Peace in South Asia?

In the first week of January, a summit was held in Islamabad between Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf of Pakistan.  The summit, the conference that preceded it, and the talks that are expected to follow, have been hailed as a “breakthrough” in India – Pakistan relations, with hopes growing for peace between the two countries and in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Zia Mian is a scholar and activist on South Asian and disarmament issues at the Centre for Science and Global Security at Princeton University in New Jersey and teaches there in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In an interview last year (1), Zia Mian discussed the implications of Pakistan’s October 2003 elections for that country and for South Asia. He was interviewed a week after the conference on the prospects for peace between India and Pakistan, the historical context, and the implications for Pakistan itself.

Podur: Is it the case that there was a ‘breakthrough’ in India-Pakistan relations in early January 2004?

Mian: The coverage in South Asia and around the world would suggest as much, but it’s only true if you look at it in a very narrow time frame. What is forgotten in the discussion is that this level of progress – indeed even further than this – has been reached in talks in the past few years.  The dynamic between India and Pakistan has been one of crisis, conflict, and negotiation.  This has been the story of the past ten or so years.

Why 10 years?

I would argue that the main structural factors underlying the recent phase of India-Pakistan relationship were in place by the early nineteen-nineties. And the most important factor has been that of change. The last ten to fifteen years have been like a raging political and economic and social storm for the sub-continent.

There have been many changes. The first set was the withdrawal of the USSR from Afghanistan, the end of the cold war, and the collapse of the USSR. This had several impacts. The United States lost interest in Pakistan as a tool to use against the USSR. After a decade of turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, with the President signing an annual waiver to sidestep non-proliferation legislation and allow the flow of military and economic aid to Pakistan, the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan. Pakistan had already built its bomb by then, but US sanctions had political and economic and security consequences nonetheless. Meanwhile, India lost its strategic partner, the USSR, and the door was opened to new alliances. 

Second, 1990-1 is around the time that the Kashmir insurgency became violent. There had been elections in 1987 in Indian Kashmir that had been massively and blatantly rigged, by the governing party in Kashmir in collusion with the government in Delhi. This triggered major protests by Kashmiris, with hundreds of thousands of people spilling into the streets to protest, peacefully, this fundamental violation of their democratic rights. It was the first such movement since Kashmir became part of India. Indian security forces cracked down very brutally. And, eventually, as peaceful protest was met with the use of lethal force, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, and torture, the movement became violent.      

And third, you have the domestic changes in Pakistan and India. With the death of General Zia in 1988, limited democracy was restored in Pakistan. It was limited because the army did not give up power, it just stepped into the background. It could make or break or governments as it chose, and it kept a grip on major areas of policy. Politicians soon discovered that even though they held office, they had little real power. They stopped trying to govern and focused on getting and keeping the privileges and opportunities for corruption that office brought.

In India, there was a major push to force open the Indian economy and society to the global system of production and consumption. India’s poor suffered, but the national economic growth rate increased and the middle class and the rich started to do very well. A second development was the rise of the Hindu militant political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its the attendant groups. They went from being a minor to an increasingly important national force, especially after the 1992 destruction by Hindu militants of the 16th century Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya. lastly, as in Pakistan, the past decade has been a period of enormous political instability- leaders have been many and varied.

What has all this meant for progress on Kashmir?

The first talks about Kashmir within this context of profound political, geo-political, economic and social change were in 1993. Indian Prime Minister Rao offered talks with Pakistan for various reasons.  First, because the initial phase of the Kashmir insurgency had ended.  The mass-mobilization phase of the insurgency, in the early 1990s, with huge demonstrations against India in Srinagar in Indian Kashmir, was crushed by massive repression by India.  The Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front, a secular nationalist organization, that had taken up arms, took a real beating and was forced to offer a unilateral ceasefire.  Second, because Pakistan was convulsing. It had three different governments in 1993.  That was the time that people were beginning to talk about Pakistan as a ‘failed state’.  So India was seeking to press its advantage.  Prime Minister Rao offered autonomy to Kashmir, but the process stalled, mainly because the Pakistani leadership was so disorganized that it couldn’t sort out its demands or its position, and because Pakistan had started to support radical Islamic militant groups in Kashmir and was hopeful that something might come of that. This strategy was one that they had learned from the US in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had seen it succeed in defeating the Soviet Union.

