Why South Asia Won't Be "Calmed"

Reading recent coverage of the India/Pakistan stand-off over Kashmir, you could be forgiven for thinking that the latest "clash of the nuclear nations" is a bad case of history repeating itself, an example of how deeply entrenched fanaticism in South Asia leads to violence and instability.

In reality, the current bout of conflict was sparked by the destabilising effects of the West's "war on terrorism".

According to one UK journalist, "For more than 50 years, the Kashmir dispute has been mired in mutual recrimination, violence and intricate semantics beyond the comprehension of anyone from outside the region". And apparently, the new round of "eyeballing" between India and Pakistan is just as baffling to we civilised outsiders: "To lower tensions in the region will require discretion, creativity and patience - qualities long conspicuous by their absence among all the principal players in South Asia's most dangerous dispute."

Meanwhile, a US correspondent in South Asia claims there can never be peace - "not real peace" -- because Kashmir is the one issue that "inflames hatred, anger and intolerance" between Indians and Pakistanis, "the one issue they will never see eye-to-eye on". It seems that for all UK prime minister Tony Blair's attempts to exert a "calming influence'" on his hippy trail around South Asia, there's just no hope for the blinkered fanatics on both sides of Kashmir's disputed borders.

Of course the ongoing India/Pakistan conflict has its origins in history. Indeed, it is ironic that Blair chose to outline his vision of a "modern foreign policy role for Britain" that can be a "force for good" in a region where British interference in the past has done anything but good. As India struggled for independence from British rule in the late 1940s, British policy was to promote religious conflict between the country's large Muslim minority and its Hindu majority, leading to slaughter, bloodshed and the division of the Muslim north into East and West Pakistan after independence in 1947.

Not for the first time (and not for the last time) British policy of division and partition stored up conflict for the future -- frustrating India's aim of creating an independent, secular state, and creating a reactionary and unstable Pakistan in the process. Since then, East Pakistan has become Bangladesh, and conflict between India and Pakistan has broken out intermittently -- with wars in 1965 and 1971, and guerrilla warfare fought by Pakistani Muslim militants against India-controlled Kashmir since 1989.

But the current stand-off is less the result of diehard fanatic feelings or "history in the blood", as some would have us believe, than a consequence of recent events in Central Asia. It was ignited by the West's "war against terrorism", and the trend for leaders the world over to hitch a ride on the anti-terror bandwagon to boost their own standing and to settle old scores.

India has latched on to the West's war against terrorism as an opportunity to clamp down on Pakistani militants. Many claim that the current troubles between India and Pakistan started on Dec. 13 2001, when Pakistani militants attacked India's parliament and killed seven security guards -- provoking India to cut off transport and diplomatic links with Pakistan, while mobilising its army and fortifying its border with anti-personnel mines, accusing the Pakistani leadership of "supporting terror".

But in fact, claiming to be doing its part in the "war against terrorism", India had launched attacks against Pakistani militants two months earlier in mid-Oct. 2001 -- not out of the blue, but just days after the U.S. launched its war on terror in Afghanistan.

On Oct. 15 2001, India attacked 11 Pakistani positions along the Line of Control that separates the two disputed sides of Kashmir -- killing 11 Islamic militants and one woman civilian, and injuring a further 25 civilians. As one journalist pointed out at the time, "The Indian actions come amid growing signs that Delhi is keen to use the current situation to press home its concerns about militant groups operating in Kashmir".

The following day, Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh told U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell that India and the U.S. were "natural allies" in the war against terrorism "wherever it is found" -- and was rewarded with Powell's claim that "the United States and India have been united against terrorism and that includes terrorism directed at India as well".

Like Israel in relation to Palestine, India is piggy-backing on the war against terrorism to step up the fight against its own enemies. Indeed, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres visited India on Jan. 7 2001 to cement ties between the two "anti-terrorist" nations, claiming that Israel and India share a similar outlook on the world. "The greatest problem of our time is terrorism, the greatest enemy is terror", Peres told an audience of applauding Indian politicians. As well as recently becoming India's second-largest supplier of military equipment, Israel is now hailing India's mini "war against terrorism" in a post-Sept. 11 world where fighting terrorism wins you the moral high ground every time.

For its part, Pakistan is trying desperately to get on board and to be part of the international war on terror. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, Pakistan was put under pressure from the U.S. and the UK to break off ties with the Taliban, allow the U.S. army to use its air space, and to clamp down on its own version of Islamic terrorism. Since then, the Pakistani leadership has trod a fine line between staying in favour with the U.S. by clamping down on terrorism, while not giving the impression to their population that they're too much in favour with the U.S. or in India's pocket.

But Pakistan has been keen to boost its standing in international eyes -- thankful that the U.S. has lifted the sanctions imposed against it for owning nuclear weapons -- and has discovered that the way to do that is to claim to be part of the war against terrorism. It has even labelled its confrontation with India as part of the global war on terror.

"It's high time the world and the United States declares India a state which sponsors terrorism", said Pakistani spokesman Major General Rashid Qureshi in the aftermath of India's October attacks on Pakistan-controlled Kashmir -- while one Pakistani official claimed that taking a stand against India is "taking a stand against terrorism". Like a host of other nations, Pakistan is namechecking the war against terrorism to justify its actions and to ensure that it isn't isolated in the post-Sept. 11 world.

In a world where you prove your international credentials and get some kudos by declaring "war on terror", it is unlikely that Tony Blair or anybody else will have a "calming influence" somewhere like South Asia.

Brendan O'Neill is an assistant editor at Spiked Online.

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