The world is nearer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The United States and the Soviet Union came close to a nuclear exchange, when Khrushchev based nuclear-armed missiles on Cuba. Fortunately, US imperialism and the Soviet bureaucracy negotiated their way out of the crisis, despite pressure from the US military to launch a pre-emptive strike against Cuba. They were both stable regimes, at that time, with a clear understanding of their interests and worked out military strategies. Today, India and Pakistan are very different. Both have unstable regimes of crisis. Musharraf is a shaky military dictator, while the Vajpayee government is led by the ultra-rightwing, Hindu-nationalist BJP.
Once again, Kashmir is the focus of the conflict. Kashmir has been disputed for 55 years, the result of British imperialism’s divide-and-rule partition of the subcontinent when it relinquished direct rule in 1947. The Pakistan ruling class considered that, as a majority Muslim state, Kashmir should belong to Pakistan. The hereditary Maharaja of Kashmir, however, was a Hindu and opted for India. Far from being concerned with the people of Kashmir, who have been denied democracy and self-determination, both India and Pakistan want to control the state to extend their territory, power and prestige.
Kashmir has already led to two wars between India and Pakistan, many crises, repeated military mobilisations, and continuous threats and counter-threats. But it would be a mistake to believe that the present crisis is just one more episode. Over a million troops, armed with modern weaponry, are now mobilised along the Indo-Pakistan border. Ultimately, this is an expression of the deep crisis in both countries. The landlords and capitalists on both sides have been incapable of securing economic progress, democracy or social harmony. Many millions on both sides live in dire poverty, lacking basic health and education provision. Both countries are torn by national, ethnic, and religious conflict.
A chain of events has pushed both regimes into head-on collision. India mobilised its army to the border following an attack on 13 December on the Indian parliament by ‘jihadis’, Islamic paramilitaries. India holds the Pakistan regime responsible, calling on Musharraf to close down the jihadi bases and hand over those allegedly responsible. More incidents followed, however. In May, Islamic militants attacked an Indian army base near Jammu, killing 34 Indian soldiers and members of their families.
Speaking to troops in Kashmir, the Indian premier, Vajpayee, said: "India is forced to fight a war thrust on it and we will emerge victorious… it’s time to fight a decisive battle". For the BJP government, the war mobilisation is a desperate attempt to shore up its political support following a series of recent election losses. In Gujarat, the only state controlled by the BJP, state officials colluded in a horrendous anti-Muslim pogrom, resulting in over 2,000 deaths, one of the worst communal outrages since 1947. The push to war also reflects the deeper ambitions of the Indian ruling class. Under cover of the US’s ‘war against terrorism’, they have seized on recent terrorist attacks to try to ‘settle’ the issue of Kashmir once and for all.
On the other side, Musharraf, under intense pressure from the US, again promised to curb incursion across the Line of Control which separates Pakistan-controlled from India-controlled Kashmir. Yet Pakistan carried out a new round of missile tests. While denying that Pakistan was supporting jihadist incursions into India, Musharraf proclaimed "a liberation struggle is going on in Kashmir and Pakistan cannot be held responsible for any actions taken against Indian oppression".
Musharraf is balancing on a knife edge. His support for the US offensive against the Taliban regime and al Qa-ida forces in Afghanistan has provoked a tide of opposition within Pakistan. It has also brought him into conflict with a section of the military and its ISI intelligence wing, who armed and trained the Taliban forces and still maintain links with Islamic paramilitary groups. Under pressure, Musharraf arrested many of the Islamic militant leaders, but released most of them. He has repeatedly claimed that he will take all the necessary steps to curb terrorist organisations. But he clearly does not have control over some sections of the military who are still giving them active support.
After the rout by the US of Taliban and al Qa’ida forces in Afghanistan, many of them returned to Pakistan. The US victory in Afghanistan (which has not secured stability and peace there) triggered a new jihad offensive in Kashmir. This has overwhelming mass sympathy within Pakistan. The Islamic paramilitaries are aiming not only to hit India, but to undermine Musharraf’s position. That is why has to do a balancing act, trying to appease the US while avoiding outraging support for Kashmiri liberation from Indian control.
