The depth of the historic turning-point of 2001-2 is fearfully underlined by the latest news from the sub-continent. The latest link in the chain of events that began with 9/11, continued with the Afghanistan war and saw an ever-more barbarous Palestine-Israel war threatens to dwarf them all. All-out war threatens between two of the most populous states on earth, the latest and most enthusiastic nuclear-armed states. Just as the US and Russia announce a new stage in the reduction of their still-awesome nuclear arsenals, India and Pakistan stand on the brink of a war that could lead to the most terrible violence anywhere, worldwide, since the first primitive atomic bombs were dropped in 1945.
Bush is frightening enough: but the combination of Vajpayee and Musharref could prove far more deadly. Academic political and international understanding are almost surreally impotent in the face of this threat. Still mesmerised by America, critical social science offers us little grip on the nuclear militarism of the Asian great powers. While the intelligentsia is preoccupied with the ‘new imperialism’ – or with Negri and Hardt’s fashionable ideas of an amorphous decentred ’empire’ – old-style imperialism comes up from behind, replete with threats of devastating war, courtesy of south Asia’s rulers.
The Indian elite rules a huge, disparate quasi-empire of over one thousand million people – many more than all the European empires combined at the peak of their power in the last century. The Pakistani generals command a smaller but also impressive model, with over two hundred million souls. In both states, the English-speaking political and military classes seem determined to ape the worst characteristics of the British Raj that they shrugged off almost 55 years ago. Like the European elites of an earlier age, Asia’s most powerful rulers preside over powerful imperial centres, their mutually self-destructive rivalry faithfully mirrored in terrible arrogance towards subordinate peoples and the poor alike, as well as their state rivals.
India has stood as a model of ‘democracy’ for half a century, and it has avoided the extremes of mass death (such as those in anti-democratic China in the same period). But India’s democratic virtues go no further than those of the ‘democratic’ Britain of Asquith and Lloyd George, compared to the Kaiser’s Germany in 1914. India’s imperial arrogance – its refusal to address the self-determination of Kashmir – stands after all at the heart of the present crisis. The hands of India’s Hindu nationalist government are dripping with the blood of Muslims slaughtered by its militants in Gujarat earlier this year, as Arundhati Roy – trenchant critic of the elite’s callously disregard of the poor in the Narmada Valley ‘development’ – desribes. Pakistan is certainly no better – its tenuous, corrupt elite democracy has been periodically snuffed out by military dictators for whom Kashmir and anti-Indian mobilisation are welcome distractions from poverty and oppression at home. Its rulers have indeed been sponsors of both the Taleban and the Islamist terrorists who attack India.
No one should be fooled that the rapid development of both countries under globalising conditions will be an overriding inhibition against military folly. Time and time again rulers have boxed themselves into conflicts from which they can see no way out but to actually use their military hardware. War has already begun in the escalation of border firing which is reducing villages to rubble: its extension seems highly likely, and only time will tell how far the mutually irresponsible elites will take it. The voices of Western leaders are too little, too late, and the UN has been outrageously inactive. What this crisis shows, so far, is the limits to Western-global power. No doubt, as the scale of the possible catastrophe and its huge effects around the world sinks in – these could far exceed September 11 – Western leaders will try again to massage the egos of the rival despots and negotiate a halt to the fighting before nuclear weapons are used. But it is by no means certain that they will exceed. Just as during the Cold War, we should begin to contemplate the thinness of the line that separates us from massive destruction.