By ballot and bullet, the Indian and Pakistani states have committed themselves to the forces of the Right by late 1999. In India, an election returns a vast alliance dominated by the Hindu Right, while in Pakistan, the generals resort to a coup d’etat against a corrupt, but democratically elected regime.
Some may find in these instances the natural condition of Third World States, fraught with the trials of poverty and corruption, and assume such is the fate of the poor nations of the world. Nothing can be further from the truth. Despite the frequency of instability in South Asia, both India and Pakistan have produced regimes capable of resilience and stability, although not always on the side of social justice. Between justice and the status quo, regimes in South Asia have tried to govern with some measure of balance, even if they have generally favoured the latter to the former. Nevertheless, land reforms and industrial growth, laws on behalf of oppressed peoples and extensions of the franchise, among other things, reveal to us that there is no ‘natural’ condition of instability in South Asia.
Current events in the region must be seen not in terms of the ‘natural’ failure of Third World states, but in the light of the watershed of May 1998. The nuclear tests threw diplomatic and moral caution to the winds. After the 11 May 1998 tests, Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani warned Islamabad to “roll back its anti-India policy, especially with regard to Kashmir”. Less than three weeks later, Pakistan conducted its own tests and its army chief, and now also the country’s Chief Executive, General Pervez Musharraf, noted that “Pakistan is talking to India on an equal basis. We are not talking to India from a weak position”.
When Nawaz Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee met at the SAARC summit in Sri Lanka in late July 1998, Pakistan came to demand that the two countries discuss nothing else but Kashmir. ‘Bus Diplomacy’ and the Lahore Declaration yielded little in terms of confidence building measures for the two sides. Given the decision to test nuclear devices, editor of the Indian fortnightly Frontline, N. Ram argues in his new book, Riding the Nuclear Tiger, that “the leading share of responsibility for the failure of the Lahore exercise to achieve real progress towards resolving the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff rests with the BJP-led government”.
Soon after the May tests, Nawaz Sharif had accused India of threatening Pakistan with “nuclear blackmail with a view to impose a military solution in Kashmir”. He said, “The international community must seriously address the issue of Jammu and Kashmir so that the risk of nuclear conflict is averted in South Asia.”
In January 1999, Musharraf announced on the Siachen battleground that Pakistan’s defence had become “impregnable”, a reference to its nuclear capability. India’s conventional weapons advantage in the Subcontinent was rendered useless by the Pakistani tests. Sharf and his generals indulged in an adventure that would horrify the world with the prospect of nuclear war and therefore draw the ‘international community’ into deliberations over Kashmir. The Kargil conflict of May-July 1999 was a direct result of the instability of a nuclearised Subcontinent.
In October, a coup occurs in Pakistan even as the BJP-led alliance comes to power in India. Both use the Kargil conflict, itself a direct result of nuclear instability, to win legitimacy. The bravery of Indian and (Pakistani troops) atop the mountains reflects no glory on the shamefulness of the foreign policies of the Hindu Right, and the reactive, and immoral Sharif government. If individual soldiers gain honour through courage, there is no distinction gained by political leaders for goading both countries into worthless wars. Even the honour earned by soldiers is not one that enhances our meagre humanism: we pay tribute to soldiers because they die as servants of a formally democratic polity to which we belong, not because of the awful deeds that they have to perform.
In 1907, Charles Peguy wrote that “the modern world has succeeded in debasing what is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world to debase, because this thing has in it, as if in its very texture, a particular kind of dignity, a singular incapacity to be debased: it debases death.” Written before the Holocaust, the Bengal Famine, and the Atom Bomb, this statement is prescient.
To be sure, our societies are debasing death, by the administrative deployment of nuclear devices or else by the political reduction of the death of a soldier into the gain of a franchise. The tragedy of South Asia is, therefore, not the ‘natural’ failure of Third World States, but the ghastly choices enacted by regimes that grasp power above morality.