Religion raises the stakes in India and Pakistan

June 01, 1998|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Heroic restraint is not to be expected of nations anymore than of individuals. It is edifying when it occurs, but it defied human nature and political expedience to believe that Pakistan would refrain from demonstrating that it too is a nuclear weapons power.

One has only to imagine how Americans would have reacted to a situation like Pakistan's (or how it did react when the Soviet Union launched the first orbital satellite in 1957, putting the first man into space).

U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy has been perfectly reasonable as an effort to limit the risk that nuclear weapons will again be used in war. It also serves U.S. national interests, as a nuclear power. That is its main flaw in the eyes of others. The United States is against proliferation for others, but has no intention of renouncing its own nuclear weapons.

This is not a reasonable policy from the viewpoint of a nation unwilling to rely on the benevolence of the existing nuclear powers, or which is hostile to the United States, or regards the United States as hostile to it.

Such nations see themselves as vulnerable to regional rivals already armed with nuclear weapons despite U.S. disapproval, as in India's case, or who have acquired them with tacit American approval, like Israel. That is why Iran and Iraq want to be nuclear powers.

U.S. sanctions policy is useless. Iran and Iraq have suffered from U.S. -- and in the latter case, U.N. -- sanctions for years. They have nothing to lose and something to gain from joining the nuclear club with India and Pakistan, or so they see it.

The blame for what has happened in India and Pakistan belongs mainly to India. The governing elites of India and Pakistan, admirable as are many of their members, have proven incapable since 1946 of rising above a sterile quarrel over Kashmir, which has poisoned their relations for a half-century.

Kashmir's population has been Muslim since the 14th century, but the state was given a Hindu princely ruler by British colonial authorities in 1846. When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned a hundred years later, and India and Pakistan became independent, Kashmir was supposed to remain autonomous, but its Muslim subjects rebelled against the Hindu prince, and he invited India to annex the country, which India obligingly did, sending troops to fight Pakistani troops backing the rebellion.

India has subsequently never allowed a plebiscite to be held in Kashmir, although the United Nations has demanded one. An irregular military struggle over Kashmir's control has gone on for years, twice breaking into open war.

The Hindu nationalist-led Indian government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which came to power earlier this year, is responsible for escalating the Indo-Pakistani struggle to the nuclear level -- the symbolic nuclear level, as yet.

Mr. Vajpayee's own party won only a quarter of the popular vote in the national election that brought his coalition government to power, and testing nuclear weapons undoubtedly seemed a way to build his popularity.

Pakistan's response

What it actually did was create the wave of popular opinion in Pakistan that required Pakistan to demonstrate that it too possesses nuclear weapons. After the Indian tests, ministers in Mr. Vajpayee's government had made implied threats concerning Kashmir.

Now, possibly, all will halt again, with a kind of equilibrium re-established. However, this is a peculiarly dangerous situation because while public opinion in both countries is fired by nationalism, that nationalism is in turn fired by religious passions.

Pakistan was created as a Muslim state, but has always been a reasonably tolerant one with a sophisticated and often very secularized elite. India was founded as a secular state, without an established religion.

India's success in maintaining genuinely representative and democratic institutions throughout the 52 years of its existence, despite the multiplicity of its religions and sects and the variety of its peoples, has merited the admiration of the world.

Now an intolerant Hindu nationalism, whose leaders include people determined to subdue or expel Muslims and make India into a Hindu state, threatens the practical tolerance that India has mostly experienced until now.

Nationalism driven by religion is extremely dangerous because while secular nationalist movements have goals and limits in this world, religious nationalism has intemporal aims and promises its militants intemporal rewards, not temporal ones. Die in the struggle against infidels or heresy and you are instantly in paradise. The Middle East has already seen too much of the consequences of that kind of belief.

Possibly, even probably, stability and effective mutual deterrence can be re-established. Deterrence is even more convincing after you have seen the effects of your own bomb. Neither of these struggling countries has the slightest rational gain to achieve from a new war in which nuclear weapons are available.

Storm of protest

The introduction of Hindu fanaticism into India's national politics is more important than the bomb tests. The storm of protest and criticism that broke out when India's parliament reassembled earlier last week demonstrated that a large part of India's political class is appalled at what Mr. Vajpayee has done. It has to be seen now whether Pakistan's tests strengthen that reaction, which could eventually lead in the direction of a settlement between the two countries, or whether nationalism now is in the saddle.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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