Nuclear powers' tug of war

FIGHTING BROKE out between India and Pakistan last week in the state of Kashmir. The Pakistani army claimed to have shot down two Indian fighter jets after Indian forces launched air strikes against Kashmiri "insurgents". It raises the prospect of another war between the two states over Kashmir, a prospect that is all the more horrendous now that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. Both states completed nuclear tests exactly one year ago.

Kashmir has been claimed by both powers ever since Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The British ruled the Indian subcontinent as a colonial empire. They fostered divisions between Muslims and Hindus in order to maintain their rule. When finally forced to abandon the empire they divided the subcontinent between a predominantly Muslim Pakistan and a mainly Hindu India. Around one million people died in the communal violence that followed.

Both the new states claimed the right to control the area of Kashmir, and the dispute has continued ever since. The state was claimed by the rulers of Pakistan because a majority of its inhabitants were Muslim. But the state was actually a peaceful mix of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

The ruling class of India and the ruling class of Pakistan have each used the question of who controls Kashmir to whip up feeling against the other and to bolster their position. There have been two wars over the issue since 1947 that have resulted in a Pakistan controlled area and an Indian controlled area of Kashmir. There is regular shelling across the border that divides the two but last week's fighting was the most intense for nearly 30 years.

A poll in 1995 found that 72 percent of the population favoured independence. Over 400,000 Indian troops are stationed in the region and at least 25,000 people have been killed in the last ten years. Captured insurgents are routinely tortured and summarily executed. As a result of Indian repression an increasing number of Islamist militants have been fighting to join with Pakistan throughout the 1990s.

But the Pakistani ruling class is no alternative to the Indian ruling class. The rulers of Pakistan use Islamist rhetoric to shore up a repressive regime. But, as a foreign diplomat in India said ominously last week, "the war in Kosovo provides a good background for any outrageous activity."