroms since the early 1990s. Over 2,000 people have died in these pogroms and 150,000 were left homeless after Muslim houses were systematically burnt down.

Enquiries into these events have been carried out by the authorities and many others. They leave absolutely no doubt. There was nothing spontaneous in these pogroms. They were prepared long in advance by the various satellite organisations of the BJP - in particular the World Hindu Council (VHP) and the RSS militia - possibly with the active cooperation, but at least the tacit support, of the BJP-controlled state authorities. For example a report publish by the very official National Commission for Human Rights mentions unmistakable evidence: lists of addresses which were handed out to the rioters with the instruction that these homes should be burnt down; truckloads of LPG (liquefied gas) bottles were brought to meeting points which had been circulated among the rioters. Another report mentions a campaign of religious events organised by the VHP in many villages with a large Muslim minority, during which non-Muslims were repeatedly invited to expel Muslims from their houses and villages unless they were willing to become Hindus. And it so happens that it was precisely in those villages visited by the VHP that the worst massacres of Muslims took place.

As to the BJP leaders of the state, not only did they do nothing to oppose the pogroms on the ground but subsequently, they went out their way to find excuses, if not justifications, for these cold-blooded murders. And while the state police and judiciary found the VHP and RSS officially blameless for the pogroms, they ordered the arrest of the mayor of Godhra, a small working class town where the first bloody confrontation, instantly used as a pretext by the Hindu fundamentalists to launch their pogroms, took place. Of course it is no coincidence if the mayor of Godhra is a Muslim! He has been charged with being paid by the Pakistani secret services and he will be put on trial for "intelligence with the enemy"!

The line between the BJP's demagogy - jingoistic, anti-terrorist but above all anti-Pakistani - and the outright inciting of anti-Muslim pogroms by the RSS and VHP, is indeed very thin.

By-products of the imperialist order

Such are the forces operating behind the Indo-Pakistani war. It is hard to conceive of a more revolting assortment of reactionary forces, which are willing to shed the blood of the poor masses and to throw whole populations at each other's throats, for the sole purpose of allowing a handful of parasitic politicians and generals to cling to power.

And yet, it is by relying on these forces that Bush claims to wage his crusade against terrorism on behalf of the "free" world. But this should surprise no-one. Imperialism has always enforced its domination over the poor majority of the planet by relying on the most reactionary forces it could find. How many bloody dictatorships, in Africa or elsewhere, were kept in power by the funds and weapons supplied by imperialism, that is when they were not actually brought to power by imperialism.

In addition, in the case of the Indian subcontinent, historical aberrations such as Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism, or the mafia-like parasitic machinery of the Pakistani army, are nothing but abject by-products of half a century of imperialist domination following over a century of colonial domination. This world will never be free of such murderous aberrations without first being freed from what has created them - the imperialist order itself.

1 July 2002