Kashmiris prepare for nuclear war

Click to follow
IN THE capital of "Free Kashmir", inside the headquarters of a force of Islamic freedom fighters, a bearded man nicknamed "Ayatollah" assesses the coming war with India. "Now we will enjoy the fighting," he says, smiling pleasantly, "because the Indians are fundamentalists and we are fundamentalists, too!"

India and Pakistan have been locked in struggle over the beautiful Himalayan region of Kashmir for nearly 50 years. More than 90 per cent of Kashmiris are Muslims, and most believe Kashmir became part of India by deception. Since 1989 the war has intensified: in what the disaffected call "Indian- occupied" Kashmir, the fight between Indian soldiers and Islamic insurgents has cost about 20,000 lives in the last 10 years.

But now a new and unstable factor has suddenly been tossed into this grim war of attrition: Hindu nationalism. The arrival of this force in the international arena was signalled on 11 May, when India tested three nuclear bombs. A week later, India's hardline home affairs minister, LK Advani, spelled out to Pakistan what it was all about. Testing the bomb, he said, "has brought about a qualitatively new stage in Indo-Pakistan relations ... it signifies India's resolve to deal firmly and strongly with Pakistan's hostile designs and activities in Kashmir."

To many in Pakistan and Kashmir, Mr Advani means war. "The kind of threats that Advani is hurling at Pakistan," said the Pakistan newspaper, The News, on Friday, "betray an urge to go beyond verbal ultimatums."

Kashmir's situation combines the worst aspects of Cold War Germany or Korea - families divided for decades - with brutal internal repression, and no resolution in sight.

With a population of about 4 million, this broad, well-watered valley has the misfortune to be of immense strategic importance.

Hemmed in by India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan, and historically the route of choice for hordes sweeping down into the north Indian plains, no one could ever leave it alone. Here Kipling's Great Game was played out. Today's troubles are the Great Game played according to nasty modern rules.

India's first war with Pakistan finished on 1 January 1949, leaving Kashmir with a ceasefire line curling arbitrarily through it, separating the Indian- controlled sector - the bulk - from a long, narrow strip controlled by Pakistan. The western sector is called "Azad Kashmir" - Free Kashmir - in Pakistan, and if LK Advani's threats are followed through, it is here the fourth Indo-Pakistan War will break out.

In places the line is as much as two kilometres wide; elsewhere it narrows to a mere 20 metres, with wire and mines in between, heavily bunkered and with lots of trenches. As it is too dangerous to bring supplies and material in by air, pack-animals are used. It looks just like the western front in the First World War. "For the troops it is mind-bendingly boring," according to one observer, "so if they see something move on the far side, they tend to shoot it".

India's principal argument with "Free Kashmir", and main pretext for attack, is that the Pakistani side is fuelling the insurgency on India's side. This is officially denied: former prime minister of Free Kashmir (the statelet is a puppet of Pakistan) Mumtaz Rathur told The Independent, "The people of the area are fighting for themselves - we have no means to help them."

But in the statelet's capital, Muzaffarabad, the Islamic freedom fighters of Hizbu Mujahideen tell a different story. "When everything else failed, we shouldered the gun," said "Ayatollah", a high-school teacher in Indian Kashmir, until he was made homeless by the Indian authorities in 1993.

"There are thousands of family men like me doing it. We go across the Line of Control when ordered to go. It takes between one and two weeks to cross the line. We can only travel at night, sleeping during the day.

"The misery is that, after we attack Indian soldiers, we safely reach our homes, but the Indians take revenge on the civilian population."

The next misery, if Pakistanis read Mr Advani aright, is that India will punish Kashmiris on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, too, with consequences that cannot be predicted.

Mumtaz Rathur's prognosis is grim. "I think if war starts," he said, "it will not be an ordinary war but an atomic war, and will spoil the peace of the whole region."

"The situation here is desperate," said a young man in a village on the road to the Line of Control, "but people in South Asia are not revolutionaries by nature. People want independence, but they don't want any struggle."

Troops are gathered 30 kilometres from here in their tens of thousands. One spark and another war could start - just for India to prove again that it is the bigger bully. The not-so-great game goes on.