MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 24

International Socialist Review, July–August 2002

Dina Roy, Ganesh Lal & David Whitehouse

India, Pakistan, and the question of Kashmir


From International Socialist Review, Issue 24, July–August 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


NUCLEAR-ARMED regional rivals India and Pakistan pulled back from the brink of war in mid-June. With more than a million troops massed on their mutual border, politicians and generals on both sides had traded threats for weeks, each claiming that they would not hesitate to use the “nuclear option.” The results of even a brief nuclear exchange would be horrific. In just the first hour, according to a U.S. military estimate, 15 million people would be left dead or injured.

After a flurry of diplomatic activity, the crisis was averted as both governments began a process of de-escalation. With some arm-twisting from the U.S., the Pakistani government announced that it would act to stop the infiltration of militants across the border into India. The Indian government, in turn, was pressured into acknowledging the validity of this assurance from Pakistani “President General” Pervez Musharraf. Soon after, the Indian navy pulled back its warships, and India appointed a new ambassador to Pakistan.

This is only a temporary reprieve. India’s mobilization of 800,000 troops is the largest peacetime military buildup anywhere since the Second World War, and the situation at the border remains tense.

U.S. “war on terror” fuels the crisis

With the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. entered Central and South Asia in full force, and has now established military outposts in both Pakistan and Afghanistan–in addition to existing ones in former Soviet Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The U.S. now portrays CIA and Pentagon officials as vital to the security and stability of the region, and the State Department pointed to the recent de-escalation of military tensions as a diplomatic victory.

The U.S. military presence, however, may have also unleashed forces beyond its control. In the first place, it has backed the Islamist organizations into a corner. The Islamists have been driven to provoke a fight with India in the hopes that it will break the Pakistani military from its current collaborative relationship with the United States.

Secondly, the U.S. search for allies in its “war on terror” has exacerbated regional rivalries as both India and Pakistan try to forge a new partnership with U.S. power. Pakistan won the first round, as the U.S. turned to it as an ally in the war against Afghanistan. But friendship with the U.S. comes at a price, and the Pakistani government had to agree to crack down on Islamist organizations operating within its borders and within its own military. In a series of well-publicized moves, the Musharraf government banned a number of militant groups, arresting more than two thousand individuals.

Musharraf’s crackdown has been selective. The largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI)–which has longstanding roots in the army’s officer corps–has received the softest treatment, as its leaders tend to get released soon after they are arrested. In January, the JI’s top leader returned the favor by supporting the crackdown on other Islamist organizations. Later, Musharraf gave a public endorsment to the JI’s armed group in Kashmir, the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM). The HM is the only significant pro-Pakistan force in Indian-occupied Kashmir that includes members of local origin–and thus would be exempt from the ban on “cross-border terror.”

Musharraf’s strategy, in other words, has been twofold: on the one hand, to appease India, the U.S., and secularists at home with his crackdown on some of the most sectarian Islamist groups, and, on the other, to gain favor with Pakistan’s most important Islamists in order to consolidate his own power base.

In a bid to draw Musharraf into a fight with India and thereby weaken his ability to carry out the crackdown, a handful of Islamic militants launched an attack on the Indian parliament on December 13 last year. The Indian government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP), treated this attack as “India’s September 11” and began whipping up war hysteria, emulating recent U.S. tactics and rhetoric.

But the BJP’s warmongering and its “antiterrorism” rhetoric are in part a desperate attempt to deflect attention away from a crisis of legitimacy. In March, it suffered a huge defeat in state-level elections, losing control of the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, with its large Hindu majority.

At the same time, the true horror of Hindu nationalism was exposed in the state of Gujarat, the only state where the BJP is still in government. Hindu zealots belonging to a group called Shiv Sena and to the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)–with which the ruling BJP has fraternal ties–literally set the state on fire. They massacred more than 900 Muslims and displaced some 120,000 in an anti-Muslim pogrom. The chief minister of the state, Narendra Modi (an RSS man himself), gave the fascists the go-ahead, while the BJP-led government in New Delhi sat on its hands.

