Raising the stakes in Kashmir

IN THE aftermath of the 11 September carnage in the US the world situation has changed significantly. Half-a-million soldiers have been massed along the Indian-Pakistani border, including Kashmir, the largest mobilisation of armed forces since 1971. “We don’t play soldiers on the border… what I’m doing is for real. I have not gone to do an exercise”, remarked the Indian army chief, General Sunderajan Padmanabhan, at a press conference on 11 January. Talk is of a full readiness for war with Pakistan.

The latest stand-off between the two regional powers, both armed with nuclear weapons, was sparked by the 13 December attack on the Indian parliament, which India claims was perpetrated by a Kashmiri Islamic group backed by Pakistan. Fourteen people were killed including the five assailants.

Historically, the root causes of the Kashmir conflict are embedded in the partition of India by British imperialism in 1947. The policy of the British ruling class – divide and rule – incited communalism and created religious and national divisions which resulted in millions of people migrating to either side of the new states. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the first war over Kashmir caused by the partition of the subcontinent. India and Pakistan have subsequently gone to war over Kashmir in 1965 and 1971, and came close to an outright conflict in the Kargil Hills, Northern Kashmir, in 1999.

During the 1990s, Kashmiri people took part in massive protests against India and for their right to self-determination. During that decade, tens of thousands of Kashmiris were killed. Over 700,000 Indian armed forces, including paramilitaries and Border Security Forces, were deployed in Indian-occupied Kashmir (IOK) prior to the present stand-off.

The armed struggle against India in IOK was initiated in 1988 by Kashmiri nationalists based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) and supported by Pakistan’s military dictatorship under General Zia ul-Haq. By the beginning of 1990, however, the nationalists were sidelined by the military establishment. Various ‘jihadi’ groups were formed, funded and trained in camps run by the Pakistani intelligence agencies in POK. The Islamic groups have also been backed by the All Parties Hurriyet Conference, a grouping of over two-dozen pro-Pakistan groups with close ties to the Pakistani establishment.

India and Pakistan held a summit on 14-16 July 2001 at Agra in India – part of the so-called ‘Lahore Peace Process’. This was the first meeting since February 1999 when negotiations collapsed with the outbreak of the Kargil conflict. The Agra summit fuelled the expectations of Indian and Pakistani people but failed to bring about any substantive progress on the ‘core’ issue of Kashmir. At the same time, it was an exercise by both ruling classes to divert the attention of the Indian and Pakistani people away from the chronic social and economic crises they face.

Since 11 September, there has been a marked stepping-up of attacks by the jihadi groups in IOK against Indian forces. This was reflected in the suicide attack on 1 October on the state legislature in Srinagar, where 38 people, including office workers, were killed. Dozens more were injured. The Jaish-e-Mohammed group claimed responsibility. Its leader is now behind bars in Pakistan.

There has been a marked increase in civilian killings, averaging over a dozen a day, along the Line of Control and within IOK, particularly in the Valley of Kashmir. This has provided an opportunity for the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads the Indian government, to whip-up war hysteria. The Pakistani military has responded in kind. The Indian regime has introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance laws, which were backed by Farooq Abdullah, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir (IOK). Ordinary Kashmiris have been evicted from their homes for the so-called ‘harbouring of terrorists’ – the first targets of this attack on civil liberties, along with trade unionists and those opposing capitalism.

The US ambassador to the United Nations signaled US imperialism’s intent: “We may find that our self-defence forces require further actions with respect to other organisations and states in the aftermath of the 1 October attack”.

Following US and Western imperialism, Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, is attempting to capitalise at the cost of its arch rival, Pakistan. Since 11 September, and under enormous pressure from the US, Musharraf has agreed that Pakistan serves as a ‘front-line state’ in the ‘war against terrorism’.

Pakistan faces a $42 billion foreign debt and is implementing IMF measures to deal with the economic crisis. This has compounded Pakistan’s isolation in the light of the realignment of regional forces. This has further weakened Pakistan, leaving Musharraf with little room for manoeuvre.

After the 13 December attack, the Vajpayee government declared the ‘pro-active’ right of military strikes against terrorist training camps in POK. According to The Guardian, he has set up a chain of events where, “the frightening prospects of two nuclear powers taking up arms against each other now looms. The military build-up on the Kashmir border is the biggest in years”. (28 December 2001)

Banning the use of Indian air-space, cutting the numbers of Pakistan embassy staff, closing the Lahore to Delhi bus service and other measures, with similar retaliatory actions by the Musharraf regime, have further heightened tension. The visit to the region by US imperialism’s cheerleader, Tony Blair, has further aggravated the situation.

Faced with half-a-million Indian soldiers, enormous pressure has been exerted on Musharraf by the US and Britain to crack down on Islamic groups. This has led to the arrest of some Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders and action against other organisations.

At the same time, armed clashes have erupted on the border, particularly on the Line of Control. Up to 100,000 people have fled the area. The border is extensively mined, claiming yet more civilian lives. In IOK’s three border districts, 36,000 children have no schools, as the premises have been taken over by displaced people. A similar situation exists in POK where people have been forced out of their houses. A witness said that his house had 39 mines around it. On 10 January, hundreds of people took strike action against the Muslim Conference-led government of IOK in protest at the lack of housing, food and other basic needs.

In the background of this nightmare lurks world imperialism. The US has gained a foothold and could remain in the region for a long-time. “What is worse”, commented The Guardian, “there seems to be no ground rules for engagement in what may now be the most dangerous place in the world”. (28 December 2001)

Musharraf used his much-awaited speech on 13 January to announce the banning of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other sectarian organisations, with supplementary measures, including banning the use of loud hailers to incite religious hatred. Hundreds of Islamic activists have been arrested. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to pacify India’s BJP-led government, whose attention is focused on domestic considerations, in particular February’s state elections in Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of 170 million, 20% of whom are Muslim.

With these two regional nuclear powers jockeying for position in the changed situation, capitalism has illustrated graphically – as in the Middle East – that it is a system which has brought humanity to the brink of another catastrophe. This means that capitalism and feudalism have to be overthrown. The youth, workers and peasants of Kashmir, Pakistan and India have more in common with each other than with their rulers. The struggle for an independent socialist Kashmir, as part and parcel of a struggle for a voluntary federation of socialist South Asian states, presents the only way forward. A step in that direction would be the forging of unity between the workers of these nations and their trade unions.

Jamal Khan (CWI -Pakistan)