Differing Agendas in South Asia

A Difficulty Criticizing Third World States

For a leftist from the third world, living in the first world, there is a certain difficulty in criticizing the administration of a third world country, like India or Pakistan.  First, such criticism abounds in the mainstream, and there isn’t really a need to present scathing criticisms of corruption or brutality of elites of such countries.  Nor is there a lack of lamentation about the terrible poverty, ill health, lack of infrastructure and protection of human rights suffered by the people of such countries.  What is lacking in the mainstream, particularly in the first world press, is an analysis of the role first world states play in this.  The legacy of imperialism.  The role of corporations, international financial institutions, and military interventions.  The entire context and imbalance between north and south, rich countries and poor– all this is crucial for leftists to illuminate, and attack, and dissent against. 

Another danger in criticizing third world states is that the current world is one where the militarily powerful, especially the US and the UK, are looking for pretexts to use to intervene in third world countries.  When they do intervene, they commit huge atrocities and do not solve any of the problems they claim to want to solve.  But they simply love the veneer of legitimacy that selective human rights defenders and critics of third world elites can provide.  Those who seriously want to prevent atrocities, regardless of who is committing them, don’t want to provide such pretexts for intervention.

So why do it?  The most important reason is because it could have some positive impact.  India is a big country, a regional power allowed some room to maneuver by the great powers (unlike small countries like Haiti or Guatemala) with a free press and important activist movements.  In India, informed dissent can contribute to constraining state violence.  And even the most powerful states or the most dictatorial can be moved to act more responsibly by international attention and pressure.  There is certainly a type of international pressure that does not help (imperial intervention), but the pressure of international solidarity can.  Such solidarity cannot be built without paying attention: to the interests and agendas involved, to the actions of great powers but also great power allies, of regional powers and of smaller states.

Contours of the India-Pakistan Conflict

The State Agenda

The conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is complicated.  India’s status as a regional power and greater resources compared to Pakistan has led to Pakistani elite fears that Pakistan could not survive without alliances to other powers– China and especially the US.  Pakistan’s alliance with the US and the distorting effects this has had on Pakistan’s internal politics and foreign policy has helped destabilize the region.  From this geopolitical standpoint, both states have reasons to fear for their security, contributing to the escalating arms race between the countries.

The Nationalist Agenda

Another layer is the nationalistic one.  India and Pakistan were both part of British India, and the history of South Asia shows the border between the countries to be somewhat artificial (like most borders in this world).  Both India and Pakistan are huge, multireligious, multiethnic countries.  Both have histories of suppressing and accommodating separatist movements.  Pakistan is a Muslim state by constitution, while India is a secular one (writers like Vijay Prashad and Tariq Ali have pointed out the irony that in 2001-2, the leader of Muslim Pakistan was a secular general and the leader of secular India was a Hindu communalist).  Pakistan was separated into Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971, in a war with India.  Pakistani nationalists fear that India has never really accepted Pakistan’s existence, and so every conflict with India, every concession made to India, is over Pakistan’s very survival.  Indian nationalists have a similar fear of a ‘domino effect’.  If Pakistan can separate because it is a Muslim country, what of the other 200 million Muslims in India– should they separate as well?  What about linguistic separatist movements?  Is India to be divided into many, many homogeneous units that can then be easily dominated by the great powers? 

The Communal Agenda

Still another element in the conflict is the specifically communal one, as distinct from nationalism.  Not only are there the interests of states, and the nationalist objectives and fears for the future of these states and their continuing territorial integrity, power, and so on– there are also attempts to change the political basis of both countries.  The ultimate goal of the Hindu right in India is to turn India into a Hindu state.  The goal of the Islamic right in Pakistan is to get rid of whatever secularism remains in the country (and, indeed, throughout the region)– the ‘talibanization’ of the country, to use a phrase from Pervez Hoodbhoy.  The weapons that these elements use are the usual ones: political violence of various kinds, scapegoating of minorities for economic problems, the suppression of dissent and free expression, mobilization on the basis of communal identity and not on the basis of shared political or economic agendas.

