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South Asia once again is in a cycle of violence. It began with the drama of the seven-day hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814. The ordeal came to a shocking end on the eve of the new millennium as India’s external affairs minister, who vowed to not give in to the terrorists’ demands, swapped three “terrorists,” whose release was demanded by the hijackers, for the hostages. Although the hijacking was resolved, India and Pakistan remain enveloped in a cycle of violence whose facets include a blame game, a diplomatic campaign, the trading of accusations, cross-border skirmishes and intensified violence in the Kashmir Valley.

Violence in South Asia is nothing new. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars in the half century since Britain left the subcontinent. Even during the lull in these conflicts they were not at peace. Yet what sets the new cycle of violence apart is that it contains a nuclear component, whose accompanying logic of deterrence could have dire ramifications.

Logic of deterrence

Deterrence is one of the few military-strategic theories that has earned international credibility. The theory, which denotes the manipulation of behavior in a security context, seeks to prevent unwanted behavior by promising to punish adversaries for unacceptable actions and deny them any chance of success. The theory implies a process of “mutual mind-reading” with a calculated attempt to induce a perceived enemy to do something or refrain from doing something by threatening a penalty for noncompliance. The process led to the buildup of nuclear arsenals and delivery systems by the United States and the Soviet Union, and to a situation where the principle of mutually assured destruction involved them both in a zero-sum trap. While the element of rationality continues to guide policymaking in a nuclear context, miscalculation or irrationality may lead to risks of mutual annihilation.

The nuclear stalemate between the U.S. and the Soviet Union led to an escalation of violence, including limited proxy wars and propaganda wars during the Cold War. Yet while the two superpowers felt compelled not to pursue all-out victory, the cycle of violence generated in the backdrop of nuclear stalemate remains.

Baggage of history

India and Pakistan are the world’s newest nuclear weapon-states, but both seem blind to Cold War experiences. Both nations are prisoners of the past. The problem is rooted into the history of colonial rule and the divisive nationalist struggle against that rule. The British skillfully planted seeds of communalism in India, particularly by placing the dominant Hindus and the minority Muslims in a communal trap. One nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, sensed the colonial trick quite well. Twice elected president of the Indian National Congress, he envisioned India’s freedom in unity. To this end, he wanted the two communities to work together to fight both colonialism and communalism, and sought international cooperation, especially from Japan. Ironically, the INC oligarchy led by Mahatma Gandhi outmaneuvered Bose, forcing him to leave India. Bose’s revolutionary pursuits ended tragically when he lost his life in an aircraft crash toward the end of World War II.

India’s destiny was then left in the hands of aspirants to power who became drawn into a communal trap. The partition of 1947 was indeed largely based on communal lines, though historically India has had a greater record of unity than most other nations of the world. The trap of communal divisiveness has vitiated South Asian relations ever since. The three major Indo-Pakistani wars, the recent nuclearization and the current cycle of violence are all related to the baggage of history and the communal trap laid under the Raj.

Subcontinent’s nuclearization

The breakup of Pakistan and the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971 was thought to have ensured India’s dominance in South Asia. Yet when India in 1974 proceeded with its first “peaceful” nuclear explosion, its undaunted regional rival Pakistan vowed to “eat grass” should it be necessary to respond in kind. Soon Pakistan graduated to a nuclear threshold status and the two powers agreed not to attack each other’s nuclear installations.

The decade-old insurgency in Kashmir, supported by Pakistan, found momentum in the backdrop of competitive nuclear aspirations in South Asia. India was never content with the illusion of an equilibrium of power on the subcontinent. The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition that was first elected in 1998 on a platform of nuclearization decided to renew nuclear testing and augment the nation’s missile system. Pakistan quickly countered. A zero-sum nuclear trap ensued.

Linked to both communal and nuclear traps is the conflict over Jammu and Kashmir. Despite intermittent peace talks and euphoria over “bus diplomacy,” both countries soon moved from intransigence over Kashmir to a 50-day limited war at Kargil, fought against the backdrop of a nuclear stalemate. Owing its existence to the notion of Muslim nationhood, Pakistan believes that peace in the subcontinent can only be attained through the self-determination of the Kashmiris, who are largely Muslim. In New Delhi, even the Hindu-nationalist BJP government dons the garb of secularism as the basis of India’s nationhood, and it sees no scope for compromise on India’s only Muslim-majority state. There is thus a zero-sum political logjam conditioned by a communal trap that, in turn, contributes to the zero-sum nuclear trap. Both continue to vitiate India-Pakistan relations and have spillover effects beyond their bilateral context.

Peace option

How should peace be pursued in South Asia? Pakistan believes that the road to peace in South Asia must pass through Kashmir, but New Delhi insists that Kashmir is an integral part of India. With or without Pakistani support, many Kashmiri insurgent groups also seek Kashmir’s independence. Formal diplomacy modeled after Dayton or Shepardstown seems inconceivable in South Asia, given India’s objection to third-party mediation. With the postponement of the scheduled South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Katmandu at India’s insistence in the aftermath of the military takeover in Pakistan, the most effective form of summit-level communication to ease tension has been lost. Given this predicament, the only options seem to be keeping communication channels open and pressing for cooperative engagement.

Continuing punitive action against either or both the disputants seems counterproductive, as both possess weapons of mass destruction and are capable of aggravating systemic instability. At the moment, neither country seems willing to see reason and both appear to be behaving in a predictable Cold War-style fashion. The leading global nuclear power could not avert its defeat in Indochina nor could Moscow’s massive nuclear arsenal could save the Soviet Union from its fate. India has to take this lesson seriously. As for Pakistan, if it cares for the faithful, it should not risk the annihilation of 150 million Muslims who still live in India.

There is room for both preventive and integrative diplomacy. Asian powers must play a greater role in determining Asia’s destiny. Japan, in particular, has scope to play an active role in containing South Asian tension and in building a network of relationships. Committed to nonnuclear principles and to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Tokyo has the credibility to pursue peace and stability in South Asia. As a leading bilateral donor to most South Asian countries, and with a historical record of sympathy for a common South Asian destiny and no colonial legacy in the region, Japan has the support necessary to play a role in the South Asian peace process. The low-key fashion of Japanese diplomacy may also be an advantage in politically volatile South Asia.

As a part of preventive diplomacy, it is important to emphasize the need for reopening channels of communication, both at the bilateral and regional levels, so as to downplay areas of tension and to identify common interests. More important may be integrative diplomacy, i.e., bring South Asia into the Asia-Pacific framework of cooperative engagement. To this end, Tokyo may play a part in cooperation with China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the U.S., to ensure that South Asia is not left to its fate in the dark shadow of a nuclear rivalry that could affect global stability.

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