The Kashmir Battle Zone

This summer’s clashes between India and Pakistan, the world’s newest nuclear powers, claimed hundreds of lives. Then, as tensions seemed to be easing, on 10 August a Pakistani navy plane was shot down, leading to further retaliatory action. KEVIN SIMPSON and JAMAL KHAN explain the latest twists and turns in this 52-year conflict.

“TWO MONTHS AGO, as fighting raged between Indian and Pakistani forces in the disputed province of Kashmir, US spy satellites revealed a new and alarming development hundreds of miles to the south: in the desert state of Rajasthan, elements of the main offensive ‘strike force’ of the Indian Army were loading tanks, artillery and other heavy equipment onto flatbed rail cars”. (International Herald Tribune, 27 July 1999)

While the Western media concentrated on the war in Kosova, millions of workers and peasants in South-East Asia faced the terrifying prospect that two of the world’s newest nuclear powers could end up in a full-scale conflict over the question of Kashmir.

The roots of this conflict date to the partition of India in 1947. British imperialism cynically used the traditonal methods of divide and rule to inflame religious and national division, and leave two weaker and opposing states: India and Pakistan. The partition was accompanied by vicious pogroms between Hindus (the religion of the majority in India) and Muslims (the religion of the majority in what became Pakistan). Millions of people were displaced, with Muslims fleeing to the newly-created Pakistani state and Hindus fleeing in the opposite direction.

In Kashmir, the end of British rule and the growth in support for self-determination as a result of autocratic rule, led to a popular uprising against the Hindu Maharaja with veteran soldiers at its head. Kashmir was strategically important for both Pakistan and India because of its geographical location and its resources. It was also important for the new Indian ruling elite because it was the birthplace of the Nehru dynasty which ruled India for the next 30 years. The Pakistani ruling elite, which felt that it had been betrayed by British imperialism in the negotiations over partition, saw opportunities to increase the area under its control because of the existence of a mainly Muslim population in Kashmir.

A provisional ‘Government of Democratic Kashmir’ was established on 4 October 1947. A few weeks later on the pretext of solidarity with the Muslim majority, the new Pakistani government sent armed tribesmen into Kashmir, which was followed by a full invasion by the Pakistani army on 27 October 1947. The government was toppled and direct Pakistani rule was implemented. The Indian government, which had already sent aid to bolster the embattled Maharajah, invaded Kashmir from the Indian side. This led to the first war between India and Pakistan. Since then two other wars have been fought (1965 and 1971) and Kashmir has remained occupied by both India and Pakistan with the line of control (LoC) dividing the two halves of this mountain state. There is also a section of Kashmir – Aski Chin – which is regarded by the Chinese government as part of China.

Occupied Kashmir

INDIAN OCCUPIED KASHMIR is in fact an armed encampment with up to 600,000 Indian soldiers present at any one time. Brutal repression is meted out to the population, with a complete denial of democratic rights. This was especially the case after an explosion of protest against Indian rule in 1992, when up to one million demonstrated for self-determination in Srinagar, one of the main cities. While there is less direct and open repression in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir, the army and intelligence services play a major role in the affairs of this region and train and fund the various Islamic armed fighters who regularly infiltrate the line of control and attack Indian targets.

The Pakistani military elite use the Kashmiri issue to justify high levels of defence spending. Many retired generals own the concessions to lucrative contracts in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir. Many of the top jobs are reserved for the army and for representatives of the Pakistani ruling class. Occupation of Kashmir means millions of rupees are earned by the army officers as a result of smuggling goods to North Afghanistan and across the line of control. The natural resources of Pakistani Occupied Kashmir (particularly logging and hydro-electric power) are siphoned-off for use in Pakistan without any benefit to ordinary Kashmiris.

The latest conflict arose as a result of what was claimed to be Islamic armed groups taking over bunkers normally occupied by the Indian army in the mountains near Kargil. When this was discovered it led to a mobilisation of over 40,000 Indian soldiers and extensive bombing of the occupied positions by Indian Army jets across the line of control. The fighting was extremely bitter, involving hand-to-hand combat at heights of 17,000 feet in arctic conditions. Some estimates claim 1,200 Indian and 250 Pakistani casualties. During the course of the conflict Pakistani generals admitted that regular Pakistani troops were fighting alongside the so-called Mujahadeen fighters – something which they had strenuously denied at the beginning of the dispute. Tens of thousands of Kashmiris have been displaced in the cross-border shelling. In mid-July, following talks with US President Bill Clinton, US imperialism forced Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to call for the withdrawal of Pakistani fighters from their positions.

Despite the easing of direct conflict, further tensions and even war between India and Pakistan are inherent in the situation. US imperialism is especially concerned with the implications for increased instability in the region, particularly as both India and Pakistan now have nuclear capability and face dire economic problems and massive political instability.

The point of war

BOTH THE INDIAN and Pakistani ruling elites chose the road of armed conflict for domestic considerations. Sharif’s government faces a fall in support because of the economic devastation which is the staple diet of the Pakistani masses. The economic situation has become even more dire since the development of the economic slump in Asia over the last two years and particularly because of the economic sanctions imposed by US imperialism since the nuclear tests in Pakistan last year. Some estimates put lost income at $10 billion. Before the conflict began, Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves had fallen to the equivalent of two-and-a-half weeks of imports.

But more than this, a yawning chasm has developed between the Sharif government and the military elite. US imperialism has pressurised the government to accept the need for cuts in defence spending and the beginning of negotiations between the two countries over the question of Kashmir in return for further loans to the besieged economy.