All the ingredients for war are present. Only on 29 May was it announced that the US defence secretary, Rumsfeld, would travel to Pakistan (following the futile visit of US envoy Christine Rocca, and equally ineffective visits by Jack Straw and Chris Patten from the EU). The US’s primary concern, however, is to prevent Pakistan from withdrawing forces from the Afghan border, diverting forces (as the US sees it) from the ‘war against terrorism’. But the Indo-Pakistan conflict is, in reality, far more serious. A war would provoke deep crises in both countries. It would completely destabilise the whole South Asian region, with repercussions further afield. Any semblance of a ‘new world order’ under the domination of the US superpower would be completely shattered.
War is not inevitable – it may be postponed for some time. But if a war does take place a nuclear exchange is possible. In fact, it is more possible than even in the Cuban missile crisis.
A limited war?
One serious incident could trigger war. In the present tense situation, having declared a ‘decisive fight’, Vajpayee’s only policy option, unless Pakistan retreats, appears to be to launch an attack across the Line of Control. Many commentators console themselves with the idea that it would be a ‘limited war’. Past episodes of fighting between Indian and Pakistani forces in Kashmir, they note, have not led to full-blown conflict. In the first period of Clinton’s presidency, however, "Pakistan came within a few minutes of a pre-emptive [nuclear] launch, having misinterpreted Indian army manoeuvres near the border [at Zarb-i-Momin]", writes the Washington based commentator, Christopher Hitchins (Daily Mirror, 23 May). "The US officials who dealt with that emergency still go pale when they remember it – it was much closer and more frightening that the Cuba crisis."
In 1999 conflict broke out near Kargil on Kashmir’s mountainous northern border, when Pakistan-backed forces attempted to retake a strip of territory taken by India in an earlier skirmish. That crisis was only defused when the US put intense pressure on the then-Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who withdrew Pakistani forces from the area.
The current situation is far more serious. India is much more the likely to respond to any incidents by launching a military attack. This might be planned as a limited ‘symbolic strike’ not a major offensive. But the lesson of history is that armed conflicts rarely go according to plan. They have a logic of their own, and accidents can play a fatal part.
However limited, any strike by India will almost certainly be met by a Pakistani counter-attack. Musharraf has already warned that his forces would "take the offensive into Indian territory", describing Pakistan’s policy as "an offensive defence". (Guardian, 28 May) If either side appears to be facing defeat, they are likely to escalate their intervention.
India has a three-to-one superiority in conventional weapons, and has declared a ‘no first-use nuclear policy’. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been quite open in proclaiming a nuclear first-use strategy intended to compensate for its conventional weakness.
"The problem is," writes Amin Saikal (International Herald Tribune, 23 May), "the war may not remain limited for long, because in striking back Pakistan may well hit Indian Punjab, which is densely populated, a vital granary and close to the heartland of central India. This could lead to an all-out war, including a nuclear exchange…"
India is unlikely to strike at Pakistan across the international boundary (as opposed to the Line of Control through Kashmir), but it is possible that Pakistan could strike back across the international border.
There is also the danger that once fighting starts, an individual field commander might decide to launch a nuclear strike. Some reports suggest that Pakistan has already deployed nuclear armed missiles in the field. Neither Pakistan nor India has the sophisticated systems that exist in the US and other Western powers to assure the safety, security and control of nuclear weapons under war conditions.
Bush and other Western leaders have appeared complacent about the danger of nuclear war, at least up until now. Behind the scenes, however, the tops of the military and intelligence establishments are extremely alarmed. "US and European officials," writes David Ignatius, editor of the International Herald Tribune, "are increasingly worried about what could happen… they warn that all the ingredients are in place for a disastrous chain of miscalculation on the order of August 1914, when over-armed European nations blundered into world war one." (IHT, 11 May)
Presenting their latest intelligence assessment, Pentagon and state department officials "said they wanted to counter any false perception that India and Pakistan… were simply going through a well-rehearsed dance of threat and counter-threat. ‘We just don’t know where the "red lines" are any more,’ an administration official said, adding that president Bush and his senior advisors were not confident that the Indians and the Pakistanis did, either." (New York Times, 28 May)
At the same time, "British intelligence sources voice fears that the two countries were locked on a path to the world’s first nuclear exchange." (The Times, 24 May) "British military chiefs are drawing up plans for dealing with the consequences of a nuclear war on the Indian subcontinent, which they now believe to be a ‘real possibility’."
