Too near the edge in India dTC

April 26, 1996|By Jonathan Power

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The Indian general election will determine whether India will complete its economic takeoff and race China to become the world's largest economy, or whether it will burn itself up in needless military confrontation with its powerful neighbor, Pakistan. The latter involves the very real danger of going over the political edge into nuclear war.

If the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party wins, India could become even more provocative over Kashmir than it traditionally has been. If Congress wins a decent majority, perhaps there is a chance of a breakout. India will continue the transforming economic reforms of its sagacious finance minister, Manmohan Singh, and the political leadership will have the courage and the flexibility to respond to some of the interesting overtures coming from influential voices in Pakistan.

Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, probably should never have become part of India when the British divided the sub-continent in 1947. But it had an Indian ruler and India wanted it, not least because it was the home of what was to become India's dominant political dynasty, the Nehru family.

The Kashmir problem

Since 1987, following an Indian-rigged state election, Kashmir has been in a state of insurrection. Another war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir could easily turn nuclear. In every war so far India has trounced Pakistan. But since Pakistan developed its own nuclear bomb -- sometime in the late 1980s -- Pakistan has been able to neutralize India's classical doctrine for the defense of Kashmir, replying to Pakistani pressure in the valley by punching it with armored columns in the plain. Thus Pakistan has safely been able to keep up aggression in Kashmir by stepping up its support for anti-Indian guerrillas.

It is nothing less than a dangerous game of chicken. A more nationalistic government in India might respond more aggressively by, for example, testing a nuclear device close to the border with Pakistan (a move which would prompt immediate reciprocation by Pakistan).

In Pakistan it is impossible to find anyone who doesn't believe the country should own its own bomb, but there are a few who realize India and Pakistan are edging too close to the abyss.

One of these is Mahbub ul Haq, Pakistan's former minister of finance. "The economic costs of confrontation," he says, "are becoming prohibitively high for both India and Pakistan. Despite their crushing poverty both countries are buying twice as many arms as Saudi Arabia, which is 25 times richer. Modern arms are being procured when human lives are shrivelling."

Mr. Haq's bold suggestion is a U.N. trusteeship for the next 10 or 15 years over both Indian-held and Pakistani-held Kashmir. "Why not withdraw armed forces completely from inside Kashmir to near the border belt . . . and give the Kashmiris themselves a chance for self-government and peaceful development?"

In February, Dr. Haq presented his ideas to an informal Indo-Pakistan dialogue organized by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and found a surprising degree of consensus on many of the issues. At home there has been rather less enthusiasm.

For many non-proliferators like me, who want to get nuclear arms removed altogether from the subcontinent, the real answer lies in persuading India not just to quiet its obsession with Pakistan but also with China. China did not develop its nuclear arsenal to confront India. For Beijing, Russia and America come first on the target list.

Here is an opening for American diplomacy. Give India a carrot to lure it away from its nuclear policy, and Pakistan would follow. The U.S. should use its influence to offer India a veto-wielding place on the U.N. Security Council if it agrees to give up its bomb.

India's population, which is one-sixth of the planet's, demands this. Politically, the reward would be a denuclearized subcontinent and elimination of the world's most active nuclear flashpoint.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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