US imperialism has used further aid as a means of trying to force through its agenda in the region. One of their main concerns is the growth of Chinese influence and the necessity to keep this within relatively narrowly prescribed limits, by a ‘carrot-and-stick’ type policy. It has attempted to develop diplomatic links and trading concessions with the Chinese regime. It has also tried to develop economic and political links with other powerful countries in the region – particularly India but also Pakistan. US imperialism cannot rely on any of the major players in the region to implement a course of action that follows its interests. This is mainly because of the political and economic instability which is endemic in this part of the world, and the entrenched political and material interests of the various ruling elites. Instead it is involved in the political equivalent of an ever more vigorous ‘plate-spinning exercise’ with each regime in turn.

The proposals for negotiations over Kashmir and cuts in defence spending have been met with furious opposition by the Pakistani military. Their anger was compounded when Sharif met India’s prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, in Lahore this February, after the opening of a direct bus link between the two countries. The consequent ‘Lahore Declaration’ was supposedly a precursor to more serious negotiations on disputed issues between the two countries. During these discussions Sharif made a major concession as far as the Pakistani military were concerned by saying that Kashmir was no longer the biggest obstacle in the way of better relations between the two countries. The Pakistani military ostentatiously boycotted this event – something which was previously unthinkable for a country where the military play such a central role in politics.

It is most likely that sections of the Pakistani military came up with the plan for a military incursion into Indian Occupied Kashmir to try to gain the upper hand in the struggle with Sharif, and re-emphasise their central role in Pakistani politics. It is clear that Sharif knew about the incursion before it took place but probably drew the conclusion (correctly) that it would be political suicide to oppose such a move. Sharif also saw the advantages in supporting this adventure, which had no genuine military or strategic objectives, to divert the attention of the masses from the daily struggle for survival.

Lifeline to the BJP

THE INDIAN GOVERNMENT’S response to the incursion by Pakistani forces across the line of control is indicative of wider processes in the country. India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is a Hindu chauvinist organisation which has whipped-up nationalism and communalist feelings against religious and nationalist minorities in the country. The BJP is limited in how far it can openly propagate pure Hindu chauvinism for fear of isolating itself from its coalition partners, and so they have increasingly used the question of national security to divert the attention of the masses away from the pressing economic problems they face. This has led to a momentous increase in military spending (up $1.2bn to $10bn in last year’s budget). This approach is in line with the interests of the Indian ruling class who see themselves as a regional superpower whose recognition as such has been ignored by US imperialism in favour of what is perceived as a pro-Chinese policy. The Indian ruling class see themselves as playing an increasing role in the region politically, militarily and economically.

The collapse of the BJP government in April compounded its problems. They were faced with a general election later in the year without a national issue to fight on. The possibility of attacking the Congress party for having a foreign national as its leader (Sonja Ghandi is Italian by birth) was not really a suitable issue to take up, especially since it had been raised by sections of the Congress party leadership.

The incursion by Pakistani forces was a gift. It allowed the BJP government to launch a major propaganda offensive using jingoism and nationalism as its basis. This was quite successful – there was widespread support for the war amongst the masses and support for the BJP grew to 53%. Although only a short-term development, this was made possible by the abject failure of the so-called ‘Communist Parties’ – the CPI and CPI(M) – to expose the interests of the Indian ruling class in this latest conflict. In fact, both parties provided a left cover for the government’s war aims.

The hypocrisy of both the Indian and Pakistani governments is shown by the fact that despite their mutual hostility and nationalist phrase-mongering, both prime ministers were, according to some press reports, in almost daily telephone contact. In fact, the outlines of an agreement had already been agreed by emissaries of both prime ministers as early as 20 June. A formal end to the present hostilities was delayed for three weeks because of the failure to get an agreement by the Pakistani military elite for the withdrawal of the Pakistani forces.

US interests

THIS CONFLICT HAS raised the urgency for US imperialism to try to get some sort of negotiated settlement concerning Kashmir. In the past, US plans have proposed the accession of parts of Kashmir to India and Pakistan, leaving a tiny ‘rump’ independent Kashmir sandwiched between the two countries. Presumably, such a rump state would be indebted to the US, and a useful base for the world’s superpower in what is an extremely sensitive geopolitical region. But such assumptions have gone horribly wrong for US imperialism before – as the experience in Afghanistan shows.

Moreover, it is very difficult to see how any agreement can be reached. The Indian ruling class regards Indian Occupied Kashmir as part of India and has vociferously opposed any outside intervention in what they regard as a ‘bilateral’ issue. Pakistani claims for ‘freeing’ Kashmir and calling for a United Nations-sponsored referendum are completely opportunistic. A ‘free’ Kashmir for them is synonymous with complete control of the area by Pakistan. Again support for this amongst the Kashmiri masses is not guaranteed. There is a growing mood for independence with neither Indian nor Pakistani interference in their affairs.

Any move to an imposed settlement by US imperialism which undermines the material and political interests of the Pakistani military will be furiously opposed by them and could be the catalyst for a much greater and more open participation in Pakistani politics by the army. The same applies for the Indian ruling class.

The only lasting solution to the threat of war is a struggle of the masses of the subcontinent to overthrow capitalism and feudalism in the region. Part of this will be the struggle for the national liberation of the Kashmiri masses. Experience so far has shown that neither the Pakistani ruling elite nor the Indian ruling class will voluntarily acceed to this demand. Neither US imperialism nor the UN will guarantee genuine national liberation, as the example of Palestine shows. The best activists in Kashmir must be won to the demand for a workers’ and peasants’ government committed to the overthrow of capitalism and feudalism and an end to occupation by both the Indian and Pakistani ruling classes. This would lay the basis for a socialist Kashmir with the rights of all national, ethnic, tribal and religious minorities guaranteed, with the right to autonomy if so desired.