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Repressive Measures: India and China Have Seized on the Rhetoric of Anti-Terrorism to Steamroller Opposition

15 December 2001

Within hours of Thursday's attack on the Indian parliament, two responses immediately threw into sharp relief the danger it posed. One came from the Pakistani government, condemning the attack and offering sympathy; the second was from VK Malhotra, spokesman for the BJP, the majority party in the governing coalition in India, arguing for a "pro-active and hot-pursuit policy" in Kashmir.

Malhotra argued that the solution to the situation in Kashmir was to take a leaf out of the US book and attack the terror at source, a reference well understood in Delhi and Islamabad to mean Pakistan. Since then, anxious outsiders, including Britain, have been leaning on India, trying to calm the tensions that could lead to a third Indo-Pakistan war over the tragedy of Kashmir.

The war against terrorism has proved a blessing to governments embroiled in long-running conflicts, especially, though not exclusively, where the rebels are Muslim. In Nepal, the government has abandoned negotiation in favor of the use of force against the Maoist insurgency. In Tibet, China has increased repression under the guise of a campaign against terrorism. Long-standing grievances are being ignored in both these places.

But it is in Xinjiang and in Kashmir that the Chinese and Indian governments respectively have been offered a justification for the use of force that could prove a dangerous and counter-productive option. In both places, there is a historical dispute that, in the absence of negotiation, has led to violence. In both, there is a small terrorist network with links to al-Qaida. In both, secessionist sympathies are much wider than support for terrorism and have a much longer history. In both, thousands of civilians have become victims of the security forces. The difference now is that the security forces have a better chance of getting away with violence without international condemnation.

Last week, in a rare revelation of its security problem, the Chinese government published an account of terrorist incidents in Xinjiang over the last 10 years. According to the government, 40 people have been killed and 330 injured in incidents since the early 1990s - a total that hardly justifies the Chinese claim of major terrorism. Set against that total is a rather longer list of Chinese repressive measures, including the destruction of many mosques, that dates back to the 1950s.

But Beijing is not much interested in history. A recent Communist party directive revealed the breadth of Beijing's plans for the definition of the terrorist "threat". On the list were "underground gangs", Xinjiang separatists, "splittists" - including Tibetans - "unstable social elements" and the Falun Gong spiritual movement; all these are now defined as terrorist groups. (In a breathtaking act of spin-doctoring, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman recently claimed that a letter suspected of containing anthrax had been found inside a Falun Gong booklet. He later acknowledged that the "suspicion" of anthrax was unfounded.)

Since the US military campaign in Afghanistan began, the Chinese government has reinforced its military presence in Xinjiang, arrested 2,500 "separatists", reinforced the short border between Xinjiang and Afghanistan as well as the Tajikistan and Kazakhstan borders, and demanded that Uighur separatists captured with Taliban forces be handed over to China. China claims that there are several thousand of these. Diplomats and other analysts put it at no more than a few hundred.

Under this operation, which Beijing has called "Strike Hard, Severe Repression," three distinct groups are lumped together - "core separatists, leaders of the forces of religious extremism and violent terrorist, criminal elements." This is a model familiar from Chinese repression in Tibet, where Beijing merged resistance to the Chinese occupation and religious loyalty to the Dalai Lama into a single terrorist model, thus justifying, in Beijing's eyes, the repression of monasteries and religious practice as "anti-terrorism".

The pattern is being repeated in Xinjiang, where Uighur intellectuals have been detained and mosques put under tight surveillance. So far, Chinese actions in Xinjiang has provoked only the faintest of comments from the US administration.

Kashmir is an even more alarming case, not only because the death toll is much higher (some 70,000 Kashmiris have died in the last 10 years), but also because it threatens a potential conflict between South Asia's nuclear states, a catastrophe that would dwarf that of September 11. Kashmir, too, is a dispute that has festered because of decades of neglect. Kashmir is a largely Muslim state that was denied a referendum on partition in 1947 because the state's Hindu governor opted to join India, undoubtedly agains t the will of the population.

Despite two United Nations resolutions urging a referendum, India has refused to hold one. A long campaign of popular resistance to Indian rule began as a secular movement. But, during the CIA-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, encouraged the mojahedin to include Kashmir in their list of liberation struggles. Radical Islamists trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan began to operate in Kashmir. If September 11 was the byproduct of that war, so too - the Indian government would have us believe - is the war in Kashmir.

But there would be no rejoicing in Kashmir if India were to use the attack on its parliament as a pretext for further military action. There is no doubt that the history of Pakistan meddling in Kashmir is unfortunate, to put it mildly. But to define the unrest in Kashmir as terrorism sponsored by Pakistan is a monstrous distortion. President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, inherited a legacy of militant Islam, created in the 1980s, that he has been trying to dismantle.

He has supported the US action in Afghanistan, despite the noisy opposition of his own religious extremists and the unease of the wider population. He has placed several religious leaders under house arrest and has moved to close religious schools that preach jihad or to force them to conform to a secular educational curriculum. He has replaced the head of the security services and several senior officers whom he suspected of extremist sympathies. He has repeatedly called for negotiations on Kashmir; there has never been a Pakistani head of state more willing to talk about an issue that arouses violent feelings on both sides.

The Kashmir dispute has been ignored by the international community for nearly four decades and it has rarely been more dangerous. A decade ago, the UN general assembly adopted a resolution on measures to eliminate international terrorism - which said, among other things, that nothing in that resolution could be taken to prejudice the right of self-determination, freedom and independence laid out in the UN charter.

Kashmir is recognized by the UN as disputed territory. It is time that international attention was concentrated on the dispute before the war against terrorism provides the pretext for further tragedy.

Isabel Hilton.
Published in the Guardian.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001.

Index page on Response to attacks in US


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