Differing Agendas in South Asia



Once again, India and Pakistan are on the brink of war. The two countries have fought wars with each other in 1947, 1965 and 1971, and fought smaller clashes in 1999 and various other times. This time both states have nuclear weapons. The current crisis began December 13, 2001, when a group of terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament. The Indian government claimed that Pakistan was responsible, because the insurgent groups that have been fighting the Indian government in Kashmir (and committing terrorist atrocities in the process) are based in Pakistan. India claimed that if the U.S. could attack Afghanistan for being a terrorist base, so could India attack Pakistan. The logic is the same. India was correct. The logic is the same, and just as the U.S. attacking Afghanistan is a disaster for millions of people, so a war between India and Pakistan would be a disaster for millions of people.

The U.S. bears considerable responsibility for the crisis in South Asia. It used Pakistan to fight its proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Pakistan, in the process, created a network of terrorists with connections to its military and intelligence services that it can no longer control. At the same time the new Bush doctrine, which states that those who harbor terrorists are as deserving of attack as terrorists themselves and that nations in their “self-defense” have the right to issue ultimatums and unilaterally judge the response and carry out punishment, provides India with a precedent for escalating the conflict.

For me, a leftist from the third world living in the first world, there is a certain difficulty in criticizing the Administration of a third world country, like India or Pakistan. Such criticism already abounds in the mainstream and there isn’t really a need to present scathing criticisms of the corruption or brutality of the elites of such countries. Nor is there a lack of lamentation about the terrible poverty, ill health, lack of infrastructure and protection of human rights suffered by the people of such countries. What is lacking in the mainstream, first world press is an analysis of the role first world states play in this— the legacy of imperialism and the imbalance between north and south, rich countries and poor.

Another danger in criticizing third world states is that the current world is one where the militarily powerful, especially the U.S. and the UK, are looking for pretexts to intervene in third world countries. When they do intervene, they commit huge atrocities and do not solve any of the problems they claim to want to solve. But they love the veneer of legitimacy that selective human rights defenders and critics of third world elites can provide. Those who seriously want to prevent atrocities, regardless of who is committing them, don’t want to provide such pretexts for intervention.

So why criticize third world regimes?: because the criticisms are true. Atrocities are atrocities, and not liking the atrocities of big, imperial powers ought to imply not liking the atrocities of regional powers or imperial allies or independent terrorists. Another reason is because the people of third world countries are suffering not only from the actions of first world elites, but from their own elites as well.

But the most important reason to be critical of third world states is because it could have some positive impact. India is a big country, a regional power allowed some room to maneuver by the great powers (unlike small countries like Haiti or Guatemala) with a free press and important activist movements. In India, informed dissent can contribute to constraining state violence. Even the most powerful states or the most dictatorial can be moved to act more responsibly by international attention and pressure.

The India-Pakistan Conflict

The conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is complicated. India’s status as a regional power with greater resources compared to Pakistan has led to Pakistani elite fears that Pakistan could not survive without alliances to other powers, such as China and the U.S., Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. and the distorting effects this has had on Pakistan’s internal politics and foreign policy has helped destabilize the region. From this geopolitical standpoint, both states have reasons to fear for their security, contributing to the escalating arms race between the countries.

Another layer is the nationalistic one. India and Pakistan were both part of British India and the history of South Asia shows the border between the countries to be somewhat artificial (like most borders in this world). Both India and Pakistan are huge, multireligious, multiethnic countries. Both have histories of suppressing and accommodating separatist movements. Pakistan is a Muslim state by constitution, while India is a secular one. (Writers have pointed out the irony that in 2001-2, the leader of Muslim Pakistan is a secular general and the leader of secular India is a Hindu communalist). At its founding, Pakistan had two parts, East and West Pakistan, separated by India. East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan and became Bangladesh in 1971 in a war between India and Pakistan. Pakistani nationalists fear that India has never really accepted Pakistan’s existence and so every conflict with India, every concession made to India, is over Pakistan’s survival. Indian nationalists have a similar fear of a domino effect. If Pakistan can separate because it is a Muslim country, what of the other 200 million Muslims in India—would they separate as well? What about linguistic separatist movements? Is India to be divided into many, many homogeneous units that can then be easily dominated by the great powers?

Still another element in the conflict is the specifically communal one, as distinct from nationalism. Not only are there the interests of states and the nationalist objectives and fears for the future of these states and their continuing territorial integrity, power, and so on, there are also attempts to change the political basis of both countries. The ultimate goal of the Hindu right in India is to turn India into a Hindu state. The goal of the Islamic right in Pakistan is to get rid of whatever secularism remains in the country (and throughout the region). The weapons that these elements use are the usual ones: political violence of various kinds, scapegoating of minorities for economic problems, the suppression of dissent and free expression, and mobilization on the basis of communal identity, not on the basis of shared political or economic agendas.

