As tensions between India and Pakistan began building late last year, high-level delegations from the United States and Britain flew in and out of New Delhi and Karachi lobbying for peace. That’s not all they were lobbying for. With the scent of blood in the air, the arms jackals have poured into South Asia, sometimes in the suits of leading government officials.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited India in January, ostensibly it was to calm troubled waters. But according to Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes, Mr. Blair also was pushing a $1.43 billion deal for India to purchase 66 British-made Hawk fighter-bombers. The Hawk deal is part of a drive by British arms manufacturers to make a killing from the crisis. London is also selling the Indians Jaguar bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons, in addition to peddling tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft guns, small arms, and ammunition.
The British are not alone in this seamy business.
In February, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited New Delhi. Shortly thereafter, U.S. arms maker Raytheon closed a $146 million deal to sell the Indians counter-artillery radar. The United States has approved 20 other defense agreements, including a contract for General Electric to build engines for India’s multimillion-dollar Light Combat Aircraft project.
U.S. technology is also slipping in through the back door via weapons agreements between Israel and India. New Delhi is buying the $1 billion Phalcon airborne radar, which is based on the U.S. AWAC surveillance system, and is negotiating to buy the Arrow anti-missile system jointly developed by the United States and Israel. Boeing makes 52% of the Arrow’s components.
“India realizes it needs to be as close to the U.S. and Israeli technology as possible if it is to modernize its armed forces,” Indian defense analyst P.R. Chari told the Financial Times.
India is one of the biggest weapons markets in the world, with an annual budget of $14 billion. The United States is the world’s No. 1 weapons dealer, with $18.6 billion in arms sales last year.
But is pouring massive amounts of sophisticated weapons into what is undeniably the most dangerous flashpoint on the globe a good idea? It has certainly frightened the Pakistanis.
“We are … alarmed by India’s relentless pursuit and acquisition of defense equipment that is far beyond India’s genuine needs,” said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan.
With 35% of its budget already devoted to the military, Pakistan is in no position to match India’s weapons-buying spree. But as Pakistan falls further behind in the conventional sphere, the Pakistanis have made it clear that they will counterbalance that weakness with nuclear weapons.
India has rationalized its military buildup as part of a “war on terrorism” and has successfully hung a “Muslim extremist” label on Pakistan. But the Indian government has an extremist streak of its own. After the intercommunal riots in which more than 1,000 people were killed earlier this year, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee blamed the violence on Muslims, who he claimed “do not want to live with others.”
His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is closely tied to the RSS, a shadowy Hindu extremist group associated with the assassination of India’s founder, Mahatma Gandhi. The initials stand for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the Organization of National Volunteers.
The RSS runs more than 20,000 private schools in India to pursue its goal of Hindutva–creating an all-Hindu society. The RSS and its close ally, the World Hindu Council, led the intercommunal riots that destroyed the Babri mosque at Ayodhya in 1992, sparking tens of thousands of deaths across India–the vast majority of them Muslims. The present deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani, led the movement to destroy the mosque and build a temple to the Hindu god Ram in its place.
In short, this is not as simple as “civilized good guys” vs. “terrorist bad guys.”
The solution to reducing tensions in South Asia is not more weapons, but a serious international effort to resolve the 55-year-old standoff between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Reducing that complex business to black-and-white, end-terrorism formulas and feeding an arms race on the subcontinent could end up getting a lot of people killed.