Islamabad, Pakistan

Denial won”t do. in terms of global security, the Indo-Pak subcontinent is probably the most dangerous place on earth.

With a sixth of the world”s population living in an area roughly a third of the size of the United States, the region, dominated by a mostly Muslim Pakistan and a largely Hindu India, is heating up under their adversarial shadow. The next war between these two rival states, estranged successors to the British Raj, looms under the ongoing tensions over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Forbiddingly, it could be nuclear.

What is the opposite of faith, asks Salman Rushdie. Not disbelief. That”s too absolute, too final. Itself a kind of belief. Something more. Doubt.

Such is the state of affairs here. The cultures of affinity between these two countries could hardly produce a more ironic reality. Millions of Indians and Pakistanis share family ties across the border. They”re passionate about the same cricket batsmen and movie stars, the same rock bands and wedding rituals. Homogeneity has no place in the subcontinent, contrary to what all the war-mongers may sell. Even military units, more than a million of whose soldiers are currently poised at the borders for war, have the same regimental slogans and tie-colors which they inherited from colonization.

Ideology is the basis of the conflict. Pakistan, founded a day before India on Aug. 14, 1947 as a homeland for the subcontinent”s Muslims, was built on the foundation of a million lives claimed by a bloody partition. Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim state ruled by a Hindu Maharaja at the time, was given a choice to accede to either India or Pakistan, and opted for the former under circumstances which are disputed by the latter. Nonetheless, Kashmir is the “k” in Pakistan. The country was founded on the ideals of Muslim sovereignty and nationhood, and claims the state on that principle.

Meanwhile, a Muslim-majority Kashmir (the only such state in the union) is the last bastion of Indian secularity. That country gained independence on the grounds of Indian nationalism, where shared culture and geography matter, not religious affiliation. As The Economist recently put it, India”s “one nation” and Pakistan”s “two nation” ideologies form the core of this issue, and the battle between the two is as fierce and fundamental as that between communism and capitalism.

But what about the here and now. The current tension started escalating last Dec. 13 when armed militants (who India claims were Pakistan-backed) stormed the New Delhi parliament in a suicide attack that could have eliminated the Indian leadership but only claimed a few lives. After exchanging fierce rhetoric, the Indian leadership gave the orders to mobilize the military.

By the time I arrived a few days later, the Indians were mounting the largest troop movement on the international border since 1971, the last time the two countries had gone to war. My stepfather, an airline pilot, was worried about the prospects of his employer, the national flag-carrier PIA, all of whose flights over Indian airspace had been banned, crucially affecting revenue and jobs. My TV, usually brimming with Indian networks, was showing only local and Arab channels, for the Pakistani government had banned all cable service for Indian stations to stop the “propaganda”: a claim, I have observed, that is not without merit.

In Islamabad and New Delhi, another sort of service was being disconnected. Embassy personnel were being recalled by the respective foreign ministries of the two countries. Rumors such as that the Indians were burning classified documents in their embassy entered my chat-rooms. That”s when it really started to seep in. Embassy personnel usually are withdrawn and documents are burned when countries go to war.

Thus, geo-political precedents set by Sept. 11 are being played out in a strange political snake dance in the subcontinent. The cause of Kashmiri liberation relies heavily on violence, some of which could probably be termed as terrorist. Pakistan, though a claimant of “moral and diplomatic” support to the struggle, has probably provided financing, training and refuge to active militant groups involved. Using Dec. 13 as its own Sept. 11, along with its own conventional force advantage, India”s government is now trying to coerce Pakistan into banning such groups, but not without the overarching aim of shutting down the uprising in Kashmir, whose intensity, death-toll and other logistics make it worthy of being called a revolution of sorts.

But there is already a revolution brewing in Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf, the self-appointed yet highly popular and praised Pakistani president, has responded to Indian guns and Western diplomacy by further clamping down on extremist-groups, a process he had started even before Sept. 11, but has had to accelerate the process due to current realities.

This is a landmark in Pakistani history. It is difficult to recall a moment in recent times when the head-of-state of an Islamic republic, maybe not since Mustapha Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdul Nasser, had gone out of their way to actually introduce a more progressive version of Islam in their country. The opposite of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was happening here. Of course, there is a price attached to such fundamental change.

Traveling on an Airbus-310 with my stepdad, (who was captaining the PIA flight from Karachi to Islamabad, the capital) I found myself flying with the interior minister, Moinuddin Haider. He is the man currently in charge of implementing all the changes proposed by Musharraf, a counterpart to U.S. Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. An outspoken critic of Islamization, he also has a tendency to enjoy the aerial view from the cockpit instead of his usual first-class seat. All three of us were on the flight deck overlooking the Indian border to the East, chatting informally, when my stepdad asked the outspoken Haider about his most current statement against the mullahs in that day”s newspapers. The headlines had been glaring with a defiant Haider saying “We won”t let a few illiterate mullahs take over the country!” Why such a direct confrontation with a dangerous group, asked my dad. Was he (Haider) not risking high costs attached to such a method? Were the mullahs not supposed to be crazy?

“No high costs we can”t manage,” Haider responded bluntly. The mullahs had to go.

Two days later, Moinuddin Haider”s elder brother was shot dead in Karachi by assailants with automatic weapons. At least nine bullets pierced his body.

