The Kargil mess may well lead to the use of Great Power influence in South Asia, something which New Delhi has resisted for decades
For a military engagement which New Delhi is at pains to say is not war, only an “operation”, Kargil has been remarkably dirty, tough and bloody. India claims it has killed more than 490 Pakistani soldiers, but it has only taken one prisoner of war. A Indian field commander was quoted as saying his men would rather kill the passionately hated enemy than take prisoners. In any case, it would have been a bother to handle extra logistics at high altitudes.
The two countries’ propaganda machines participated wholeheartedly in the Subcontinent’s first real television war, pouring venom upon each other: “cowards”, “betrayers”, “treacherous”, “snakes”, “rogue state” and the like. If Pakistan’s mujaheedin—the actual combatants, rather than the army regulars, according to Islamabad—were prone to emotionally and religiously charged language, India’s Hindu-sectarian warmongers were no better. They bayed for the Bomb: yes, use nuclear weapons against Pakistan and give a “final” reply to the “centuries-old” aggression by Islam.
This view was expressed in its full malevolence in Panchajanya, the mouthpiece of the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor and organisational gatekeeper of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads India’s ruling alliance. This was a diatribe against all Muslims, “barbarians” as they were by their “very habit and nature”. This race of “cunning snakes”, Panchajanya said, had forgotten that India could have “beheaded” 94,000 Pakistani PoWs in 1971, but instead fed “milk” to these “snakes”. They now had to be taught “the final lesson” through nuclear weapons: “why else did we make the Bombs? And why ballistic missiles?”
An extreme view for sure, but senior BJP leaders chose not to dissociate themselves from it. Rather, they joined Pakistan in exchanging inflammatory nuclear rhetoric. There were no fewer than nine statements by Indian and Pakistani officials threatening to use nuclear weapons, or boasting of readiness to meet the nuclear threat from the “enemy”.
Revenge was also in the air as news came in of Nawaz Sharif’s 4 July meeting with Bill Clinton and his promise in effect to withdraw Pakistani-backed forces from the Indian side of the LoC. There was much gloating over Sharif’s diplomatic-political “humiliation” and a demand that India should now compound it with a military defeat.
The Pioneer daily was quite brazen: “There can be no ceasefire agreement till the last intruder has vacated Indian territory, alive or dead, preferably the latter… [The intruders] must be taught a lesson so severe that neither they nor their succeeding generations ever contemplate such a misadventure. Only [then] can the government consider resuming dialogue. In any case, it is not a dialogue, but a monologue…that India wants to hear… Pakistan must solemnly declare in a chastened and remorseful tone that hereafter it will never again plot to wrest Jammu and Kashmir…”
Indian hawks, inside and outside the government, wanted the present Indian operation to escalate into a full-scale war, which India must decisively win. The RSS was emphatic that it was time for India to cross the LoC and “recapture” the Pakistani part of Kashmir. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh demanded of New Delhi to declare war on Pakistan. And a BJP MP was taking busloads to Kashmir with “We Want War” placards. Meanwhile, newspapers and television channels set up special funds to help in the war effort.
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One reason why the propaganda war and the real military operation were relentless could be that New Delhi was taken totally by surprise when in May it discovered that hundreds of Pakistan-backed mujaheedin had occupied up to 700 sq km of Indian territory in Kargil, across a 150 km-long front. Clearly, the “intrusion” had been planned and launched months in advance, even before the much tomtommed end-February Lahore summit which was wrongly presented as a “breakthrough” and a “historic” event, although it did have symbolic significance (see “Vote of Overconfidence”, Himal, May 1999).
Soon, surprise turned into bitterness and rancour over Pakistan’s “treachery”. This was largely the result of the BJP’s own misassessment of the Lahore Declaration, which did not even commit the two states to arms control or serious crisis prevention, nor preclude limited conflict at the LoC, although it paid lip service to the Shimla agreement of 1972. (The LoC has been “active” for decades, witnessing periodic shelling from both sides, especially in summer.)
A more important reason for the rancour was the BJP coalition’s frustration at, and its desperate attempt to play down, its gross ineptitude, misjudgment, irresponsible conduct and grave failures:
—New Delhi relaxed surveillance at the LoC, and for many months ignored multiple intelligence warnings and confirmed reports—until it was too late. It was guilty of intelligence failure, strategic miscalculation, political misjudgment and breach of military command. For three weeks in May, Defence Minister George Fernandes was at loggerheads with the armed forces.
—It failed to use diplomatic means and, instead, thrust the task of repulsing the intruders on a poorly prepared army, which was drafted in the thousands without height acclimatisation and proper gear.
—The Union Cabinet, equally hurriedly, lurched into launching airstrikes without carefully computing their costs, or their efficacy, which was conceded by the air force chief to be unsatisfactory. Regardless, the airstrikes were accelerated to a round-the-clock schedule a month later.
—Deployment of elite divisions and the best of weaponry have produced indifferent results. By its own account, the army has repulsed the intru-ders to the extent of two to three km (of the seven to eight encroached upon). Of the five main sub-sectors, its successes in the first seven weeks were limited to two.
Faced with these failures, the BJP adopted a two-track approach: whipping up jingoism, chauvinism and fake appeals to “national unity”, and inviting the United States and other major powers to intervene on its behalf to exert pressure on Pakistan to withdraw its troops. The second involved subtle invocation of the danger represented by South Asia’s nuclearisation. For instance, the 19 June G-8 statement from Cologne broadly supporting India’s stand on the LoC did not come spontaneously, but was inspired by a special letter to Bill Clinton from Atal Behari Vajpayee, in which the Indian prime minister underlined pressures to cross the LoC.
