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World View: Kashmir and the threat of nuclear war

In recent weeks, the eyes of the world have once again turned to Kashmir and the ongoing antagonism between India and Pakistan over who should control it. Though the two countries have three times gone to war (1945, 1961 and 1971) without much western interest, this time round the sabre-rattling is attracting wider attention, not least because it could very rapidly result in a nuclear exchange with the loss of an estimated 25 million lives.
 

The Kashmir situation is a hangover from the age of Empire and British colonialism, when India was ruled by Britain and Kashmir was a principality ruled on behalf of Britain by the repressive Hindu Dogras dynasty.

For the British, the Kashmir region was a strategic asset, of paramount geo-political significance. It could serve as a listening post for the tracking of Soviet-Sino ambitions in the region and be militarily important should Russia or China decide to attack. Indeed, even the US now views Kashmir as part of their on-going plan to circle China with their military bases.

In 1947, however, Britain's rule of India was coming to an end and the region was being plunged into an orgy of religious bloodshed. As had been the case with some 580 other Indian principalities and states, Hari Singh, Kashmir's maharajah, was given the choice either to join India or Pakistan or of remaining independent. Although the majority of the people of Kashmir were Moslem, he chose to surrender the territory to India. The “official” initial intention of Lord Mountbatten – the British governor-general – was that a plebiscite of the Kashmiri people be held. This has never happened, in spite of numerous UN resolutions on the issue,

One common view is that Lord Mountbatten was really the architect of the handover, believing India to be far more capable than Pakistan of repulsing any Russian and Chinese advances in the subcontinent, acting as a proxy army on behalf of western interests in the area.

Whilst Islamabad insists Kashmir should belong to Pakistan, citing UN resolutions on the issue and pointing to the Moslem majority in Kashmir, India is insistent that under the terms of the 1972 Simla Agreement both countries decided to settle the dispute through bilateral negotiations and minus UN Interference. And whilst India insists that the accession of Kashmir to India in 1947 is complete and that Kashmir is an integral part of India, Pakistan contests this and insists that the region is in fact disputed territory and that it has the right to provide moral and diplomatic support for an indigenous freedom struggle there.

At the moment one and a half million soldiers face each other across their respective borders and there have been regular artillery exchanges. Though tensions are high, the situation is not considered as threatening as it was weeks ago, when western governments were asking their nationals to return home. Since then, both countries have been involved in diplomatic talks with the US, Britain and Russia. None of which, however, has helped remove Indian forces from the Kashmir border or lessened the likelihood that renegade anti-Musharraf groups in Pakistan could take matters into their own hands. Analysts in Washington still maintain that any terrorist attack from Pakistan's militants could easily result in a swift Indian nuclear response. And as Musharraf may sue for peace, he is mindful that he needs the support of the army and its hawkish generals, many of who see the Kashmir cause as a religious duty.

For Britain's part, whilst Blair is playing his trite role as global peace-maker, this can only be considered an act of hypocrisy. It has been after all a Labour government these past two years that has helped up the ante there. In 2000 alone, the peace-loving Blair government granted India and Pakistan some 700 military export licences (just as Britain armed both sides during the Iran-Iraq war). Moreover, India is currently under licence to build the British-designed Jaguar bomber – the type of bomber that could deliver atomic bombs to Islamabad and other Pakistani cities

In January this year, Tony Blair travelled to India on a “peace mission”, intent on lending the Kashmir crisis his diplomatic skills. He did just that, returning a week later with a £1 billion order for 66 Hawk fighters. Three weeks later the British High Commission there organised a party for British arms salesmen attending the Defexpo arms fair – dealers who openly acknowledged that they were hoping to cash in on the crisis. The same old excuse applied – “if we didn't, somebody else would” (the kind of defence you could use for kicking Blair up the arse).

The US and Britain may well be critical of either side in this conflict threatening the use of the “first strike”, but George W Bush has already intimated that he would use the “first strike” option against seven countries in four different scenarios, with British Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon suggesting Britain would do the same.

Although the US has resisted selling arms to India and Pakistan, it must be remembered that both India and Pakistan's nuclear programme was initiated by the US “Atoms for Peace” programme, that India's first nuclear device was produced in plant built with US assistance and that Pakistan's first research reactor came from the US.

So, while there is much evidence for the continuance of the war industry, the peace industry seems to be pretty limp. The United Nations, set up to prevent conflicts, is all but lame. The Security Council is yet to invoke Article 34, which calls for investigations of disputes “likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.” The UN Charter further allows any country or even the Secretary General (Articles 35 and 99) to place any threat to global peace before the Security Council.

The impact of a nuclear exchange between two impoverished countries and the knock-on effect for the rest of the globe is unimaginable. The death toll would be in the tens of millions, with many more dying months and years later. Millions of acres of land would be uninhabitable and the fallout would contaminate many neighbouring countries for centuries. The humanitarian mission to treat the survivors would have to be the biggest rescue mission in history – perhaps as big as all previous rescue missions combined. That such a scenario is possible is a damning indictment of capitalism. We stepped out of the 20th century – a century of bloodshed in the name of profit – into the 21st dragging every social ill behind us, with even more global problems abounding than 100 years previously. What a barbaric age we live in. Still, borders are to be fought over. Still, gods to be avenged and, still, that age-old cursed prize – profit – to be sought in every stinking orifice. And were the mushroom clouds to start rising over Islamabad and New Delhi, western capitalists would still ponder how they could cash in on this hell, this hell of their system's making.

JOHN BISSETT