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Alternative South Asian Futures

Author: Mahnaz Ispahani, Former Senior Fellow for South and West Asia
September 1, 2002
Seminar Magazine

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In the South Asian security environment today, new forces for change and old forces of stasis are negating one another. Pakistan’s decade long Afghan policy has been turned on its head and a hornet’s nest of militancy raised inside the country; and India is actively building a defence cooperation regime with the U.S. while using the global war on terror to try to end Pakistan’s support of the Kashmir cause once and for all. These dramatic changes in the global politics of South Asia have come about principally as a result of heightened U.S. interest in the region, mainly in three areas: fighting a war on terror in which Pakistan is both ally and nemesis, averting nuclear war, and countering China by building a strategic partnership with India.

The changes in the regional terrain affected by these superpower priorities, however, are matched by the weighty stalemate in inter-state relations between India and Pakistan, a stalemate whose most current manifestation is the continuing confrontation of nearly a million strong conventional forces and another intransigent round in the wrestling match over Kashmir’s future.

In such a situation, fraught with uncertainties and dangers, where neither local states or super states such as the U.S. can or will resolve regional crises, the need is even greater to redirect the role of the state and to draw upon the ideas, values and actions of a different set of actors and alliances. To dissolve the standoff between the new and the old is a long term enterprise, but one that must begin now. It will require new effort to put resources and political will towards the promotion of human security. Because states are primarily occupied with raising the military ante, they are therefore responsible in the short term for finding ways to lower it. Still, they are limited from going any further by their own ideological and strategic baggage; real leadership for such an effort at human security can only come from local organizations and movements in India and Pakistan, weak and under-resourced as they may presently be.

States must be encouraged to recognize the legitimacy and power of their own progressive institutions before it is too late, however, creating spaces for their leadership and action. The alliances that must develop are between these progressive local organizations and sympathetic state agencies, and between local organizations and partner groups in worldwide civil society movements and international institutions. Without such new spaces and new partnerships the prospects for any long term amelioration of South Asian crises are further dimmed.

The salient shift in the security circumstances in South Asia came after 9/11 when the United States re-entered the region via Operation Enduring Freedom in a manner not seen since 1989 when the Soviets fell in Afghanistan. This re-entry has had a significant impact on the conditions of regional security. America’s current interest in fighting the war on terror against Al Qaeda and preventing nuclear war have transformed the subcontinent’s feuds and political transitions from the routine haemorrhaging of a specific region to an arena of global interest. For the deadliness of its nuclear capabilities and its human bombs of terror, South Asia once again matters to those that matter in the U.S.-dominated international community.

This has long been a region where great land, sea and air powers have competed for access, allies and advantage in their peripheries. The current era is new largely because of the U.S.’ global military and economic preponderance: since the end of the Cold War, China and Russia, for reasons including the political and other gains seen from support of U.S. objectives in the region, have tempered the hunt for allies and competitive advantage in South Asia. While competitive and wary of each other at the global level, the U.S. and China also share a mutual economic need and a common anti-terrorism perspective that encourages cooperation. On Kashmir, for example, the Chinese have largely abandoned the Pakistani position, and recently at the Kazakhstan summit, President Putin sought to play peacemaker. If Russian and Chinese behaviour during the current Indo-Pakistan armed confrontation tells us anything it is that great power competition in the region is being superseded by a looser concert of powers approach that largely (although not exclusively) supports U.S. security goals.

Theoretically, this more accommodating approach also makes outside intervention – mediation, facilitation – in regional conflicts such as Kashmir more feasible than ever before. The last decade, virtually a decade of interventions worldwide, humanitarian, armed or otherwise, has given a boost to arguments for U.S. or U.N. led military or diplomatic intervention in the region.

What has been the impact of this new global interest on the region? The destruction wreaked by Al Qaeda at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 resulted in a unique turn of events in the history of U.S.-South Asia relations: reversing a decade old policy, the U.S. turned Pakistan from near pariah, near terrorist and severely sanctioned state into a premier, valued ally in the war on terror, rewarding it via economic and most recently military aid, debt and loan forgiveness and rescheduling, and through the more benign interventions of the IMF and the World Bank. American soldiers and intelligence officials partner with Pakistanis in the hunt for both Al Qaeda remnants and Pakistan’s own home grown militants.

