In the Shadow of Extremists

Article published on March 1, 2004
community published
Article published on March 1, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Muslim fundamentalists and Hindu extremists pose a threat to the rapprochement of India and Pakistan.

For the first time since the Kargil crisis, which brought Pakistan and India to the brink of nuclear annihilation in winter 2001, the guns in Kashmir are silent. The disputed Himalayan valley that was once famed for its beauty is today better known as the setting of one of the oldest conflicts in the world. Exchange of fire each day on the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir into two, and incessant attacks by Muslim terrorists in the part under Indian control have made Kashmir one of the most dangerous places in the world for years.

Against this background, the signing of a cease-fire at the end of November and the re-opening of a bus route between parts of the country that have been cut off for years is a welcome and equally surprising change. At his meeting at the start of January with India’s Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, showed he was prepared to compromise and smoothed the way for negotiations by renouncing his demand for a referendum. India had always vehemently rejected plebiscite in Kashmir, for fear of an outcome favorable to Pakistan. This change meant that peace discussions were able to commence recently in Islamabad.

So does a solution to the Kashmir question stand before us? Nothing is more uncertain, for the neither country’s hard-liners are interested in an agreement. Thus Musharraf’s and Vajpayee’s position relating to domestic affairs is threatened.

The people want peace

This claim may seem especially surprising in India, for the extreme change in direction, which the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) enforced under Vajpayee’s leadership in recent months in foreign and domestic policy, was even supported in regional elections. Vajpayee’s strategy for the BJP was to put back their radical Hindutva agenda (Hindu Nationalism) in the election campaign in favour of a focus on their development programme. A landslide victory should strengthen the party to maintain this course in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, as it would enable them to reach a wider section of the electorate.

Yet the BJP’s move away from its traditional Hindutva programme is not welcomed by everybody. Quite the contrary. The hard-liners of the VHP (World Hindu Organisation) and its parent organisation, the RSS (Hindu Voluntary Corps), which form the basis of the Hindu movement, have other ideas. Their aim is to reunite all Hindus by ‘returning’ to an egalitarian, monotheistic and progressively constructed ‘core Hinduism’. Its most powerful tool is the distinction between Muslims and Christians to strengthen their own identity. The pogroms in Gujarat, which in 2002 cost several thousands of Muslims their lives, are connected to this. Since then, the BJP has tried to disassociate itself from this policy of violence and yet it remains reliant on the support of the VHP.

Just as the BJP cannot do without the VHP, so is Musharraf dependent upon the army. Yet with his policy for Kashmir he risks setting sections of the army and the secret service against him. Peace would require Islamic terrorist groups to be suppressed, and yet there are still many in the army and secret service who sympathise with them. After all, these ‘Jihadis’ were the spearhead in Pakistan’s fight for Kashmir for decades. So why is Musharraf taking the risk of picking a fight with the fundamentalists and of setting the army and secret service against him?

The key lies in the attacks of 11 September. So as not to end up on the wrong side in the war against terror, Musharraf was forced to turn about face and support the Muslims. His support for the campaign against the Taliban and his actions against terrorist groups have bound him closely to the Americans, but have also brought him many enemies among the fundamentalists. The latter was all the more dangerous when most Muslims were freed soon after their arrest. Clearly Musharraf lacked the power to suppress the Muslims.

If terrorist groups carry out further attacks in the India-controlled part of Kashmir, it will become increasingly difficult for Vajpayee’s doves to convince the VHP hawks of their policy. Musharraf needs a quick victory in forthcoming negotiations as well, in order to win his opponents in the army over to his peace plan. Time is precious, for endless negotiations would spell the end of the peace process.

Pressure on the archenemies

Europe, along with the United States, must support Pakistan’s fight against terrorist groups; help India prevent Jihadis forcing their way in; and urge both countries not to stipulate impossible terms, but to reach a compromise. In so doing they must achieve the right balance in putting more pressure on each side, but without giving the impression they are interfering, for India has always refused to let this conflict become an international affair.

China and Russia have already become involved in negotiations. For a long time China and Pakistan, and India and Russia have considered themselves ‘friends no matter what’, although since the end of the Cold War this affinity has weakened. Since the Kashmir conflict threatened to escalate into a nuclear war, China and Russia have also been urging for a peaceful agreement. Therefore, the four powers have to be able to find common ground. They must achieve this, for it is only if they can have an effective influence together that the two ‘archenemies’ can be kept on track for peace. The hard-liners are already prepared to launch further attacks.