The letter can only be interpreted as a combination of entreaty and subtle blackmail. Like Pakistan’s tactic last year to convert its weakness into bargaining strength to extract economic concessions after Chagai, India’s calculation was to persuade the US to put pressure on Pakistan, something which was achieved when in Washington Sharif agreed to reaffirm the LoC’s sanctity.
Towards achieving that, in the first place, the BJP had to make large numbers of people identify the ‘national interest’ with the ‘defence’ of remote locations such as Drass and Batalik which they may not even have heard of before. This would mean the virtual elimination of the distinction between the Indian nation and the BJP-led government (reduced to a minority last April). But this would happen only if the Kargil conflict was detached from its domestic context and presented as a straightforward military confrontation between an undifferentiated, homogeneous India, and an equally undifferentiated Pakistan.
This would mean tearing Kargil’s organic links from the realities of India and Pakistan—misgovernance, growing dominance of sectarian ideas, increasing hold of vengeful nationalisms, and deep crises of legitimacy. These factors are intimately linked to forms of rule and their ideological legitimations specific to the rise of political currents that threw up a Vajpayee or a Sharif. These tendencies have themselves been degrading of democracy. Strengthening them can only further harm the public interest.
Equally problematic has been the BJP’s reliance on external mediation for short-term gains. It is not India, but the US, which has benefitted from the diplomatic setbacks to Pakistan. Contrary to official claims, India did not resist external intervention or mediation. Rather, it invited it, albeit by another name. The M-word is hotly, repeatedly, rejected by New Delhi and Washington. In truth, what has happened over the past month is a triangular exchange of proposals, through emissaries, telephone calls and letters—all under US supervision.
Bill Clinton’s top officials got involved in these exchanges early on. This cleared the way for extraordinarily close intelli-gence-sharing between India and the US on Kargil, as heard in the famous tapes of the conversation between Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf in China and his deputy in Pakistan. Clinton called Vajpayee on 14 June and Sharif the following day. Frequent consultations on 3 and 5 July between the US officials and their Indian counterparts provided clinching evidence of the tripartite mediatory process.
Clinton would not have shared with Vajpayee the latest ‘readouts’ of his talks with Sharif at midnight, nor would US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott have talked at length with Jaswant Singh the following morning, had they not already agreed on mediation. Of course there was an understanding that the term itself would not be used. Mediation can take many forms, Camp David being just one example. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise others, such as conducted indirectly, through long-distance calls. India solicited, and was party to, mediation over Kargil, whose direction and pace were largely controlled by Washington DC.
In the long run, nothing would suit the US more than a privileged presence in South Asia. A deal over Kashmir will give it a vantage position in the heart of Asia, next to China, at the leading edge of the terrain where the Great Game was played between Russia and imperial Britain. Whatever this might do for the BJP in the short run, it is bound to undermine India’s half- century-long struggle to minimise Great Power influence in this region.
The move will at once play into the hands of those who want India to join the US camp. Perhaps that is the deeper meaning of Jaswant Singh’s emphasis on the fantastic theory of “global” conspiracy of which Kargil is merely one part. The theory being the spread of Islamic fundamentalism through a “rogue state”, “jehad”, narcotics and the Talibans. This must have been music to the ears of the US Far Right.
However, it is not merely enough to be wary of the US. It is equally important to recognise the historic folly of South Asia’s nuclearisation, to which the BJP was the crucial contributor. Without nuclearisation and the precipitous worsening of regional security, the US would have neither embarked on an assertive mediatory role, nor got a degree of acquiescence for it from the world community.
There are, however, some redeeming aspects to the present situation. The BJP’s clandestine diplomacy soliciting US mediation has not gone down well with the Opposition. The Congress and the Left have been critical and suspicious of it. It bears recalling that the BJP has a definite pro-Western bias, which goes back to the Cold War days. Given the general strength of nationalism in India, some of its more distorted and chauvinistic forms do have appeal and are not easy to resist. But resistance there has certainly been—from political leaders, peace activists, media commentators, scholars, even from the families of Indian soldiers who died in Operation Vijay.
Perhaps the most telling remarks on this last item came from Kanakammal, mother of Kargil hero Lt Col R. Viswanathan. She held out the olive branch, saying that the people of Pakistan and India should be loving, rather than killing, each other. She refused to draw comfort from the fact that her son had laid down his life for a good cause. “Can we still love each other?” she asks. “People tell me that I should console myself in the thought of my son’s martyrdom… My mind does not reassure me… I would have thought so if [Pakistan] was an enemy country. In fact, those who should be loving each other are slaying each other.”
This gives one the slenderest of hope that it might still be possible to stem the tide of communal nationalism, and return to the road of sanity. But there is one primary precondition for this: South Asia must be denuclearised. So long as India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons and a near-deployable mass-destruction capability, their military leaders will feel tempted to recklessly raise the threshold of conventional conflict. Far from producing security or stability, nuclear weapons will only ensure that South Asia remains vulnerable to more and more Kargils, low-intensity warfare, periodic eruptions of hostilities just short of fullscale battle—all with a dangerous potential for nuclear havoc.