The Social Agenda

And there is yet another variable in the South Asian equation.  That is the social needs of the people of South Asia.  These needs are criminally neglected.  South Asia is desperately poor.  Its population lacks access to basic education and health care.  Its land and resources are not used for the benefit of its population, but for local elites and international corporations.  It lacks the infrastructure needed to prevent natural events from becoming disasters that kill hundreds of thousands of people.  Basic human rights are not protected by governments, and political participation is highly constrained, especially by the failure of popular education, but also by arbitrary police and military power. Many of these problems are becoming worse over time, not better, as economic restructuring, free market fundamentalism, communalism and now the ‘war against terrorism’, attack.  There is an urgent need for a re-orientation of South Asia’s capacities and resources towards the development of its own people– and away from world-bank-led megaprojects, export-led ‘growth’, and war.  This re-orientation is the agenda of many South Asian social movements, like those in the National Alliance of People’s Movements (but also many others). 

Politicians’ Agendas

The political leadership in South Asia is (with important exceptions) mostly drawn from its most privileged classes.  They aren’t inclined to embrace a social agenda that would lead, by empowering the people, to their own disempowerment.  Even if they were, they know they would have to contend with the great powers if their decision to work for a social agenda conflicted with the agenda of the rich countries.  They are inclined by their position and their ideology to pursue nationalist and state objectives, justify them using national and communal ideologies, and to try to contain and divert the social agenda and social movements.  It is this kind of shell game that led to the nuclear tests in 1998, and is probably partly to blame for the current flare-up as well. 

Why do the people go along with this?  The first answer is that they do not– as the social movements that reject communalism and struggle for survival and justice attest.  The second answer is because, economically and politically disempowered, they settle for national or communal agendas as a consolation prize.  The third answer is fear: if others are mobilizing on communal lines, and in the absence of a strong secular alternative, you have little choice but to do so yourself, lest you find yourself surrounded by enemies and without friends. 

Conflicting Agendas

There are clearly a number of conflicting agendas in South Asia, and not all of them can win.  The state and national agenda, especially in alliance with ‘globalization’, seems to crowd out the hope of a social agenda.  South Asia can afford an arms race or health care and education, but not both. 

‘Realists’ might argue that if one country has nuclear weapons, the other country needs them as a deterrent.  But I suspect this isn’t the case in South Asia.  Since the conflict and most of the targets are in the northwestern part of the subcontinent and the distances involved are in the hundreds of kilometres, it’s possible that even one country having nuclear weapons is sufficient for mutually assured destruction.  This means there’s no reason why either country can’t unilaterally stop the arms race, at least the nuclear arms race.  This could– if you’ll permit me to be unrealistic for a second– contribute to a situation of an arms race in reverse, where one country disarming slightly enables the other country to do the same, diverting their resources to other needs. 

A social agenda for all of south asia would start with this kind of arms-race-in-reverse, and seek the best political and economic arrangements for fulfilling that agenda.  This could be some kind of secular South Asian federation, with local, religious and linguistic autonomy and representative government for all-south-asian issues.  One step on the road to this very distant idea is a de-escalation of the arms race.  Another is a solution for Kashmir.

A Regional Solution

The starting point for any solution in Kashmir is the self-determination of Kashmiris.  But self-determination is so vague that those who have acted in violation of it (India and Pakistan) have claimed that they are defending it. 

Nor is a plebescite a panacea.  A plebiscite is necessary, to be sure.  But having agreed on that, there are some additional thorny questions.  Will there be a single vote for all of Kashmir, or will there be a vote for each of Ladakh, Jammu, the Kashmir Valley, and Azad Kashmir or PoK?  What will the options voted upon be– total independence (which in practice could mean domination by the US), accession to India, accession to Pakistan, partition?  Plebiscites, elections– votes of any kind are part of a democratic process.  The rest of the process includes people formulating options together, discussing them, communicating them freely with one another, debating in a free press, associating freely.  A democratic solution for Kashmir means that the Kashmiris get to do all of this.  All of it, from freely associating and speaking through developing agendas and debating them, to voting on them collectively and having the means to make what they decide reality.    And for this to happen, both India and Pakistan have to stop using Kashmir as the site of their power games– and start taking the social agenda of Kashmiris, as well as the rest of South Asians, much more seriously. 

So yes, Pakistan must stop supporting terrorists– and so must India stop violating human rights in Kashmir.  There is no reason why both states cannot stop doing this right now, no reason one side has to wait for the other to do their part, and no reason they do not, except that social pressure from the people hasn’t reached strength sufficient to compel them to do so.