By Cathy Nugent
The threat of war between Pakistan and India over disputed territory in Kashmir has been building since December 2001, when Kashmiri armed fighters attacked the Indian parliament, killing 14 people. At that time Indian government demanded the military government of General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan act decisively against Kashmiri "terrorists".
In mid-May, after an attack by a Islamic jihadi group on an army base in Indian-occupied Kashmir, in which 30 people were killed, the Indian government became more belligerent still. Prime Minister Vajpayee talked of wining a "decisive battle" against Pakistan. He said Musharraf is not doing enough against the jihadi groups operating in Kashmir.
War now looks both an imminent and a frightening prospect. After December 2001 both India and Pakistan increased their numbers of troops guarding the "Line of Control", the border which separates Pakistani-controlled Azad Kashmir and the Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir state. An estimated one million troops are now in the area. Pakistan has just completed a series of tests on its nuclear missiles. Neither India nor Pakistan will rule out the use of nuclear weapons.
When Musharraf says he cannot guarantee that Kashmiri "militants" will stop their campaign he is possibly telling the truth. Many of these groups are Islamist-jihadists. Although nurtured by the Pakistani secret service (Inter Services Intelligence/ISI), they will pursue their goals independently. Like those other "holy warriors" once backed by Pakistan, the Taliban, they will not willingly compromise. On the other hand, it is true that Musharraf has not, for his own reasons, yet employed the very considerable repressive capacity of the Pakistani state against the Islamists.
Kashmir has been a focus for Indian and Pakistani rivalry since Indian independence and partition in 1947. These countries have gone to war over the territory three times - in 1947-8, 1972 and in 1999 - with many skirmishes in between. The political climate after 11 September has given a new dimension to the historic conflict. The Indian government's claim to the moral high-ground on the issue of "terrorism" is obscenely hypocritical: it has used unbridled state terrorism against the Kashmiri people and it backs "counter-insurgency" groups in Kashmir. Still, the US-led "war on terrorism" has given India leverage to press their claims against Pakistan and they have used it shamelessly. Moreover the political climate makes the prospect of war more likely.
Pakistan and India's conflicts over Kashmir have always had next to nothing to do with the wishes of the Kashmiri people. Both regional powers have tried to thwart the Kashmiri independence movement. Governments of both these regional powers have used Kashmir as safety valves for domestic troubles. And such troubles lie behind the conflict in 2002.
India's ruling party, the Hindu-chauvinist BJP, got poor results in recent state elections. It has been criticised for its handling of pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat this year in which 2,000 were killed. Attacking the Muslim state is a "safer" way for them to pander to Hindu chauvinism.
According to the Pakistani Labour Party the recent referendum which guaranteed Musharraf the Presidency for a further five years was a complete sham, with the majority of the electorate boycotting the poll. National Assembly elections are due in October. War talk over Kashmir is an obvious populist ploy for unpopular politicians to boost their ratings. Musharraf must also soothe his fellow generals, who will not want compromise over Kashmir. It looks as if Musharraf is playing a balancing role between the military and civilian political forces and Pakistan's international allies.
The US and the UK will want stability in the region above all else. In the UK's case they want a market for Harrier jets and the like, uncomplicated by the pressure to take sides between India and Pakistan.
So much for the grubby concerns of Indian and Pakistani rulers. What of the rights of the Kashmiris?
Neither Pakistan nor India can lay claims to "ownership" of Kashmir. National boundaries in the sub-continent are quite arbitrary - it is a patchwork of regional, ethnic, tribal and religious entities. Kahsmir is such a patchwork in itself - a Muslim majority with a large Hindu minority and a smaller but geographically distinct Buddist minority as well as a Sikh minority. Nonetheless a history of division, war and oppression has brought very many Kashmiris, probably a majority, to the desire for independence.
Before 1947 Kashmir was a "princely state" - its destiny in the hands of its aristocratic Hindu ruler, Hari Singh. In 1947 Kashmir could have joined up with Pakistan or India, or it could have declared independence. The newly created Muslim confessional state of Pakistan wanted to incorporate "Muslim Kashmir" and dominate the north of the continent. Pashtun tribes from Pakistan invaded Kashmir in October 1947, and Hari Singh turned to India, allowing it to annex Kashmir.
