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Islamic Time Bomb in South Asia

Published by Newsweek on 1998-06-01

Last week in Geneva, the high priests of global diplomacy hectored India and Pakistan to cool their nuclear ambitions. Their advice was aimed at getting the long-feuding nations to accept international treaties on atomic test bans. After all, the nuclear explosions set off recently by India and Pakistan challenged the post-Cold-War geopolitical calculus of the industrialized countries, which had hoped to restrict membership in the world's nuclear club to the existing Big Five.

The concern in Geneva was that security concerns would now drive donor-country agendas in the developing world, dislodging the carefully constructed international consensus of the last decade on trade liberalization, and the promotion of free-markets, democracy and good governance. This, in turn, would alter the strategies of global development institutions such as the World Bank and also bilateral aid vehicles--which provide $50 billion in grants to the 127 nations of the developing world--thereby adversely affecting economic and social development prospects in poor countries. Both India and Pakistan have had economic sanctions imposed on them, and formidable chunks of loans and grants are being withheld by donors.

But at least one donor nation--Japan--understood that South Asia's nuclear arms race had more than geopolitical and aid ramifications. That is why Tokyo offered to mediate on an issue that has bedevilled the Subcontinent ever since modern India and Pakistan were carved out from the same colonial womb six decades ago, an issue that fuels the spiralling, and mindless, defence expenditures of both countries. (Last week, India announced a 14 percent increase in defence spending, to more than $10 billion annually--that's more than three times what India spends on domestic social programs; Pakistan spend $4 billion on defence, or more tha 10 times its social expenditures.)

Technically, that issue is mountainous Kashmir, a hauntingly beautiful, Muslim-dominated territory of 85,000 square miles occupied in unequal parts by three countries: secular India, Islamic Pakistan and Communist China. It is over Kashmir that India and Pakistan have fought three wars; a civil war in Kashmir has cost more than 20,000 lives in the last 10 years, and has brought its annual tourism business of $300 million to a virtual standstill. Kashmir used to be known for its legendary silk carpets, walnuts, saffron, ski slopes, and Moghul gardens dating back to the 16th century. It was the ancestal home of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's founding prime minister, who often called it "the Switzerland of Asia." The question of who should govern Kashmir has eluded resolution by the United Nations and other well-meaning parties, all of whom have focused on the territorial aspects of the dispute.

But Kashmir has become a metaphor for a more fundamental and atavistic problem that territorial disputes. That problem has to do with relations between South Asia's Hindus and Muslims. The nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan pulled to the surface, once again, the lingering suspicions in the minds of many Indians that India's 125 million Muslims--representing nearly a tenth of the overall population--really constitute a fifth column for neighboring Pakistan. In a political environment already dominated by a Hindu government that has barely bothered to conceal its chauvinistic values, these suspicions found wide resonance.

It would be tempting to dismiss such suspicions as stemming from fevered ethnic and political imaginations were it not for four troubling factors:

_ Islamic proselytizing. In the last decade, Pakistan's traditional allies in the Middle East have stepped up their funding of Muslim cultural, religious and educational institutions in India. Libya and Saudi Arabia, for example, have heavily financed the construction of mosques. There have been significant efforts to convert the "untouchable" classes--the so-called harijans--from their Buddhist leanings to Islam. And radical preachers have attempted to inject fundamentalist doctrine into what has traditionally been a benign, almost passive form of Islamic theology in India.

_ Middle East support for Pakistan. In venues such as the Islamic Conference--to which the world's 50 Muslim states belong--there has been a perceptible increase of rhetoric in support of Pakistan's stance over Kashmir. Such rhetoric has spilled over into wider forums, such as the UN's General Assembly. The result has been a steady undermining of India's longstanding leadership role among developing countries, and especially in the Nonaligned Movement. Pakistan and its allies have successfully reshaped the world view of India from that of an apostle of nonviolence to that of an occupying power willing to employ harsh military measures to perpetuate its rule in Kashmir.

_ Trade diplomacy. India's aspirations to foster better diplomatic, economic-development, cultural and trade ties with oil-rich Middle East states are also receiving a setback. Already, some lucrative construction contracts that had been pledged to India are being steered to countries such as South Korea and the Philippines, which also offer cheap labor. And the preferential prices at which India purchased oil from the Middle East are reported to be withdrawn by some suppliers. More than 20 percent of India's annual exports of $33 billion go to Islamic countries, and this figure may decline.

_ The scientific axis. Influential policy-makers in India and elsewhere worry that Pakistan may share its nuclear technology with atomic aspirants--and rogue states--such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iran in exchange for economic benefits and fresh political support over the Kashmir issue.

When British India was partitioned into Pakistan and India back in 1947, even some of the strongest supporters of secularism in India warned that neighboring Pakistan, a constitutionally Islamic state, would be aided and abetted by its India-based allies and by other Muslim states in the region. Despite the emollient efforts of Nehru and Mohandas K. Gandhi--the Mahatma--to fashion harmony between Hindus and Muslims, the suspicion of Indian Muslims has never quite been erased. And the nuclear blasts, which raise the specter of an Islamic Bomb, will surely be a setback to amicable communal relations in already tense societies in the Subcontinent. Where, in the current atmosphere of suspicion and acrimony, are voices of reconciliation and communal bonding?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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