Asia on the Brink: Behind the India-Pakistan Showdown (11/99)

One of the world’s most disputed places, the northernmost state of India consists of the two regions – Jammu and Kashmir. Known as the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), it shares borders with Tibet and southwestern China to the east and Pakistan to the west. In the north lie the Himalayas. Although often equated to paradise for its beauty, danger lurks behind the awe-inspiring landscape.

On July 19, 1999, for example, nightfall brought another nightmare for Indians in the area’s Doda district. After overcoming resistance, militants supported by Pakistan – and allied with Osama Bin Laden’s network – rounded up 15 Hindu men, women, and children, and pumped bullets into them. Meanwhile, in the Poonch region, four Hindus were separated from a group of road construction workers and ruthlessly killed.

Four days later, the Indian army uncovered a brutal plot to bomb Hindus en route to Amaranth, a J&K pilgrimage spot. Thousands of devotees converge here at this time each year. Angered, India’s foreign minister Jaswant Singh reiterated the country’s position in a frank interview with the BBC. "Pakistan must and will have to end its decade long support for terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir to bring back India to the negotiating table," he announced.

Kashmiri pandits (the Hindu Brahman caste) have lived there since the region was merged into India in 1948. But militants and terrorists have targeted and killed many, and nearly 300,000 have fled their homeland. For Indian civilians who’ve refused to leave, the death toll is well over 28,000.

And with the July attacks by Pakistan in Kargil – a sector on the Indian side in the perilous Himalayan range – animosity between the two countries has become even worse.

Showdown in Kashmir

For Pakistan, the liberation of Kashmir is a sacred mission, the only task unfulfilled since Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s days. Moreover, promoting crisis there provides an excellent diversion from frustrations at home, mobilizing the masses and gaining the support of Islamist parties and their loyalists in the military and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

The ISI has a special stake in continuing the hostilities. In the 1970s, Pakistan began training Sikhs and other Indian separatists as part of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s strategy to substitute state-sponsored terrorism for a lack of strategic depth and early warning capability. The idea was that Pakistani operatives would warn of any impending Indian invasion, and launch guerrilla warfare against the Indian Army before it reached the border. Thus, sponsoring separatist subversion became a crucial component of Islamabad’s military strategy.

When US Secretary of State Madeline Albright called for an end to terrorism across the "line of control" in Kashmir, however, two of the world’s largest democracies finally found themselves talking the same language. Support for India also came from the European Union (EU), which, for the first time, categorically called for an "end to the external support to the militants of Kashmir." Although the EU has never before mentioned Pakistan’s backing, the ASEAN Regional Forum has long acknowledged that Kashmiri militants receive material, political, and diplomatic support from Islamabad. This new position is apparently a reward for the patience and restraint exercised by India during the recent confrontation.

Pressure at the Borders

Without India’s restraint, the violence in Kargil could well have escalated into a full-scale war. Even though the last of the Pakistani invaders retreated, their rapid withdrawal revealed Pakistan’s control over the infiltrators. Attempts to disguise their identity by calling them the mujahideen (Muslim guerrilla warriors) didn’t fool the international community.

Most Pakistanis killed during the incursion were members of the Northern Light Infantry. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto admitted as much during a press conference. Citing a complete lack of trust, Indian officials refused to restart talks, dimming hopes for long-term peace. A conversation between two Pakistani generals, intercepted by India’s intelligence agency, appears to indicate that the Kargil invasion was being planned while the Indian and Pakistani ministers were negotiating a pact.

Although the Pakistanis were turned back, the rest of J&K isn’t free of violence. In late July, for example, members of the Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist group invaded a paramilitary camp, killing four people and taking a dozen hostages before Indian commandos from New Delhi freed them.

As India’s voters prepared to elect members of parliament in September, militants were busy trying to disrupt the process with bombs, abductions, and murder. The targets included several candidates, cutting across party lines.

On September 17, for example, rockets were fired on the residence of Mir Saifulla, legislator for National Conference, Kashmir’s ruling party. Gunmen also abducted the seven-year-old son of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Abdul Rehman Sheikh, nominated to represent Anantnag in J&K, which forced him to drop out of the race.

Meanwhile, the commander of one Pakistan-supported group boasts that it’s ready to cut off access to the Banihal tunnel, the only route connecting Jammu to the rest of India. The militants are reportedly waiting for approval from Pakistan.

There are also signs that Pakistan’s ISI has found a safe haven along the 2187 km-long, porous border between India and Bangladesh. In June, the New Jalpaiguri railway station in West Bengal was rocked by a powerful bomb that killed 10 and injured 85. The next day, police picked up two United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) activists. Although both initially denied any involvement, interrogation revealed otherwise. More startling was evidence of ULFA’s links with Pakistan’s ISI.

One of the accused ultimately admitted that a Pakistani army officer, Lt. Col. Masud Rana, used to stay at a house in Dhaka’s upscale Uttara area with ULFA Secretary-General Anup Chetia. During his frequent visits – in uniform – he would function as an advisor.

A military intelligence report reveals that Muslim fundamentalists have dramatically altered the demographics of the area. For example, Siliguri’s Muslim population has increased 150 percent in the past seven years. In surrounding areas, the increase has been 30-40 percent. The report warns that the security of this crucial corridor has become a problem due to ISI activities.

The Federation of American Scientists, which studies the global security implications of science, technology, and public policy, has noted that the "ISI is reported to operate training camps near the border of Bangladesh where members of separatist groups of northeastern states are trained in military equipment and terrorist activities."

The Bin Laden Factor

On September 16, 1999, Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden, wanted by the US in connection with embassy bombings in Africa, declared jihad (holy war) against India and the US. He called upon Pakistani groups to join hands with him and "target both of them." In a statement issued from Afghanistan, he reportedly said, "Our biggest enemies are the US and India, and we should target them, using the best of our efforts."

One of the key financiers of international terrorism, the renegade Saudi Arabian millionaire is largely responsible for the wave of Islamic fundamentalism sweeping J&K. As US National Security Advisor Sandy Berger puts it, "Osama Bin Laden may be the most dangerous non-state terrorist in the world."

The three most prominent fundamentalist groups functioning inside India are the Lashkar-e Toiba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, and Al Badr. Of the three, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the militant wing of Markaz-e-dawat-ul-Irshad (MDI), or the Center for Religious Studies, is the most prominent. The MDI’s recruitment process lays a heavy emphasis on indoctrination – otherwise known as brainwashing.

When young boys arrive for religious education, their first assignment is to go home and smash their TV sets, since they spread Western culture. Once convinced of their capacity to fight, MDI sends the youngsters to training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) or advanced training camps in Afghanistan run by Bin Laden.

India charges that a significant portion of the financing for infiltrators comes from the ISI and other sources at Bin Laden’s behest. The same holds true for training and support.

Reacting to Bin Laden’s threat and first public admission of sponsoring terrorism in India, Principal Secretary to the Indian PM Brajesh Mishra points out, "It is not a secret that Bin Laden has been targeting India for some time now, and the presence of the US counter-terrorism team in India has given him an opportunity to reiterate that and push his men to take more violent measures."

As new fronts open in Pakistan’s proxy war against India, the threat that it could ultimately engulf the entire Indian subcontinent grows more serious, and peace becomes a more distant possibility. On the other hand, if Washington’s logic that "the best way to preserve peace is to be ready for war" is true, then India and Pakistan are well on their way to a fully armed solution.

Priyanka Pathak is a freelance political analyst for All India Radio and print media in India.