It took another three years before we got back to possibility of talks. This time it was Prime Minister Gowda of India in 1996. But the process was undermined, by political instability in India. His successor, Prime Minister Gujral made another attempt. Gujral met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the conference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1997 – the same way that Vajpayee and Musharraf met this year.   Gujral had announced a doctrine, that India, as the big power in South Asia, should make unilateral concessions to its neighbors. Gujral and Sharif agreed on an 8-point agenda for talks: peace and security; Kashmir; the Siachen Glacier (where India and Pakistan have been fighting since 1984 – in what is surely the most futile battle ever, with more casualties from frostbite and mountain sickness than in combat); various other minor territorial disputes; terrorism; economic cooperation; and various confidence-building issues having to do with visas and travel between the two countries.  It’s worth noting that the proposed talks between India and Pakistan agreed to by Vajpayee and Musharraf have the same agenda.

The talks were designed to have parallel working groups.  This enabled India to go home and say: “Look, we have Pakistan talking about all of these different issues, and also, we are talking to them about Kashmir.” Pakistan could say: “Look, we have India talking about Kashmir, and also, we are talking to them about all these different issues.”  This is the advantage for both sides of making the talks a package deal.  The dilemma is that disagreement in one area can get the whole process stuck.

The process got stuck in 1997 when Pakistan tried to increase its leverage at the table by increasing support to the Jihadi groups.  Gujral’s government fell, bringing the BJP to power.  The BJP proceeded with nuclear tests in 1998.  Pakistan followed immediately with its own tests.

The nuclear tests brought their own dynamic. Both India and Pakistan thought they could dictate terms to the other now that they had nuclear weapons. So, one crisis followed another, with both sides threatening to use nuclear weapons. Whenever things looked like they might get out of hand, there were some attempts at talks. There were talks in 1999, at the Lahore Summit between Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee, about measures for some kind of shared restraint in their arms race. But even these small steps were suspended when Pakistan launched the Kargil war.  This was followed by the Musharraf coup.  Having launched the Kargil war, and having been forced to withdraw the Pakistani troops and Islamic militant fighters he had sent into Kashmir, he ended up a year later in Agra, trying to talk to India. But it was a bust.

The years after 1998 can be thought of as a long detour. It’s interesting to note that nuclear weapons were not mentioned at all in the recent 2004 summit.

How did 9/11 affect this situation?

After 9/11, the US intervened much more heavily in the region – but it’s important to remember that this was starting to happen already before that.  In March 2000, President Bill Clinton visited India.  India and the United States signed a “vision statement”, which was supposed to be a “watershed” in US-India relations. One notable point was the emergence of a military relationship. The vision statement said that India and the US had a “common interest in and complementary responsibility for ensuring regional and international security” and that they would “engage in regular consultations on, and work together for, strategic stability in Asia and beyond.” 

Clinton visited Pakistan on the same trip. He sternly lectured Pakistan on the need to get its house in order, encourage democracy, stop supporting terrorism, promote non-proliferation, and so on. 

The changing pattern of US interests was telegraphed before 9/11. The attacks gave the US more urgency in doing something about them. We have seen the invasion of Afghanistan and the US’s forcing of Pakistan to go along with the ousting of the Taliban, Pakistan has been forced to scale back its support for Islamic militants in Kashmir, and more recently there has been a crack-down on Pakistan’s proliferation of nuclear knowledge and components. The US has been less concerned about democracy.

So after this long detour, the situation is back to where it was in the early 1990s?

It is a similar situation.  There were elections in Kashmir recently, with relatively high turnout, and the new government in Indian Kashmir has some legitimacy.  This has helped to split the insurgency there, between the diehard pro-Pakistan elements and those who favor negotiations.  Part of the insurgency has been pacified, part of it absorbed, and the hardliners marginalized.  So, like in 1993, India feels strong.  But now, Pakistan has very little in the way of force on the ground to push its agenda – and in any case, there is a great deal of pressure from the US for Pakistan to stop that sort of thing.

What is happening in India and in Pakistan to influence the situation?

There are some important things.  Pakistan is learning a hard lesson. The bomb cannot save a society and state from falling apart. Remember that the USSR did not collapse because all of its nuclear weapons turned into green cheese overnight.  There is a delicate balance of social, political, economic, and military power that goes well beyond how many nukes a country has, which is something the USSR discovered.  Pakistan is discovering this too. Its nuclear weapons have not equalized its power to that of India by any means. 

India’s economy has grown tremendously over the decade of the 1990s. People used to talk disparagingly about a ‘Hindu rate of growth’ that was supposed to be around 2-3%.  But in the past few years, economic growth has been over 6% a year.   For India, this is unprecedented, and far faster than Pakistan.  Meanwhile Pakistan’s growth is lower than its historical average, and poverty has nearly doubled over the 1990s, going from 18% to 38%.  For the first time, India now has the higher per capita income.

