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South Asia at the Brink | The Nation

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South Asia at the Brink

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India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who gathered here with the leaders of the other five South Asian countries for a summit meeting in early January, sat opposite each other at the banquet table. For two hours, while Vajpayee stared impassively down at his plate, Musharraf looked up at the chandeliers and made light conversation with Bangladesh's Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on his right. The leaders of the two nuclear powers of South Asia made no eye contact throughout. A thousand kilometers to the west, their armies were massing at the frontier.

The avuncular Vajpayee, of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), once penned poems in memory of the Hiroshima dead. But it was he who took the subcontinent nuclear by conducting tests in the Rajasthan desert in May 1998. This was an invitation for rival Pakistan--riven with internal angst based on an ideological reliance on Islam since its founding in 1947 and ruled by the military for long periods since--to join the nuclear fold, which it did with its own tests weeks later.

The Kargil miniwar of June 1999, which was the Pakistani military's response to peace moves by the civilian leadership of the two countries, was the first-ever conflict between two nuclear powers. It proved that the nuclear deterrent would not necessarily keep South Asia from conventional war. Since then, the region has walked a tightrope; unforeseen events can rapidly escalate into full-blown conflict, and the bluster of both sides includes the threat of using nuclear weapons.

There is a failure of imagination to consider the impact of nuclear blasts on the densely populated Indo-Gangetic plains, or that missile flying time to targets is measured here in minutes. Such are the proximity of population centers and climate conditions that a nuclear attack on Pakistan could consume India as well, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, even rudimentary confidence-building and de-escalation devices are lacking between the two countries--one a brittle military state whose command and control structures could collapse at a critical moment and the other a democracy egged toward brinkmanship by the arrogance of size and reactionary politics.

The current deep chill has its origins in the belief that General Musharraf is considered the "architect" of the Kargil conflict; in addition, there is the flamboyant Musharraf's upstaging of the aging Vajpayee at every public opportunity. But beyond the matter of personalities, New Delhi has legitimate grounds for anger, for Pakistan has been indulgent toward radical Islamic organizations with the avowed aim of conducting jihad to release Kashmir from India's grasp. It has allowed these militant groups to organize, fundraise and run training camps within its territory. These Pakistan-based external elements gradually displaced the indigenous militants in Kashmir over the last half of the 1990s, and recently even Kashmiri civilians have been targeted by the infiltrators.

Things came to a head on December 13 with the attack on India's Parliament in New Delhi by a militant Muslim suicide squad. An enraged Indian government accused the Islamabad government of involvement in the attack and, with the example of the American war in Afghanistan fresh in mind, hotheads within the BJP called for strikes on Pakistani territory. With one eye on a crucial legislative assembly election in the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh, Vajpayee's government upped the ante, refusing to talk with Musharraf and massing its troops at the border.

Independent of Pakistani designs on the territory, New Delhi is unwilling to consider that the disquiet in Kashmir is due to rejection of Kashmiri aspirations for a modicum of self-rule. New Delhi wants nothing less than total control, even though the Indian Constitution contains unique provisions for autonomy for Kashmir. India decided long ago that it could suffer limited bloodletting in the territory under the mistaken assumption that "letting Kashmir go" will unravel the Indian republic itself.

The discord between India and Pakistan can also be traced to postpartition animosities that grew up after 1947 in particular among the Hindu and Muslim refugees who ended up on either side of the border. More recently, Indian ire against Pakistan has been ratcheted up by neonationalism among the growing Indian middle class, which makes up a large part of the BJP government's Hindu-right base of support. These nationalist emotions have been enhanced by the unifying function of satellite TV, a new phenomenon, and a run of movies from Bombay's escapist film-production machine that are no longer coy about identifying Pakistan as "the enemy."

There are now certain actions that the two protagonists must take, goaded by the international community, including the United States. On both sides there must be a softening of inflammatory rhetoric, a calming of tension and a pullback of the military. New Delhi must talk to Islamabad, however distasteful it finds the prospect. India, as the stronger and larger country, should have the self-confidence derived from its democracy, powerful economy and world standing to show generosity of spirit.

In the medium term, the United States and other powers must continue to pressure Pakistan to withdraw support from the militant groups engaging in Kashmiri jihad. In the longer term, New Delhi and Islamabad must be made to move toward accommodation on Kashmir (read autonomy, self-government, a plebiscite, a freeze or another imaginative solution) and a program of denuclearization.

In March 2000, Bill Clinton, visiting the region as US President, called South Asia the world's most dangerous place. January 2002 finds it a much, much more dangerous place. The resentful, asymmetrical twins of South Asia have faced each other for nearly fifty-five years in an adolescent rivalry that has triggered three major wars and an endless barrage of "minor" clashes. The price of the failure of reconciliation was once high. Now it is apocalyptic.

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