To prove my earlier point, these are the costs of a brewing revolution. In the face of war and uncertainty, the Pakistanis have embarked on a brave stage to progressive Islam and secularity, where life, not just the way you live it, is at stake. My dad could lose his job. I had already lost my TV channels. But the interior minister of the federal government had lost his brother. That”s a conflict within a conflict which is being overlooked. More importantly, the process is nowhere close to the simplicity India and the West are envisaging it as, and pressuring an angry nuclear state might not suffice either.

“India wants folded hands,” said Enver Ahmed, veteran bureaucrat and columnist for The News, one of Pakistan”s most respected newspapers. I was meeting him in his office in Islamabad, having green tea and craving a cigarette over the now firmly implemented no-smoking rule in government offices (that in itself is a big social change in a country where most men smoke and have little regard for government rules). When I prodded further with that had Pakistan not crossed the line with its backing of militants in Kashmir, he partially agreed.

“Yes, Pakistan has been adventurous, so to say, in its involvement with Kashmir. But India has never bothered to come to the negotiating table with this problem. For India, Kashmir is not a part of problem or the solution. What sort of sense does that make?”

Ahmed is correct. Too many Indians think that the Kashmiri problem has been conjured by Pakistan. Sure, Pakistan may have backed the Kashmiri insurgency, but India deserves to share the blame as well. India has not ruled Kashmir properly. Too many elections have been rigged, too many promises broken, the most important one being more than 50 years old, when Kashmir was assured to decide its own future through a plebiscite. Indian soldiers have committed outrageous human rights abuses there. Indian central governments have conveniently locked out state legislatures too sympathetic to autonomous causes. And India has never bothered to implement the U.N. Security Council resolutions on the area or bothered to approach a negotiated settlement with Pakistan. Hardly surprising that the Indians have got themselves an uprising to deal with.

What about worse-case scenarios? With more than a million troops poised at the borders, war could start almost by accident. Last week, U.S. spy satellites detected an unusual forward breach by a Indian strike-corps commander in one of the deployments which is aimed at southern Pakistan. The Pentagon warned India and notified Pakistan, and the general was sacked. Still, possibilities of critical escalation exist. If there is a war, winners and loosers will be decided by its methodology.

“In almost every war-game scenario I have seen drafted on paper between India and Pakistan, every time we see ourselves in a tight spot, we nuke,” said former Pakistan Air Force Wing Commander Shehryar Obaid. Obaid spent 15 years flying nuclear-capable Mirages and F-16s for Pakistan, the primary means of delivery of nuclear weapons till Pakistan recently developed its own nuclear capable missile system. Obaid is now an airline pilot, albeit a pessimistic one. “I don”t believe both sides when they say that they”re not going to use nuclear weapons. I don”t believe the governments and I don”t believe the media. The information system in this region is faulty. Even that could lead to war.”

According to many Pakistani, Indian and American war-game scenarios of a conventional war in the region, Pakistan loses. If it loses, it possibly resorts to nuclear weapons, having the capability to strike most northern and western Indian cities, including New Delhi and Bombay. In response, a debilitated but not destroyed India nukes back, destroying all of Pakistan (which lacks, to use a modern military catchism, “strategic depth”).

But that holocaustic argument is, thankfully, losing credibility. Command and control structures within both countries have been improved. The masses might get excited in the streets, as I saw through graffiti in Karachi where the country”s nuclear arsenal was called the “Islamic Bomb” aimed at an “Infidel India,” but the leadership of both countries does seem committed to a semblance of caution.

Still, some analysts here argue that deterrence is a white elephant in the subcontinent a useless, imaginary phenomenon. There is no ocean of separation like there was for the U.S. and the Soviet Union, nor is there a Europe in the middle to act as a buffer zone. Bombing Karachi is bad news for Bombay. Millions will die or suffer from fall out on either side, regardless of who bombs who. But then again, China and the USSR had both contiguous borders and nukes, and they never resorted to going nuclear when they fought a border war in 1969. Still, the aims and rhetoric of that conflict were considerably less than this one.

So, why the fatalism? Why do people, my own family included, resort to nuclear discourse like it was a tax-hike debate? Too bad it”s gonna happen, but you gotta deal with it anyway, so why make a big deal?

“Its about fear,” said Maj. Gen. Mohammed Tasneem, in a plush General Headquarters office in Rawalpindi, the seat of the Pakistani military establishment. Tasneem is currently the chief of military ordnance, the man who keeps tracks of all the missiles and warheads. “You see, in conventional war, there is a constant fear of loss. You lose a hand. Or a leg, or a wife, or a son, or a mother. You have to live with the pain and fear of such loss.

“In nuclear war, the one we are possibly facing, there is no such concept of loss. Everything is gone. Everyone is dead. No one is left. Thus there is no fear. That”s where your fatalism comes in.”

But fatalism is a large word. The political mood in the country varies, but many believe that there is a solution. Kashmir might be the “k” in Pakistan, but there are other dimensions to the country”s social political mould which need urgent reform. Military officials are talking about decreasing the incapacitating defense budget. Politicians are reconsidering shelving the hostile Kashmir rhetoric. Secular criticism and policy is actually being implemented, and one can see it in TV dramas, in presidential speeches, and in a very free press. Pakistan is at the crossroads of a secular revolution, and its people and leadership are willing to talk. Maybe India, and the world, should tune in.

Waj Syed can be contacted via e-mail at Read the entire three-day series online at

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