In 1949 the UN negotiated a "Line of Control". Some of the north-west territories of Kashmir (population is now 2.5 million) were given to Pakistan but these have never been fully incorporated into Pakistan. Most of the rest of Kashmir (population now 8 million), including the fertile vale of Kashmir, was given to India. India promised to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir to decide its future but this has never been held.
India and Pakistan fought another 17 day war in 1965. In 1972 the "Line of Control" was renegotiated. Some of historical Kashmir is in China.
In 1999 a brief very violent clash took place in the territory when Pakistani-backed forces infiltrated the Indian-controlled state.
At the time of partition a minority of Kashmiris would have been pro-Pakistan and supported the main Pakistani party, the Muslim League. However the majority would have backed Sheikh Abdullah, a secular nationalist (albeit one who was often ambivalent on the question of independence). In the early 50s Abdullah, who headed a state government in Kashmir, began to be more critical of India who had promised the region a "special status" within the Indian union, but failed to deliver. When Abdullah began talks with the Pakistani government he was arrested. This started a way of life for him - of arrests, trials, imprisonments, releases, defiance by him and further arrests - which went on right up until the 70s. Thus the Kashmiri nationalist movement was suppressed by the Indians.
At the end of the 80s Kashmiri resistance changed. Although there had been a secular nationalist armed group since 1965, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (as it was later known), was now being challenged by Islamist armed groups. Their objective was sometimes the same - complete independence. But some also wanted unification with Pakistan. This escalation in resistance was preceded by an increase in Indian state repression. Rajiv Ghandi as Prime Minister in India abolished the state's own government during the 80s and put his own appointed governor in charge. Abdullah's successor as leader of the most mainstream secular nationalists, the National Conference - his son Farooq - unfortunately wanted to co-operate with the Indian regime. Farooq lost a lot of support. A political vacuum was thereby created, into which the Islamists could step.
India responded to the armed resistance with brutal repression which has not really abated. 30,000 people, on all sides, have died in Kashmir in the last eleven years. House to house searches, arbitrary killings by the army, rapes and tortures have been reported by human rights groups. Human rights abuses on the Pakistani side have also been reported.
Such abuse has predicatably led to the growth of the Islamist groups, who are now probably the strongest element in the Kashmiri resistance. Where Islamist groups flourish there will be attacks on the more secular, more "moderate" people: this month one of the leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (an umbrella group which includes some of the more secular nationalists as well as some Islamists) was assassinated by a jihadi group.
India promises fresh elections in Kashmir soon and a new "clean" regime in the country. This is an important part no doubt of the Indian government's calculations. But most political Kashmiris will not be impressed by these promises. Indeed Kashmiri elections during the 90s were all heavily boycotted.
In Kashmir the issue is one of "self-determination". Socialists support that completely, despite the political coloration of part of the Kashmiri independence movement. We should have no truck with the jihadi groups, but solidarise with the secular groups.
We also have to be clear that "self-determination" is not straightforward. If a plebiscite were held today in the territories and the majority wanted independence - as seems likely - and that was the only thing on offer, it would not amount to self-determination for many Kashmiris. Not those who want to be part of Pakistan. Or the Hindu and Buddist minorities who want to be part of India. Those minorities ought to have rights in any political settlement - perhaps some federal autonomy and confederal ties with with the larger states.
Certainly no free and fair plebiscite could be held while Indian and Pakistani armies are in Kashmir. The troops should get out now and the Indian and Pakistani states should leave the people to decide their fate.
We stand on the brink of war in the region because of the dreadful political circumstances in Pakistan and India. Tension between the two countries and conflict within Kashmir has got worse as religious fundamentalism, in both countries, has grown. A war between the two states, even with conventional weapons, would result an appalling waste of life. It would of course be complete disaster on an unimaginable scale if nuclear weapons were used. We need an urgent labour movement campaign to put pressure on both sides in this conflict to back off. We cannot trust our own government in this matter - a government which can rule out an arms embargo even as we stand on the brink of nuclear war. A government with a Defence Minister like Geoff Hoon who goes on TV just to brag about how he would use nuclear arms, "if necessary".
In the long run only a working-class alternative, one that organises for the unity of working people in the Indian sub-continent, can find a solution. We can help by making solidarity with the peace movement in India. And making solidarity with the working class opposition - groups like the Pakistani Labour Party - to military-Islamist rule in Pakistan.