Charleston Gazette editorial - 6/6/99

Kashmir: Nuclear threat looms

By James A. Haught


FOR MANY generations, while England ruled India, the presence of British armed power restrained ethnic hostility between the colony's Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.


But when the great human rights crusader Mahatma Ghandi finally shamed Britain into agreeing to liberate India, it became clear that a religious bloodbath might occur when the British army left, and no military force suppressed ethnic hates. In an attempt to prevent it, India was partitioned, with Pakistan becoming a separate homeland for Muslims.


The safeguard failed. After the British departed in 1947, massacres between Hindus and Muslims killed perhaps 1 million people. It was a terrible irony that Ghandi, an apostle of peace, inadvertently caused slaughter. Ghandi himself was assassinated by a Hindu militant who considered him "soft" on Muslims.


The Kashmir province between India and Pakistan became a battle zone. The region's Muslim majority sought to join Pakistan, but Kashmir's Hindu prince attached the province to India. India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir in 1948 - and again in 1965 - and again in 1971. (The latter conflict dislodged East Pakistan as the separate nation of Bangladesh.)


In 1989, another Muslim uprising began in Kashmir, and fighting has flared sporadically ever since. Tens of thousands of Kashmiris have been killed.


Now the combat has escalated suddenly. The Chicago Tribune commented:


"Like Belfast and Hebron, the Himalayan region of Kashmir is synonymous with intractable age-old political disputes that are never far from boiling over. Last week, they did boil over in the disputed area divided between India and Pakistan, with consequences fraught with peril and impossible to predict.


"India launched air strikes for the first time since 1971, hitting Pakistani and Afghan guerrillas who allegedly infiltrated across the dividing line in support of Kashmiri rebels. Pakistan responded by shooting down at least one Indian warplane. And just like that, the world's two newest nuclear powers were standing at the brink of catastrophe."


There's the rub: Since the 1971 war, both India and Pakistan have acquired nuclear bombs. So the interminable ethnic struggle could turn into the world's first nuclear religious war. To sensible people around the globe, the possibility seems unlikely, because it would be insane - but sanity hasn't played a major role in Hindu-Muslim relations over the years.


If the conflict "goes nuclear," the death toll in the teeming subcontinent could reach millions. Surely, neither nation wants this unimaginable horror.


We hope the United Nations throws all its resources into an urgent effort to calm both sides, and make them see that mutual extermination is no solution for ancient hates.