Following Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s speech on May 27th and the Indian government’s official response the following day, it is clear that while war clouds have temporarily receded they have most certainly not been lifted. India will wait to see “results,” i.e. what steps the Pakistan government will take to end the ability of terrorists to strike from across the border into Indian territory, including Jammu and Kashmir. One must distinguish here between two claims. Any attribution that the Musharraf government is directly behind the December 13 attack on Parliament and now the May 14 attack in Kaluchak, Jammu, is not substantiated by evidence and is, politically speaking, utterly implausible. The Musharraf government is not so foolish or naïve as to impose even further pressure on itself in circumstances when his own regime is fighting for internal survival, or to want to shift attention away from the state-sponsored anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat and the world’s criticism of the Indian government on that score.
The claim that Musharraf has done far from enough to curb fundamentalist groups determined to carry out terrorist actions in India, and has often shut his eyes to their activities, is by contrast, quite justified. This Indian government, however, has refused to make this distinction–effectively holding Musharraf culpable for any failure to end cross-border terrorist attacks. In this respect it is, like Israel, using the same dishonest, spurious, and ethically and legally untenable argument of making no distinction between actual terrorist perpetrators and the country that harbors them, a rationale that the Bush administration used to justify its assault on Afghanistan. No doubt, this makes it that much more difficult for Washington to draw this distinction to Indian attention, although it is clearly determined to prevent a war from breaking out between India and Pakistan, even as it pursues separate alliances with both countries.
In fact, if there has been no Indian military attack by its official armed forces across the border into Pakistan this time, it is because Washington said no, and India has heeded. But for how long? Herein lies the problem. Washington will put pressure on Musharraf to do more against the fundamentalist groups using Pakistan, and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, as a base to organize operations in India. But because Musharraf is not in full control, there is simply no guarantee that another terrorist attack will not take place, anymore than one can guarantee even after the U.S. war on Afghanistan that there will never be another terrorist attack on the U.S. Indeed, Islamic fundamentalist groups who are out to destabilize the Musharraf government, strike at the U.S. presence in Pakistan, and to keep the Kashmir issue boiling, would like nothing better than to provoke a war between India and Pakistan, which they believe can help them on all three counts.
Such has been the character of Indian brinkmanship after May 14, that the likelihood of a limited military strike by India the next time around, a Kargil in reverse, (U.S. presence or disapproval notwithstanding) is almost certain. The alternative would be a most humiliating climb down given the pitch, tone, and frequency of Indian official statements–“there is a limit to our patience,” an “undeclared war has been going on for two decades,” and so forth. In short, today, the hardliners within the BJP-led government have succeeded in severing the lines of possible retreat from what is in political terms nothing less than an ultimatum to Pakistan.
There are more than a few sober heads within the Indian security establishment who are disturbed by such inflexibility and its political-military implications. The probability of military actions that will lead to war between India and Pakistan, initiated by the former, becomes far greater, than it has been so far. Such an outbreak of armed hostilities has the potential to escalate to the nuclear level, even as one hopes it doesn’t ever reach that stage. Yet the willingness of hardliners within and around the BJP (and its cohort organizations promoting Hindu nationalism) to risk such possible consequences must be recognized. Why is this so?
The reasons are both external and internal. Externally, there is a widespread belief that not only must Pakistan be taught a “decisive” military lesson but that it can be so taught. Indeed, that the best or only way to “satisfactorily” resolve the Kashmir problem for India lies, above all, in defeating Pakistan. Such a view greatly reduces, when it does not rationalize away altogether, Indian culpability for creating political alienation in Kashmir through its own repressive behavior, taking the pressure off from finding a principled internal political solution to the Kashmir problem. Pakistan has cynically and brutally fished in the troubled waters of Kashmir but those waters are of India’s making. Pakistan also supported insurgency in Punjab, but India did not have to go to war with Pakistan to finally resolve that problem. The key lay in what it did internally where, admittedly, Punjabi alienation from the Union government was not so deep as in the Kashmir Valley. This is not a lesson, however, that this BJP-led government is interested in hearing or repeating.
Allied to this belief in Indian military superiority over Pakistan is the determination to call Pakistan’s “nuclear bluff.” That is to say, Pakistan must not be allowed to believe that it can shield itself from a serious conventional military defeat in at least a “limited” territorial incursion by threatening to launch its nuclear weapons. There are also those in leadership positions within the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (which is really the controlling body within the family of organizations of which the BJP is the electoral wing) who want more. They genuinely believe that Pakistan must be dismembered and destroyed. That such an approach could be the recipe for the most incredible disaster does not faze such Hindu fanatics, which is hardly surprising given the similarity of their mind-sets to their extremist Islamic counterparts in Pakistan.
There are also domestic reasons. If the BJP is to come back to power in the next general elections with an enhanced showing, then one of its best chances of doing so is to try and cash in on anti-Pakistani jingoism, whose attraction is potentially much wider than the double-edged appeal of the nakedly anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic hatred it has shown in Gujarat. Again, in this respect it is no different from its Islamic counterparts in Pakistan hoping to do the same by promoting anti-Indian jingoism. The BJP needs a war–or at least strong and sustained wartime tensions–before it brings forward the date of the next general elections. By current reckoning this could well be early next year (when elections in the state of Gujarat are also due) although elections for a new Parliament are only due in 2004.
What the anti-nuclear opponents of the May 1998 tests in Pokharan and Chagai warned against most consistently has indeed come to pass. This is the part of the world where the unthinkable–a nuclear exchange–is most likely to take place. If it happens it will be in the context of a war sparked by developments in Jammu and Kashmir anytime over the next several years. While the long-term challenge is to find a stable, final, and just solution to this problem, the short- and medium-term need is to find ways of de-nuclearizing South Asia, and to separate the militaries of the two countries perhaps through some kind of truly effective international buffer force along the Line of Control in Kashmir. The price of failure in these respects could be disastrous.