The BJP pushed through a series of repressive measures, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), in an extraordinary joint session of the Indian parliament on March 26. Taking its cue from the USA PATRIOT Act, POTA allows the government a free hand in dealing with “terrorist” groups. Under POTA, suspects can be detained for up to six months without being charged. Then Home Minister L.K. Advani–a Hindu nationalist hardliner who has since been raised to the position of deputy prime minister–justified the passage of POTA by stating that “state-sponsored cross-border terrorism is a kind of war and not just a law and order problem.” In other words, the BJP is trying to leverage the “war on terror” to justify domestic repression and to gain U.S. blessing for its crackdown on militancy in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Since the U.S. began last fall to demand that Musharraf take a stand against Islamists in Pakistan, Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has felt free to press similar demands. Shortly after Islamic militants attacked an Indian Army base in Jammu on May 14, the Indian military began a massive troop mobilization in the state, and tensions escalated to the brink of war. For the BJP, this was a perfect opportunity to show the U.S. that it has a right to wage its own “war on terrorism.”

Soon after, the U.S. publicly acknowledged that “cross-border terrorism” in Kashmir was a problem and began pressuring the Pakistani government to halt the flow of Islamic militants into Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir.

The Hindu right-wingers in India were emboldened to push for more. Taking its cue from the Israeli intransigence with respect to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the Indian government now claims that while the infiltration of its borders declined in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, it has begun to increase again. Indian External Affairs minister Yashwant Sinha stated recently: “Quite clearly, we are looking not only at assurances of Pakistan that infiltration from across the borders of terrorists will be permanently stopped. We are looking for visible and credible signs of that action.”

The Kashmir question

The immediate flashpoint for the crisis, of course, is the so-called “disputed territory” of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). India and Pakistan have fought three wars over J&K, including a small-scale war led on the Pakistani side by Musharraf himself, in the mountains of Kargil in 1999. Musharraf, who was then army chief to civilian prime minister Nawaz Sharif, deposed Sharif later in the year when Sharif began to distance himself from the Kargil adventure under U.S. pressure–and threatened to fire Musharraf.

Despite the longstanding nature of the dispute, the Indian government has tried, especially in the aftermath of September 11, to present the Kashmir conflict as a problem with “Islamic terrorists” infiltrating its borders from Pakistan. The recent U.S. acknowledgement of “cross-border terrorism” as the main problem in Kashmir was thus a diplomatic victory for India’s rulers. In the coming months, India will seek to capitalize on U.S. support for its “antiterror” position, and the most fanatical nationalists in the government no doubt see a war with Pakistan as the only way of settling the dispute once and for all.

But behind the talk of “disputed territory” and “terrorism” lies a gruesome history of state oppression and brutality. At the time of independence from British rule, J&K was one of 565 princely states that were to be given the option of acceding to either India or Pakistan. In 1948 Maharaja Hari Singh, the decrepit ruler of J&K, acceded to India in return for an assurance by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that a referendum would soon be held to determine the “will of the people.” The referendum never came.

Since then, the Indian military has occupied the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir, putting down every attempt at self-assertion by the Kashmiri people by rigging elections, importing Hindus from other states to serve as top administrators, imprisoning Kashmiri leaders, and terrorizing the population.

In 1989, following a rigged election, a mass national liberation movement erupted in Kashmir, to which the Indian army responded with brute force. The movement, initially led by the secular, pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), rejected both Indian and Pakistani rule and called for a single secular state in all of historic J&K. The sheer scale of repression by the Indian state–50,000–80,000 Kashmiris have died in the last decade alone–severely weakened the mass movement by 1994. Subsequently, pro-Pakistan Islamist groups have been engaged in skirmishes with the Indian armed forces, which numbered 700,000 in J&K before this year’s border buildup. Most of these groups have little or no support from a population that is both war-weary and skeptical of Pakistan.

