The human rights violations in Indian-occupied Kashmir had reached a level of brutality to be considered atrocities, when the Uri attack took place. Both the essentially indigenous popular mass movement against state repression and the militant attack on the Indian military base were blamed by the government of India on Pakistan. Thus began another episode of escalating tension, build-up of a warlike atmosphere by the media and exchange of fire by military forces along the line of control in Kashmir.
The Indian government, under a largely self-generated popular pressure for military action, claimed to have made a ‘surgical strike’ against militant camps on the Pakistani side of the LoC. Pakistan rejected this claim as a concoction. Subsequently, doubts were expressed about the veracity of this claim by the international media, and now even political leaders in the Congress Party are demanding evidence.
However at a strategic level, what shortened the fuse wire of an explosive India-Pakistan conflict was the announcement by Prime Minister Modi’s government of a new policy of military response against Pakistan each time – in their view – a terrorist attack emanating from Pakistani territory occurred in India. The toxicity of the tension then acquired a radioactive dimension as veiled threats of nuclear war began to be made by politicians with a concerned international community urging restraint.
The danger of the present confrontation igniting a war appears to have been quelled for now, as national security advisers of both countries are reported to have engaged over the phone and agreed to defuse tensions. In this particular case, the government of Pakistan has managed the crisis with maturity and a dignified firmness, which may have helped better sense to prevail in the Indian government after the initial stridency and knee jerk reactions.
Nevertheless, the latest case of the two nuclear armed states coming uncomfortably close to a flashpoint provides rational voices on both sides a moment to pause and ponder over the India-Pakistan problematique: the structure of a situation which repeatedly produces such dangerous episodes.
There are three key features of the India-Pakistan relationship which make the ongoing no-war, no-peace situation unsustainable. First, there is a persisting dispute over the status of Kashmir. An additional dimension to the political dynamics and enhanced risk of a violent flare up is the popular struggle of the people of Kashmir against repression by the Indian state and increasing brutality of its security forces. By taking the position it has, that the freedom struggle of the people of Kashmir is primarily Pakistan engineered, India can undertake a precipitate action against Pakistan, provoking a wider conflict.
Second, there are non-state militant groups at play in both countries, with each country accusing the other of using some of these militant groups for subversion as part of state policy. The instability in the balance of power between the two countries is enhanced by the fact that these non-state entities necessarily have autonomy. This creates the risk of one of these groups conducting a terrorist operation at a scale and intensity that can trigger a military response by the state that perceives it has been targeted by the adversarial state.
Third, any limited conventional war between the two countries can quickly lead to a nuclear exchange, if the regular forces of one country make territorial gains beyond an unspecified magnitude. This risk has considerably increased by India’s cold-start doctrine: it claims to have highly mobile integrated units of armour, infantry, artillery and air support aimed at making quick territorial gains as a punitive action against Pakistan.
At the same time Pakistan’s military has the capability to mount a counter punch that can inflict a devastating blow against the enemy. In case of unexpected tactical gains by one side, there is an unquantified but significant risk of battlefield nuclear weapons being used. This can lead to the use of strategic nuclear weapons whereby whole cities can be wiped out. The risk of escalation to the use of strategic nuclear weapons in such a situation is high.
This is because since the flying time of missiles is about three minutes and telephonic contact takes about five minutes, neither country has enough time to ascertain whether or not the other side has or is about to launch nuclear missiles. So that even during what is imagined as a limited war, mistrust, misinformation or panic can lead to a catastrophic full scale nuclear war.
It is clear that the structure of the no-peace, no-war situation is unstable. It has an inherent tendency towards the eruption of first a conventional war which then opens up the slippery path to crossing the nuclear threshold. Any non-zero probability of nuclear war should be unthinkable. Yet, the probability of nuclear war in South Asia is perhaps higher than in any other region of the world.
Nuclear weapons are a deterrent so long as neither of the two adversaries uses them. Once they are used, they become weapons of mass self-destruction for both adversaries. What would be lost is life and all that we hold dear in South Asia – the civilisational heritage of our ancient societies, their great potential of creativity, the beauty of the mountains, the music of the flowing rivers as they irrigate the verdant valleys, the colours of the deserts, bird song in the forests, our sense of the sublime as we gaze upon these wondrous landscapes. What would be left are ashes on a nuclear wasteland.
The question that arises in the present moment is whether the peoples of India and Pakistan along with their respective leadership bring to bear their great shared traditions of love and wisdom. Can we in the conduct of inter-state relations demonstrate a sense of responsibility towards the sacred that inhabits the heart of each of us as indeed all creation? Can we establish the basis of lasting peace, so that the people of South Asia can survive and flourish?