At the same time, the U.S. arrival in the region has upset several existing arrangements on the subcontinental board, including the decade long foreign policy priorities of Pakistan, and hastened and arguably made more violent the inevitable conflicts between the older civil-military elites and the new, more militant leadership there. Meanwhile the pre-September 11 U.S. engagement with India has simultaneously been pressed further to incorporate an expanded set of strategic military linkages. Despite the opprobrium in which most of India’s intelligentsia as well as many of its economic stakeholders, both poor and rich, hold the U.S. (the divergences between India and the U.S. are many, on nuclear and trade policy issues, technology transfer, on Iraq and Iran) the escalation of U.S.-India defence cooperation has been marked.

A few examples: Indian paratroopers and U.S. special operations forces have conducted the largest joint army and air exercises since Indian independence; the U.S. and Indian navies have conducted joint exercises; the Defense Policy Group has been revived and is active as is the U.S.- India Joint Working Group on Terrorism, working on intelligence sharing, terrorism finance, money laundering, border security and cyber terrorism; three nuclear safety related projects have been resumed and discussions on missile defence issues continue.

On the one hand, this expanded relationship marks a sea change in Indian foreign and defence policy, and for all intents and purposes has rung the death knell of non-alignment and Indian socialism. On the other hand, however, the U.S.’ ability to engage concurrently with India and Pakistan could very well usher in a new era of ‘dual bilateralism’, of simultaneously strong relationships with both countries. Such a policy development would signify a breakthrough, for the U.S. has never been able to maintain a relationship with the two countries at the same time.

More important, a U.S. policy of dual bilateralism could in principle yield useful dividends for lowering regional military tensions, even helping resolve regional conflicts and disputes such as those around Kashmir. The current crisis demonstrated a U.S. ability to do the former. The latter, however, still remains elusive: both Pakistan and India have shown how adept they are at manipulating global interests to serve state needs. They have used the U.S.’ total absorption with the war on terror and fear of a conventional war turning nuclear to pursue their old goals as best they can. India, by using the moral camouflage of counterterrorism as practised by the U.S. and Israel to end ‘once and for all’ Pakistan’s support for extremists fighting in Kashmir; Pakistan, by trying to use U.S. reliance on it to internationalize once more the Kashmir issue.

Both countries have ‘succeeded’ to some extent, drawing the U.S. deeper into the region. However, there have been no practical benefits for either country. Troops remain massed on the borders, drawing down resources and upping the nuclear ante; the cross-border infiltration has not been stopped entirely by Pakistan nor has India initiated any dialogue to get the two countries out of the rut they have cast themselves in once more.

While shuttle diplomacy continues, the U.S. has been unable to shift significantly the Indian and, despite the leverage it has, even the Pakistani position. Why? First, its own interests conflict: the U.S. interest in a long term strategic partnership with India on a variety of fronts – trade and markets, defence cooperation – constrains its interest in direct involvement on Kashmir. This is so because India abhors third party intervention in its affairs. While India has a strong interest in the intervention of international powers and institutions in the region, this intervention is supported primarily as it trammels or constrains Pakistan’s policy. (In earlier decades, too, India itself intervened in the East Pakistan/Bangladesh crisis and in Sri Lanka’s internal wars.) Today, sovereignty trumps intervention in any arena of Indian national interest. Therefore, publicly at least and for now, the U.S. line on Kashmir mirrors that of India.

Second, elites in India and Pakistan, always historically minded, know these facts: that the U.S. is notoriously ad hoc in its policy making, owning the short attention span of a superpower. Soon its gaze will be directed elsewhere, likely the Middle East. Finally, the dominant image of the U.S. in the region is not always that of friend or ally, but sometimes that of the globalizing hegemon, the purveyor of economic inequities, the fickle friend, the human rights abuser, and the anti-Muslim crusader. Associating closely with the U.S. can easily generate domestic backlash: witness ‘Busharraf’.