India’s insistence that the conflict over Kashmir is a bilateral issue to be settled by India and Pakistan with no “third party” interference–and no input from Kashmiris on their own behalf–is designed to maintain the status quo, since the ultimate arbiter in a bilateral dispute would be India’s superior military might.

But the Indian government has also tried to construct the appearance of fairness in its treatment of the Kashmir problem. Thus it plans to hold “free and fair” elections in the state in September of this year, and has invited “anybody from anywhere in the world,” including the international media, to observe the election. But the fact that no outsiders will have the status of ‘‘election observers” significantly dilutes their power. Earlier this year, Indian forces arrested Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the head of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a coalition of various political organizations in J&K, as well as Yasin Malik of the JKLF, using the cover of POTA. This has revealed both the Indian government’s arrogance and its brazen hypocrisy over political freedom in J&K.

On the Pakistani side, Kashmir has long been a rallying point for all sections of the ruling class, from the landlord-dominated political elite to the military dictators to the right-wing Islamic clergy. Musharraf owes his current position to a coup conducted when Nawaz Sharif proved insufficiently militant about Kashmir. The rulers’ strategy, like India’s, gives the appearance of concern for the “will of the people” of Kashmir, as they have constantly upheld the demand for a referendum in the region. However, the so-called referendum that they propose, and that the Indian government refuses to accept, would force the Kashmiris to choose between India and Pakistan with no third option of independence–the demand that stood at the center of the Kashmiri upsurge of 1989–94.

Today, Musharraf is caught in a precarious and defensive position. In danger of being perceived as too friendly to the U.S. by Islamists at home–who taunt him with the nickname “Busharraf”–he needs to prove that he is not a stooge of the U.S. government. He has to give the appearance of being reluctant to go along, not only with U.S. dictates but also with India’s demands. To do this, he has done his own share of saber rattling–including conducting nuclear missile tests in the middle of the crisis.

As the International Socialist Review went to press, reports were re-emerging–after being discredited when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld first raised them in mid-June–of the presence of al Qaeda forces in the fraction of Kashmir that is occupied by Pakistan. True or not, the newest reports have likely been planted in the media by the Indian and U.S. governments. India seeks to undermine Musharraf’s credibility, and the U.S. seeks legitimacy for extending its war on terror. al Qaeda’s alleged presence in Pakistani Kashmir allowed Rumsfeld to float the idea of deploying U.S. troops in previously unthinkable South Asian locations–as the “war on terror” has already licensed the U.S. to do in Central Asia.

Hardening of the right-wingers

If the Islamists have been driven to adopt a more confrontational attitude in Pakistan and in Kashmir, in India the Hindu fascists have been significantly emboldened. The RSS, which heads the fascist umbrella group known as the Sangh Parivar, took the lead in calling for a nuclear attack on Pakistan. Meanwhile, the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad–another group in the Sangh–put forward demands for J&K to be split into separate states along communal (i.e., religious) lines. The RSS also called for Kashmiri assembly elections to be held under “President’s rule”–direct rule from Delhi–and for rescinding Article 370 of the Indian constitution, a long-dormant clause that promises limited autonomy to J&K.

The RSS’s political faction, the BJP, has historically supported this position, and the recent elevation of L.K. Advani, an RSS stalwart, to the position of deputy prime minister, marks a shift in elite politics to the right. However, the RSS has always had a rocky relationship with the BJP. In order to achieve electoral success, the BJP has had to water down the project of “Hindutva,” the fascist vision of creating a Hindu state in India. In the 1993 elections, after Advani and the BJP had led the demolition of the Babri mosque by thousands of fascist goons, the BJP lost 20–80 percent of the seats that it won around the country in the previous elections. A majority of the Indian population clearly did not accept the Hindu nationalist vision. A study conducted shortly after found that only 22 percent of the population actually supported the demolition of the mosque. This led the BJP to tone down its rhetoric in the 1996 elections, much to the chagrin of the RSS.

Today, after facing major losses in state elections in March and after being exposed for its complicity in the Gujarat massacres, the Hindutva agenda of the BJP has again been set back, and it is not entirely free to implement a fascist program. Thus, Advani and the BJP had to reject the RSS’s resolution for splitting up Kashmir on religious lines.

