Kargil war: a post-mortem

Issue 

By Siddartha

DELHI — "The Kargil war [in Kashmir between India and Pakistan] was forced on India. It had no other choice." This was the Indian establishment's consensus on the Kargil crisis. But let us stretch this argument a few steps further.

If the intrusions recur, if two, three, many more Kargils are forced on India, then we would have no choice but to go for a full-fledged war. If this was forced on us, a nuclear conflagration would be inevitable on the subcontinent. We would be left with no other choice except to resign ourselves to a nuclear holocaust. Doesn't this sound equally logical?

The entire crux of the foreign policy of a civilised nation should revolve around the objective of avoiding a war, and intrusions. Let us draw a balance sheet.

The real winner

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims it won a spectacular diplomatic victory by getting the United States and other Western powers to stand on India's side on Kargil, isolating Pakistan. In the same breath, it adds that it succeeded in avoiding any third-party mediation.

Even the US spokespersons' occasional reiteration, in a mocking tone, that they were not mediating but only taking a "personal interest" was interpreted as US sensitivity to Indian sensibilities over mediation. But the triangular telephone diplomacy leaves nobody in doubt.

Meanwhile, the pro-US media columnists have started peddling their dubious advice, asking what was wrong with accepting mediation, so long as it was favourable to us. Perhaps in these jubilant times it is not proper to ask the inconvenient questions: "Is the 'honest broker' without any agenda or design of its own in south Asia?" and "What is its record of 'mediation' in the Middle East and elsewhere?".

While senior US State Department officials claim notable diplomatic gains in South Asia, the BJP ultra-nationalists continue to put up a brave face to cover up their abject surrender. The ultra-nationalists now find themselves at the US imperialists' mercy.

The developments in Kargil since Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's meeting with the US president show that they followed a scenario prearranged by the US with the two countries. How much leverage the US has acquired over India will be clear only when the government that assumes office in October is called upon to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The US intervention in the bilateral affairs of the two countries is probably the most disturbing outcome of the Kargil conflict. This has also added a new dimension to the complex nature of India-Pakistan relations.

Accelerated arms race

If the accelerated arms race following Pokhran-II [Pokhran was the location of India's nuclear tests] contributed directly to the Kargil crisis, the intrusion sparked off a fresh round of the race.

With the Kargil conflict stretching into a long military engagement, the Indian government made an emergency allocation of 6 billion rupees to the Ministry of Defence to acquire military hardware and high-altitude clothing for the army fighting in Kashmir.

The army is all set to import about 90 Russian battle tanks and is finalising talks with Soltam of Israel to upgrade about 35 Soviet-supplied artillery field guns at around Rs10 million each.

In addition, the army has been seeking from the US specialised non-lethal equipment not banned under the post-Pokhran II sanctions on military sales.

Following the April 11 test flight of an Agni II intermediate range ballistic missile, Pakistan test-fired a Ghauri II ballistic missile and Shaheen 1 surface-to-surface missile three days later. Warding off criticism that the test had renewed fears of a missile race with Pakistan, New Delhi maintained, "There is no arms race, there is no danger". Sharif said Pakistan's tests were to ensure that its "minimum deterrent capability" is technically credible.

The Agni II marked not only a clear rejection by India of the post-Pokhran calls for the non-weaponisation of India's nuclear capability and for the non-production of the delivery capability. It also marked the beginning of a new race on the subcontinent to match missile for missile and bomb for bomb.

Between them, India and Pakistan account for more than 80% of the region's defence spending. India's US$10 billion spending has settled at 2.5% of its GNP, but, in total, the region's spending is higher than any other except the Middle East.

Given the precarious state of its finances, Pakistan is under pressure to cut back on defence expenditure, which stands at around 6% of its GNP. However, in the recent budget, the Pakistan government announced that defence spending had gone up by around 10% this year.

But this increase, taken in absolute figures, pales before the 50% hike intended in India in the Ninth Plan period. To create bipartisan consensus, Arun Singh — who, as the minister of state for defence under Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, created a shopping list of Rs1.25 trillion worth of military modernisation in the late '80s — has been summoned from oblivion.

The BJP is not the only party talking about a massive weapons purchasing spree. Kargil has made the issue of multiplying India's firepower a matter of consensus across the political spectrum. The Congress party, in its recent draft election manifesto, reportedly promised stepped-up allocations for defence.