If Pakistan were to resort to a first-strike, then it is very likely that India would retaliate. A ‘senior Western diplomat’ commented: "If there was a nuclear strike and part of the Indian [nuclear] stockpiles survives, don’t you think the Indians will definitely retaliate?" (Financial Times, 27 May)
A full-scale nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could kill up to twelve million people immediately and cause up to seven million non-fatal casualties, according to a recent assessment by the Pentagon (New York Times, 28 May). Even a limited war, with only a small number of warheads being detonated, would have a cataclysmic effect. Individual nuclear warheads are thought to be capable of producing a 20 kilo-tonne blast, the equivalent of 20,000 tonnes of TNT. This is comparable to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Experts with Jane’s Defence Review believe that Pakistan has up to 150 warheads and India 250. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates the Indian arsenal as up to 40 nuclear weapons, and the Pakistani stockpile as up to 20. The warheads can be delivered by combat aircraft or missiles.
The effects of any nuclear exchange would be catastrophic. Apart from millions of human casualties, there would be a long-term social breakdown, with famine and the spread of disease. Medical and other emergency resources would be overwhelmed. Radioactive contamination would spread, causing more and more casualties, as well as incalculable long-term health effects – across the region and globe. Kamal Chenoy, a leader of India’s Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, commented: "I’m afraid our political elite do not understand that if we bomb Lahore, people will die in Amritsar as soon as the wind changes." (Daily Telegraph, 30 May)
The arms bazaar
Soon after India conducted its first underground nuclear test, Pakistan launched its own nuclear programme. Zulfiqar Bhutto, the prime minister, declared that Pakistan would "go for nuclear status even if we have to eat grass". Ever since, two of the world’s poorest countries have engaged in an accelerating arms race, both nuclear and conventional. This has accelerated in the last few years (rising 23% in real terms between 1998-2000). India now spends $13.94 billion (2.5% of GDP) on its military, while Pakistan, with a much smaller economy, spends $3.3 billion (4.2% of GDP).
The Indian subcontinent is now the biggest arms bazaar in the world, with the US, Britain, Russia, France and other powers all rushing in to sell weaponry. Between 1992-2001 India imported a total of $8.2 billion-worth of arms, while Pakistan imported $5.5 billion. The Blair government is currently trying to conclude a deal to sell Hawk fighter aircraft to India. According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the price of a single Hawk fighter would be enough to provide 1.5 million people with a clean water supply for life.
The threat of nuclear war in South Asia is the most threatening aspect of the present crisis of world imperialist domination and capitalism. The capitalists and their landlord allies, represented by corrupt, nationalistic political leaders, have no solution – and this poses the threat of war. The choice for humankind really is socialism or barbarism.
India has a powerful working class. On India’s independence day (16 April) there was a public sector general strike of over ten million workers against privatisation.
Regrettably, however, neither of the Communist Parties – CPI(M) and the CPI – has put forward an independent socialist working class alternative. They have both have embraced capitalism and in the present crisis, not only have they given the BJP-dominated government support in its fight against ‘terrorism’, but have even called upon US imperialism to politically intervene.
They have been incapable of cutting across the BJP’s chauvinist purges against minorities, and its nationalistic offensive on the issue of Kashmir.
A mass workers party with socialist policies could have a decisive effect on the situation in the subcontinent. A socialist intervention would also arouse worldwide support from workers.
Socialists in India, Pakistan and Kashmir would support the call for mass protests of workers, peasants and young people in all three countries. These should be the first to forging links between the masses in all three and building a socialist workers alternative to capitalism and war in the region.
The key points of a socialist programme for the subcontinent are: The withdrawal of US imperialism and other Western powers, now intervening under cover of the ‘war against terrorism’. All nuclear arms should be scrapped. Arms expenditure should be cut, with resources being directed towards economic development and social provision for the population.
At the same time, there should be a mobilisation against communal pogroms – the ‘internal war’ – against Muslims and other minorities.
In Pakistan, socialists stand for the overthrow of the military dictatorship, and the restoration of all democratic and workers’ rights.
The conflict over Kashmir, cannot be solved under capitalism by either India or Pakistan. The people of Kashmir must have the democratic right to self determination. The establishment of an independent socialist Kashmir, together with a socialist India and Pakistan, and the formation of a voluntary democratic socialist confederation in the region is the only way to resolve this crisis and defend the rights of all peoples of the region.
The rule of the landlords and capitalists is the source of all exploitation, repression, and corruption – socialists stand for the overthrow of the ruling class in both India and Pakistan, and the establishment of democratic socialist states.
National conflicts within and between India and Pakistan will only be resolved on the basis of a voluntary socialist confederation of the subcontinent.
This article will appear in The Socialist (paper of the British section of the CWI) on 6 June 2002.