This situation could change rapidly, however, given the absence of any significant opposition to the Sangh Parivar’s agenda in mainstream politics. Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad recently raised an alarm in Frontline magazine:

Today India faces the classic situation of a pre-fascist upheaval. What used to be the political center has collapsed, with the [formerly dominant] Congress [Party] reduced to a parliamentary minority and all the rest so splintered as to be assimilated as small ineffectual groupings into support for the fascist project.

Can the left rise to the challenge?

More importantly, the organizations of the Indian left have been hamstrung in their ability to take on the BJP effectively because of their own internal weaknesses. In numerical terms, the Indian left is quite large, with two mass Communist Parties (the CPI and the CPI-M), a handful of smaller revolutionary organizations such as the CPI-ML, and reformist organizations like the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL). As shown by the mass protests that erupted in the wake of the BJP’s 1998 nuclear tests, there is a tremendous potential for opposing the militarism of the present government. Politically, however, these organizations have responded in a confusing way to the current crisis.

As long as the BJP and its allies relied solely on “Hindutva” for their mobilizations, the left responded vigorously, attacking the anti-democratic, fascist politics the former represented. But the BJP learned quickly from its past mistakes, toned down its Hindutva-related demands, and began to elaborate a bolder imperialist image, taking a hard-line stance against Kashmiri militants and “cross-border terrorism” in the name of “national unity and security” and adopting a belligerent attitude towards Pakistan.

Here, large sections of the left have stumbled, accepting as they do the essentially nationalist premise that control over Kashmir is crucial to India’s “unity” and “integrity.” While many on the left have loudly opposed the Indian military occupation and human rights abuses in Kashmir, they barely pay lip-service to the cause of self-determination. When they do, they often make concessions to Indian nationalism, so that the question of independence for Kashmir is rarely even mentioned. As a result of its failure to respond forthrightly to the single most extreme instance of Indian state oppression of Muslims–the real “Kashmir question”–the Indian left has been hamstrung in its efforts to present a credible alternative to the Sangh Parivar’s communal agenda, which includes both belligerence toward Pakistan and the scapegoating of Muslims at home.

The Indian left can only counter the BJP and its fascist allies today by categorically rejecting the nationalist premises behind the latest adventures. This would mean an unequivocal defense of the right of Kashmiri self-determination, to the point of secession. A bold and aggressive policy of winning support for Kashmiri self-determination would also play an important part in breaking down the barriers between Hindus and Muslims within the Indian working class. This is the only way to undermine the fascism of the Sangh and of its political agents in the BJP.

Supporting genuine self-determination for Kashmir, including the option of independence, is also crucial to building Pakistan’s left from its current state of extreme weakness. The left needs to help workers break from the cardinal principle of the Pakistani state–the idea that Pakistan exists to defend all Muslims regardless of class. Pakistan’s vast inequality exposes the hollowness of this principle, but so does the sectarian basis of what counts as “Muslim.” The Ahmadiya minority has been excluded from legal consideration as Muslims for some twenty years, and the state routinely tolerates attacks by zealots of the Sunni majority upon Shia Muslims. Most Kashmiri Muslims belong to the the Sufi wing of Shia Islam, which helps account for why joining Pakistan is unattractive to so many Kashmiris. Leftists in Pakistan need to emphasize these points to promote working class (as opposed to religious) identification with the Kashmiri struggle and to open the question of a common front with Indian Hindu workers–both against war and against the rulers of both states.

No long-lasting solution to the crisis facing South Asia exists outside this framework. The rulers of both India and Pakistan have shown that they are willing to go to monstrous extremes to achieve their goals. But the working classes of both countries have nothing to gain either from living under current levels of military spending or from a communalism that threatens to drag the entire region down the road to nuclear holocaust. By championing the right to self-determination of the Kashmiris, Indian and Pakistani workers can show the way forward to a different future.

Last updated on 15 August 2022