Pakistan had always been more export-oriented and more open to foreign investment than India. But India’s ‘liberalization’ has started to change that.  Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in India has increased dramatically.  In 1990, FDI was about $100 million.  In 2003, it was $7 billion, and 1/3 of this is from the United States.  Meanwhile international aid flows to India are miniscule, while they were $1 billion last year for Pakistan.  So to put it crudely, India is making money for the US, and Pakistan is costing money. 

This gives the Indian state more resources, which it has chosen to spend in large measure on its military.  For the past 4-5 years, India has been increasing its military budget by over 10% a year.  India’s increase in military spending last year was equal to Pakistan’s entire military budget. India also signed a military cooperation treaty with the US in 1995, including training and research & development.  The US and Israel have become major suppliers of arms to India. 

Considering that Pakistan is run by the army, this kind of thing matters to them, very much.  Pakistan can’t keep up.  Also, Pakistan had historically depended on a supply of arms from the US, as India had relied on the USSR.  But the US military aid programs to Pakistan have dried up, and Pakistan has no access to high-tech weaponry: the Chinese weaponry they do receive just doesn’t compare.  

The Musharraf coup was the military’s response to a crisis in the economy and the state.  The military needs the economy and state for its own upkeep, to guarantee it the resources it needs to confront its neighbors and justify its existence.  It sees itself falling behind, and so it perceives a need to buy time, and peace, so it can build its resources for the confrontation with India that is its reason for existing.

There have been several attempts on Musharraf’s life in the past few months.  Does this have anything to do with the attempts at rapprochement with India?

I don’t think so.  Musharraf is not the first Pakistani leader whose life has been threatened.  The first Prime Minister of Pakistan was killed. He was shot at a public meeting in 1951. The last dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, was blown out of the sky, and no one still knows who’s responsible.  Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faced numerous attempts on his life.  Indian leaders have not been lucky either. Mahatma Gandhi was killed. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son (and Prime Minister) Rajiv Gandhi were killed.  South Asian nations are unkind to their leaders.

What explains the attempts on Musharraf’s life? 

The short answer is violent politics.  Successive Pakistani governments for over two decades have relied on creating and supporting armed militants for political ends. These armed groups were set up first to fight in Afghanistan, and then in Kashmir. This has been mostly because of the role of the military. Remember standing professional armies are the institutionalization of violence. They also assume that people, like soldiers, will do what they are told. But when you create armed political groups, there will always be some who have ideas of their own and be willing to take their own initiatives.

The second reason is the politics of radical Islam in Pakistan. Historically they have tried to incite military intervention in politics because they feel they will fare better under a military than a civilian regime.  They feel that way especially after the experience of the islamist military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq, under whom they fared very well. They want that back.

Musharraf has been a big disappointment to them. He came to power with a reputation as a liberal. They know there are Islamist generals in the military. So attacking Musharraf as a liberal and a sell-out is a part of that.  It is an invitation to the Islamists in the military to seize power.  Fearing his fellow generals, and the political powder-keg situation in Pakistan, Musharraf has caved into the Islamists over and over again on social issues. 

After 9/11, the Islamist were upset when Musharraf abandoned the Taliban and then scaled back the Kashmir jihad. After a lot of phony cracking down, Islamists are beginning to feel that Musharraf may be serious about cracking down on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Pakistan. They see it all as giving in to the US.

There is no doubt Musharraf and the collective leadership of the Pakistan army are under pressure from the US. They have at times had to do something to ease that pressure. Musharraf has been the public face of that decision.

In short, Musharraf has chosen to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. The Islamists hope that getting rid of Musharraf would open the door to a more sympathetic military leadership.    

But the Pakistan army is very hierarchical and, at the higher levels, largely loyal to its leadership. The attempted assassinations make it easier for Musharraf to convince the moderates in the military that the Islamists are out of control and enable him to crack down on the militants. He will try to do this without launching an all-out assault on the Islamic parties in Pakistan.

Those Islamic parties were very successful in the October 2003 elections. What have they done with the power they’ve won, in various provinces and with seats in the national legislature?

In our last interview I speculated that the Islamists would settle for a degree of social control (1).  That is just what has happened.  In the Frontier Province, in Baluchistan, they have pushed not just laws, but everyday life and public spaces in a radical Islamist direction.  They are allowing their militants to deface billboards that have pictures of women.  They are pushing for the segregation of education.  They are taking female mannequins out of shop windows.  They have banned music on public buses. They passed a law imposing shariah, Islamic law, at the local level.  They are trying to change the whole notion of what is “appropriate” at the local level.

But they haven’t done much more than that, and may not be able to.  Until last week, Musharraf needed the Islamists on his side to pass various constitutional amendments to legitimize his coup and his presidency.  He needed both parliament and the provincial assemblies.  This is no longer the case, now that the amendments have passed.  It’s not clear what he will do, since they have nothing to offer him politically.  Will he crack down on them?  Split the alliance?  Marginalize them?  His dilemma though is that if he should drop them, who will replace them?  He has repressed Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML): only the Islamists are left.