Massive cost

According to an estimate by ICICI Securities and Finance Company, daily expenditure in Kargil was, by conservative estimates, Rs400-500 million. The whopping war bill will be further increased by the additional costs of a permanent vigil and purchase of conventional weaponry. It would cost the exchequer about Rs100 million a day to physically keep a watch on the Kargil-Batalik stretch alone.

The estimated cost of this vigil along the entire "line of control" is much more; from the present Rs30 billion it is expected to go up to Rs100-120 billion per annum (i.e., a quarter of the defence budget).

Talking tough is not going to solve problems for India. The victory in Kargil has rewarded the Indian army with an albatross around its neck.

One more intrusion would mean too much of a loss of face for India, which it can avert only by embarking on a controlled war on a higher threshold. Now that India has ruled out talks for so long as there is militancy in Kashmir, avoiding such a risky course will mean maintaining an eternal vigil on the entire line of control.

The army has drawn up a massive plan for stringing troop formations over some 850 kilometres, with a vigilance post every 200 metres. Troops will be posted on the line of control all year round to prevent another incursion.

"Kargil did not put much pressure on the Indian economy", claimed a confident finance minister, Yashwant Sinha. But the cabinet cleared the collection of Rs40-50 billion by imposing a levy (called the "Kargil tax") on individual income tax, corporate tax and excise or customs duty, to defray expenses incurred in Operation Vijay [in Kargil]. The finance minister has said that, given the "groundswell of patriotism experienced across the country", the target base for the proposed tax could be widened.

Since the coming elections will require Rs19-20 billion, the burden on the government's finances is going to grow. Patriotism, of course, carries a price tag.

There are any number of hawks and self-styled strategic experts in India who advocate imposing an arms race to break the back of Pakistan's economy. But not only N-bombs, missiles, fighter planes and new generation smart weapons can trigger off military spending. A few hundred Afghans, cannon fodder available on summons, can send India's defence spending shooting up.

In this sense, Kashmir, acknowledged as disputed territory by the international community, and with a population alienated by the Indian state, has proved to be the most lethal deterrent in the hands of Pakistan.

Cost for democracy

Kargil has taken its toll on democracy on both sides. Vajpayee, only a caretaker prime minister, adamantly refused to convene a special session of the Rajya Sabha to discuss the Kargil crisis. This government was accountable to no-one, and saffron [Hindu fundamentalist] designs for an autocratic takeover — at least for a short while — were amply revealed when some pro-saffron columnists called for a national government under Vajpayee's leadership.

But Indian democracy perhaps took the maximum beating from the rising surge of competitive ultra-nationalism. While Pakistani newspapers like Dawn and the News blasted the Pakistani military establishment for its adventurism, the Indian newspapers, supposedly the sentinels of democracy, went for self-imposed censorship.

For the almost two months that the nation was pushed into a warlike situation, all other real issues were eclipsed. Now that Kargil is over and the countdown for the elections has started, Kargil will be the major electoral plank for the main parties.

As much as the BJP alliance is glorifying the pyrrhic victory in Kargil, the opposition is now raising questions to put the BJP in the docks for its "intelligence failure" and failure to act in time. These same parties, which competed to outdo each other in fuelling the flames of war, now try to score points against each other in jingoism.

It is still not clear who will reap the Kargil harvest, but if the election campaign is charged with the same ultra-nationalist frenzy, the consequences for peace and normalisation will be disastrous. It will be worse still if the guns of Kargil, even after falling silent, drown out other vital issues like unemployment, price rises and corruption.

The consequences of Kargil for the fragile democracy in Pakistan have been more disastrous. One line of thinking attributes the otherwise senseless military adventurism of the Pakistani generals to their desperation to rewrite their position in relation to the civilian establishment.

More ominous are the signs of the ascendancy of Islamic fundamentalism. India paints an exaggerated picture of the Talibanisation of Pakistan to scare public opinion in the West, but India's Pakistan policy is geared precisely to bring about such an outcome.

The Kargil conflict has shown that hardliners on both sides of the border understand each other best. The saffron warmongers are happy if India can be pushed into a state of permanent conflict, or even an occasional limited war. The same is the case with a section of the military brass and the fundamentalists in Pakistan.

[Abridged from the August issue of Liberation, the magazine of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)].

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