So in the short term, while the U.S. has upset the regional apple cart, it is local elites who are called to pick up the fallen fruit. Can they? The answer is no, not entirely on their own, nor entirely on their own initiative. As is all too evident, none of South Asia’s problems are susceptible to remedy in the near term – despite there being no lack of proposals for resolution on the table. Why is this so? While the reasons are several I would point to three: (i) the crippling, futile, partition-fuelled dynamic of Indo-Pakistani inter-state relations; (ii) the rise of extremist leadership elites who purposefully manipulate communal sentiment and succumb to dangerous public constraints in both major countries; and (iii) the growing institutional disconnect between society’s needs and state purposes.

Consider the first obstacle, the partition-fuelled dynamic of Indo-Pakistani relations. If one were to catalogue the attempts made and cast aside to resolve the partition pains of the two countries fifty plus years later, the documents would surely fill a substantial archive. But who would want to review such a desultory archive of failures? Despite tiny glimmers of hope, after the Lahore summit most recently, the roller coaster of Indo-Pakistan inter-state relations has ultimately frozen the regional security environment, requiring during the most recent crisis, daily international engagement to quiet the storm.

State failures are written across Siachen and Kargil, in the current crisis where some Pakistani military-intelligence elites will not sever all ties with extremists while India’s civilians refuse to talk through an end to the conventional crisis; and most tragically in Kashmir where four million Kashmiris are paying the price for India and Pakistan’s inability to resolve a fifty-five year old argument about their respective rights as nation states.

The second obstacle is the rise of extremist leadership elites. Inside Pakistan, much of the military elite has been corrupted by the repeated manipulation of civilian politicians and control of the state; turned Islamist, expansionist and supportive of the intelligence agency-militant complex during the years of General Zia-ul-Haq; and made rich by its access to state resources. The web of extremists in Islamist radical groups – in the military and in the intelligence agencies that infiltrate across the LOC to worsen the existing insurgency in Kashmir – are a fifth column, fighting a jihad inside Pakistan as well. Today well-known handful of groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba that emerged mainly in the 1980s and ’90s are being joined by many unknown ‘Johnny-come-latelys’.

Together these groups oppose a democratic peace in Pakistan. They are a force for continued instability, a hornet’s nest, once awakened to kill mainly Shias and fight in Afghanistan or Kashmir, now abuzz with multiple targets such as Christians and foreigners. The U.S. intervention has mobilized them anew. For Pakistan to have a secure, stable future, indeed any future at all, these groups must be contained. Yet, so long as Kashmir remains a festering sore there will be an issue around which these groups can coalesce.

Inside India, extremist groups under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar have gained political support, coherence and expression through their links with the BJP. Although separate from the BJP and from each other, the RSS, the BJP’s non political parent and largely cultural organization, and the VHP, an RSS affiliate with a primarily religious mandate, have been able to further their right-wing Hindutva agenda through this affiliation. For its part, the BJP has used its power to permit communal hatred and violence in India in the name of a cultural nationalism which ignores India’s unique diversity and secularist political traditions.

The most recent example of this attitude of course can be found in the state and national government’s response to the Gujarat riots. This response points to the true nature of the challenges facing India’s democratic system, the extent to which Hindutva has been transformed from an obscure philosophy to an acceptable political force, and the growing primacy of political analyses based on the prism of religion. India’s minorities are precisely that, belonging to India. For the Indian democratic system to endure, the country must come to terms constitutionally with its own diversity. The aspersion that minorities, especially Muslims, whether in Kashmir or Gujarat, have loyalties to another state, will not help solve the Indian elite’s current conundrum.

The third obstacle is the growing institutional disconnect between society’s needs and state purposes. In the newspapers, journals and policy analyses of the region one readily finds recited the litany of South Asia’s ills: interstate disputes; resource conflicts; dictatorships; insurrections; national chauvinism/religious extremisms. And amidst all this it has some of the worst human security indicators in the world.