South Asia is desperately poor. Its population lacks access to basic education and health care. Its land and resources are not used for the benefit of its population, but for local elites and international corporations. It lacks the infrastructure needed to prevent natural events from becoming disasters that kill hundreds of thousands of people. Basic human rights are not protected by governments and political participation is highly constrained, especially by the failure of popular education, but also by arbitrary police and military power. Many of these problems are becoming worse over time, not better, in the face of economic restructuring, free market fundamentalism, communalism and now the “war against terrorism.” There is an urgent need for a re-orientation of South Asia’s capacities and resources towards the development of its own people and away from World-Bank-led megaprojects, export-led “growth,” and war. This re-orientation is the agenda of many South Asian social movements, like those in the National Alliance of People’s Movements in India (but also many others).

The political leadership in South Asia is (with important exceptions) mostly drawn from its most economically privileged classes. They aren’t inclined to embrace a social agenda that would lead, by empowering the people and to their own disempowerment. Even if they were, they know they would have to contend with the great powers if their decision to work for a social agenda conflicted with the agenda of the rich countries. They are inclined by their position and their ideology to pursue nationalist and state objectives, justify them using national and communal ideologies, and to try to contain and divert the social agenda and social movements. It is this kind of shell game that led both nations to provocatively test their nuclear weapons in 1998 and is probably partly to blame for the current flare-up as well.

Why do the people of India and Pakistan go along with this? The first answer is that they do not—as social movements that reject communalism and struggle for survival and justice attest. The second answer is because, economically and politically disempowered, they settle for national or communal agendas as a consolation prize. The third answer is fear: if others are mobilizing on communal lines and in the absence of a strong secular alternative, you have little choice but to do so yourself, lest you find yourself surrounded by enemies and without friends.

There are clearly a number of conflicting agendas in South Asia and not all of them can win. The state and national agenda, especially in alliance with “globalization,” seems to crowd out the hope of a social agenda. South Asia can afford to feed an arms race or its people, but not both.

A Democratic Solution for Kashmir

The starting point for any solution in Kashmir is the self-determination of Kashmiris. But self-determination is so vague that those who have acted in violation of it (India and Pakistan) have claimed that they are defending it.

Even though most of the history of Kashmir is one of “Kashmiriyat”—a unique syncretic culture where Hindus and Muslims coexisted—there are significant regional differences within the state. Ladakh is a predominantly Buddhist part of the state that borders China. Jammu is predominantly Hindu, ethnically Dogra, where the people feel closer to India than to Pakistan. The Kashmir Valley, predominantly Muslim, on the Indian side of the “line of control” (the “border” between India and Pakistan), has been suffering a counterinsurgency war that killed about 3,000 in 2001 and about 34,000 in the past 11 years, according to Amnesty International. On the other side of the line of control, encompassing part of the Kashmir Valley, is Azad Kashmir (or Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir or PoK) controlled by Pakistan, where human rights violations have also been reported and where some of the militant groups that have committed acts of terrorism in Kashmir and in India are based. Any solution would have to take into account this complexity and protect the autonomy of all of these different groups.

A plebescite is not a panacea. A plebescite is necessary, to be sure. But there are some additional thorny questions. Will there be a single vote for all of Kashmir or will there be a vote for each of Ladakh, Jammu, the Kashmir Valley, and Azad Kashmir (PoK)? Muslims are a majority in the valley and, in Kashmir overall. Hindus are a majority in Jammu. Buddhists are a majority in Ladakh. Separate plebescites for Jammu, Ladakh, and the valley would probably yield, depending on the options voted on, a very different outcome than a single plebescite for the state as a whole. What would the options voted on be: total independence (for a landlocked new country, which in practice could guarantee its domination by the U.S. or by its big South Asian neighbors), accession to India, accession to Pakistan, partition? Plebescites, elections—votes of any kind are part of a democratic process, as is people formulating options together, discussing them, communicating freely, debating in a free press, associating freely. A democratic solution for Kashmir means that the Kashmiris get to do all of this. For this to happen, both India and Pakistan have to stop using Kashmir as the site of their power games and start taking the social agenda of Kashmiris, as well as the rest of South Asians, much more seriously.

So Pakistan must stop supporting terrorists and so must India stop violating human rights in Kashmir. There is no reason why both states cannot stop doing this right now, no reason one side has to wait for the other to do their part, and no reason they do not, except that social pressure from the people hasn’t reached strength sufficient to compel them to do so. But movements all over South Asia are fighting to do just that.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.