Has there been a reaction to their attacks from the population?

It’s been mixed.  The Frontier Province was the region they did well in the polls.  It is a quite poor and socially conservative region. It is still quite tribal in its social structure. The Islamists have not touched what are not bread and butter issues for significant numbers of people.  So, there’s not been much public outcry one way or another.  When the MMA bans music on public buses, the bus drivers get upset because they have to drive for hours.  But who else cares? Shoppers don’t much care about mannequins. 

The key questions are 1) To what extent is this going to be allowed to continue? 2) What happens when Islamist policies do begin to impinge on the population in a significant way? I think that, given the absence of initiatives for social justice, economic growth or development, on the part of these parties, people are going to start to take issue with these Islamist provincial governments.

Since Musharraf has little reason to depend on the Islamists parties any longer, they are trying to show that they are a ‘reasonable’ partner.  They want to stay in the game, and hence are willing to suspend parts of their agenda to show they are reasonable partners to the military and the government at the national level.  It is very significant that they supported Musharraf’s constitutional amendments that legalized his coup and his assumption of office as President of Pakistan.  

How have the Islamists reacted to the India-Pakistan talks?

Some say: “We support Musharraf”.  The government sent a leading cleric, Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Islamabad, to India, to tour the country and build support for peace.  But others, like Qazi Hussain Ahmad of Jamaat-i-Islami, are harsher.  But they are torn between their hard-line on Kashmir and India and their larger agenda to establish themselves as major player in Pakistani politics. 

One example of this came when Musharraf stated his willingness to abandon a UN referendum to determine the future of Kashmir, one of Pakistan’s main planks, if India is willing to meet him halfway.  The Islamists did not organize any massive demonstrations against this.  Why not?  One reason is because it coincided in time with the vote in parliament in support of the constitution.  The Islamists had decided to support him, so that (they hoped) he would be beholden to them and they would be seen as responsible and sensitive to the military’s interests. They Islamist chose to support the military rather than organize mass protests on Kashmir.

Has the war in Iraq strengthened political Islam in public opinion?

There is an animosity towards US policy.  There is ‘anti-Americanism’, but not so strong that if you offered someone a green card they would turn it down.  The problem is what the US is doing.  And because of what the US is doing, the Islamists are able to gain some support.  But they have no clear way forward, no idea what to do with it.  They have no agenda, no way to structure the anger.  They have no answers for the poverty, the economic slump, the daily struggle of most people.  They are caught.  They are not strong enough to make a play for state power, and after all have been supporting Musharraf.  They denounce the US and then support Musharraf when he says we have to go along with the US.  So the institutional goals of the Islamists conflict with their desire to channel public opinion. 

Having been forced out of any influence over Afghanistan by the US, and having lost its role in the ‘containment’ of the USSR, how will Pakistan continue to exist if it abandons the confrontation with India over Kashmir?  What else is there?

We need a new national narrative, a re-imagining of what Pakistan is. We almost started on this road in the 1970s, when Pakistan truly was a ‘failed state’, and lost the majority of its people, as East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Today’s Pakistan is the minority part is what was once Pakistan.  The scale of the defeat in 1971 was so large that the military briefly stopped casting its shadow over society.  A domestic politics started to emerge without this shadow of the military.  That shadow came back with Zia’s dictatorship in 1977 and has never left. 

Pakistan is not going anywhere. There are 140 million people who see themselves as Pakistani but see no future. The crisis of national confidence created by the confession of Dr A.Q. Khan, the former head of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’ uranium enrichment effort, that he sold nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya is testament to how desperate the situation has become. 

What our new narrative will be is not clear. Grinding poverty, dictatorship, radical islamists, corrupt elites, political parties that are no more than institutionalized patronage systems, nuclear weapons, and an endless conflict over Kashmir, are not conducive to the free play of political imagination.  We need to create space and time and institutions for testing out ideas about identity, decentralization, democracy.

The Pakistani elite and middle class sees its own peers in India thriving, and feels that things have gone badly.  The population is struggling to survive.  The Islamists have no economic policy.  The military has one: it’s to follow the dictates of the IMF and the World Bank – it doesn’t work.  Where are the alternatives to be found?  That is the large challenge facing many countries: not having any political formations to translate aspirations into reality.  That’s the gap that things like the World Social Forum are trying to fill, and I think the future is in finding or creating political formations that can do this job. 


(1) See ‘Pakistan’s October Elections’, ZNet, Dec 17, 2002.

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