Yet the military and civilian elites in India and Pakistan are too preoccupied with their disputes and wars to pay much attention. In the mind of government, the rut of 1947 is the rut of today. As a result, neither state can come to terms with two realities: the first, that despite the prayers of the Sangh Parivar, 140 million Pakistanis cannot be driven into the Arabian Sea, and a failing, Islamist, nuclear armed Pakistan is a worse reality than the present day Pakistan. Put differently, a healthy, secure, democratic Pakistan benefits India. And second, that India’s broad dominance of South Asia, of its security and economy cannot be overturned by militaries, sects or suicide bombers. While Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the other tiny South Asian states have made their frustrated peace with this reality, Pakistanis have been encouraged not to do so by their leaders. This is a futile challenge to the realities of geopolitics and history.

Comfortable with finger pointing, the leadership in both countries is unprepared to address the hard issues. While India certainly has the sovereign right to respond to Pakistani provocations in Kashmir, it must recognize that Kashmir’s problems have local roots. They are not all ‘made in Islamabad’ and, that there is the need for a negotiated, political settlement to the conflict, for ending and making reparation for its gross record of human rights violations and helping rebuild a devastated economy and society. And in Pakistan, military elites are constrained by their own ideological raison d’etre and experiences of war, while civilian politicians are too bound by the military elites as well as by public opinion, to ask and answer the right question: for what specific gains are leaders committing to the slow national suicide of 140 million Pakistanis, accelerated today by jihadis, for the sake of ‘owning’ the territory or even guiding the future of four million Kashmiris? Meanwhile, the death toll in Kashmir continues to rise each day.

The region is not short of solutions. These are readily found: proposals to bring peace and economic prosperity to Kashmir, for example, could fill an amphitheatre. But all of them run aground on the precious concept of sovereign statehoodness. A region whose local societal history is so rich, diverse and the progenitor of complex philosophies and practical remedies with global reach, whose human resources are almost unique in the world, has regrettably grown its own hard, even carbuncled states.

In Pakistan, the uniformed few cannot stay away it seems from ruling millions of people, taking up their most familiar weapons – all of Musharraf’s predecessors, Ayub, Yahya, and Zia, engaged in war – and running with militants. In India, sclerotic institutions glorify nationalism and permit one kind of militancy in Kashmir and Gujarat while using the new war on terror to issue a spate of new legislation placing restrictions on the freedom of association and speech.

The current leadership elites of India and Pakistan that command state power, indeed across South Asia, bring little respite to the region. Instead of recognizing the true meaning and consequences of globalization – the primacy of transnational threats and thus of transnational cooperation, and the location of both the sources of danger in society as also the solutions to them in pluralist social groups and associational life rather than solely in the state – these governing elites have contributed to bringing extremism and a sometimes rabid nationalism to the fore.

A nationalist India makes its neighbours wary; an extremist leadership makes Indian minorities wary. In Pakistan the story is merely starker. Military elites are competing with their own creation, militant elites, to retain ascendancy. In both countries, what we loosely call liberal groups, advocates of real, functioning democracy, of inter-faith harmony or even old fashioned individual secular values, of human rights, are losing ground.

They are losing ground partly because the state elites can and often do use their power to mould and manipulate publics. No sadder demonstration is there of this phenomenon, of governments breeding nations of ignorance, than the period after the Pokhran and Chagai blasts of 1998, Pakistan’s following India’s. Photographs and cartoons made their way across the region and the world showing people dancing in the streets, embracing missile replicas, cheering on the nuclear holocaust.

On Buddha’s birthday in 1998, there was national jubilation when India conducted nuclear tests. Hindu extremists suggested that the radioactive desert sands in which the tests had been conducted be distributed across the nation. In Pakistan, meanwhile, frivolous talk about an ‘Islamic’ bomb was thrown around in a country housing thousands of committed Islamist extremists and a new nuclear weapons capability. For the last two decades, the militarization of Pakistani public culture has been demonstrated by the architectural facts that in lieu of new ministries, hospitals or schools, the built environment in cities have been littered with sleek models of Shaheen and Ghauri missiles, replicas of tanks and aircraft, and even Disney World models of the Chagai Hills.

As a result, in both India and Pakistan, there is virtually no nuclear fear. People seem to think of nuclear weapons as no more than larger tanks or bigger bombs. This behaviour comes at a time when elites know well the effects of a blast. Within three to five minutes of an accidental or purposeful exchange, and of winds running west to east, reports estimate that over 12 million would be almost immediately dead with cross-generational devastation – radioactive contamination, famine and disease. Governments, mainstream media and cultural czars do have the power to address this ignorance: but that most dangerous disease, nationalist euphoria, blinds them all.

Further, government sponsored textbooks that often teach false histories and promote hatred rather than reconciliation between different faiths and communities, fanning the flames of social polarization among children, do not help diffuse communal violence and inter-state hostility in the next generation. Official Indian textbooks carry easily discernable anti-Muslim references while the Pakistan movement during partition is given short shrift; the unofficial but widely studied Vidya Bharati texts for example, paint a picture of a single culture India.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, textbooks began, after the 1965 war, to glorify military heroes; and since the Zia period, to emphasize an exclusivist Muslim identity above others in Pakistani nationhood. Their contribution to destroying the original concept of Pakistani nationality, and fanning the flames of anti-Hindu and anti-Indian sentiment among generations of school children is not insignificant.

Finally, with visa restrictions and blocks on communication, and harassment by the respective intelligence agencies of any cross-border interactions – many academics, journalists and NGO activists can tell long tales of such harassment – the ruling elites ensure the continuity of ignorance, distance and enmity.

Given the static nature of state level politics and the behaviour of governing elites, are there any other ways to minimize the current critical obstacles to improved security in the region? The practical short term steps to a de-escalation of the current crisis are amply detailed in hundreds of recent Foreign Office communiqués, newspaper editorials and testimonies before the U.S. Congress. Their implementation, however, depends on whether Indian and Pakistani elites will ask themselves the hard questions.

And even these essential de-escalatory steps are ultimately palliatives. In the longer run, what is needed is resources and political will aimed at the promotion of human security rather than state security alone. Today, even at the height of the current crisis, a historic opportunity exists to advance rather than set back long term goals of regional cooperation. While global actors can play a supporting role, leadership for such an effort can only come from non-nationalistic, non-chauvinist, local organizations and movements. Strengthening these groups and their cross border and community ties is vital.

Government ministries have long mouthed versions of the mantra of human security, pointing in global fora to the misery index of their peoples. South Asian leaders publicly lament that their countries are afflicted with the world’s highest illiteracy and child malnutrition rates. Currently, the region is home to 40% of the world’s poor and close to half its population lives below the international poverty line of $1 a day. However, relatively few resources have been dedicated to addressing needs that directly link the fulfilment of families’ and society’s basic needs to real security.

In this context of dire economic and social misery, of human insecurity, there is the opportunity for adopting a human-centred approach, one that recognizes the potential of social institutions to allay state security threats, such as the nuclear arms race, terrorism, and Indo-Pakistan rivalry (over Kashmir) – and also help build an alternative future for South Asia. But the work must begin now.

Take the arena of nuclear weapons: here, the situation between the two countries remains dangerous. However sanguine Indian leaders are about the reliability of the Pakistani military not to start a conflagration and vice versa, the kinds of conventional Indo-Pakistani flare-ups we are witnessing, the rise of new militant elites who might ‘capture’ nuclear sites, and the lack of routine CBMs and adequate, routinely used inter-state communications as well as internal command and control issues in Pakistan, do not bode well for regional nuclear security.

Statistics vary: some estimates say each side has several dozen nuclear warheads with most warheads being in the 10-20 kiloton range. Others say Pakistan has 25-50 nuclear warheads and India has between 100 and 150. In May 1998, when India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests, South Asia truly did become, as President Clinton said, ‘the most dangerous place in the world.’ Despite sentiment in the region, this became so not only because nuclear weapons were tested by non-first world countries, but also because of the radical instability of Indo-Pakistani relations. The nationalistic romance with the bomb and the public neglect of the effects of nuclear weapons is pervasive in Pakistan and India; opposition to nuclear programmes is considered anti-nationalist and worse, anti-state.

The refinement of nuclear doctrine alone by experts inside or alongside government, however, will not provide sufficient security in the absence of a better informed and engaged population. This is an important time to focus on educating South Asian publics about the effects of nuclear weapons. If the mainstream regional media is responsible, the first thing it can do tomorrow morning is to widely disseminate the findings of recent studies, local and international, of the effects of a nuclear exchange. Documentaries, already made in India and Pakistan, should be widely shown.

The small, frail peace education movement is carried on the backs of civil society groups already overburdened with advocacy on human rights, environment and development issues. They have few funds and fewer staff to carry out their nuclear education work. Still, members of the movement run small-scale projects – videos, films, essay competitions in schools – but they have neither the funds nor the staff to carry out broader nuclear education. Expanding their work will not be a quick fix, but it is vital. Above all, South Asian’s citizens have a right to know the true terror contained in the decisions their governments are making.

Education, not traditionally considered a foreign or security policy issue must be construed as such if positive human security is to be achieved. Without improved education policies the dangers from sectarian and communal violence, terrorism, and Indo-Pakistani hatreds will grow. There are several aspects to this problem: primary education policy remains long on promises and goals but short on resources and implementation, especially in Pakistan. Moreover, gender inequality in education seriously disadvantages women all over South Asia; India and Pakistan have female illiteracy rates of 56% and 70% respectively.

By 2005, forty per cent of the region’s out-of-school children will live here, according to a recent Oxfam study. Extremist religious schools that preach hatred and fail to prepare boys and girls for the workforce, such as the RSS affiliated schools in India and the madrasas in Pakistan require reconsideration. Tools ranging from outright prohibition to registration with strict conditions must be considered. These problems require cooperation between government agencies and non-state community institutions that share a commitment to regional peace and development.

Textbooks in general along with the teaching of history in particular must be reviewed. No policy shifts at the national or regional level, by soldiers or civilians, no bus rides to Lahore or tours of Agra by elites will bring peace to a subcontinent whose values are daily eroded by each successive generation learning the memory, ideas and language of inter-group hatred in their schools.

To properly implement ‘counter-terrorism’ in the region, with special relevance in Kashmir, this strategy needs to be understood and practised as both a military intelligence financial and socio-political strategy. This is so because terrorism is rooted in societies and supported by state institutions. The only effective way to eliminate terrorist infrastructure is to replace it with something else. One cannot fight something with nothing; one has to put in place something that people in the country recognize as good, necessary, and valuable.

What is needed in the region and especially in Kashmir then are strategies both to tear down terrorist infrastructure militarily but also to build economic and social counter infrastructure, i.e. to work with the diverse array of Kashmiri communities to reduce the poverty, embitterment and repression of recent decades. This is the challenge faced by government institutions that must create the space and help provide resources along with private philanthropies, global aid agencies and most importantly local civil society groups who specialize in building economic and social infrastructures within a value framework of diversity and pluralism.

Finally, if the hoped for thaw in the current Indo-Pakistan crisis occurs, with the safe passage of elections in Kashmir and Pakistan this fall, the one set of policies that governments might review to encourage civil society cross-border partnerships, is that on visas, travel and communication. The human inexperience and subsequent ignorance of one another that exists between Indians and Pakistanis is a serious hindrance to long term efforts at regional cooperation.

This is not to say that proximity and knowledge automatically breed love; indeed, neighbourhoods often breed enmity and violence – witness the Shia-Sunni sectarian violence in Pakistan or that in Gujarat circa 2002. But proximity and knowledge can also cultivate leadership and creativity among regional and inter-national societal groups that aspire to build regional cooperation. The women’s movement and the human rights movement across the region have already provided ample examples of exemplary cross-border leadership.

To conclude, if current U.S. interests in the region contribute to a cooling off of Indo-Pakistan tensions, even to dialogue on all items on the regional agenda including Kashmir, that will be to the good. The new U.S. policy of dual bilateralism will have paid dividends. But this is not a panacea to be relied upon. One key is identifying and strengthening those forward looking few among state elites in Pakistan and India who recognize that the greatest contribution that states can make is to acknowledge and create room for the leadership of their progressive, pluralist societal institutions. Without the vision of human security espoused by these social groups and their intellectual leadership, none of the dangers facing the region – nuclear war, terror, and unending military rivalry between India and Pakistan – will be adequately addressed.

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