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In a special report for Peace News, Lindsay Barnes talked with Indian, Pakistani and international peace groups about nuclear tensions in the ongoing Kashmir conflict.

Nuclear war over Kashmir: a real threat

International and grassroots peace groups are continuing to urge strong action to defuse the escalating tension between Pakistan and India over Kashmir - mostly out of fear for an “accidental” launch of a nuclear weapon.

The Kashmir flashpoint is the most dangerous nuclear threat in the world today, according to the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament (MIND), a New Delhi-based peace group. This is because the temptation to use nuclear weapons is the greatest during war or near-wartime conditions when mutual tensions and hostilities are at their peak, the group said.

Kashmir has been at the heart of three of four wars between Pakistan and India since their bitter partition in 1947, with the last war occurring after both had been declared nuclear powers. The missile flight time between them is only five to eight minutes, said MIND.

Views differ as to how likely it is that either country would consciously decide to use nuclear weapons against each other. On the one hand, there may be hope. India is the only democratic state to have declared a No First Use (NFU) policy regarding its nuclear arsenal. The Pakistan government has said officially that it would not be testing nor openly deploying its nuclear weapons, unless India did so first. Yet Pakistan has refused to rule out a nuclear strike in the country's defence, the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) in India pointed out.

Chest thumping

In the latest tensions, the long hostile neighbours have been accused of unrestrained and utterly irresponsible “nuclear chest-thumping”. India is both smug and sorely lacking in any sign of serious concern because it has an “entirely unfounded confidence that (it) can pull of a miraculously last-minute pull back from the nuclear brink,” said J Sri Raman, convenor of the Movement Against Nuclear Weapons (MANW).

The CNDP has also accused the two countries of lacking any concern: “The fact that even a `limited' nuclear war can cause the loss of three million lives in the two countries, and that the situation is actually fraught with greater and graver dangers, has apparently made no difference to the warmongers on both sides.”

This is cause for anxiety when coupled with a perceived ignorance in both countries of the horrific effects of the nuclear bomb. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) has had repeated reports that “neither the public, nor the politicians, nor the military leaders are adequately informed about the medical and environmental consequences of nuclear war”.

Yet there is general consensus among anti-nuclear groups that, as outlined by MIND, the real danger may lie instead with three particular risks. These are: the nuclear weapons falling into unauthorised hands, accidental fires or explosions in the vicinity of such weapons, or a “miscalculation” through faulty information processing or due to a failure of technology, leading to an inadvertent weapons launch.

Cold sweats in Cold War

Nor are these risks far-fetched when compared with actual events in recent history. It has surfaced that during the Cold War we repeatedly faced global nuclear disaster despite the USSR and USA spending billions of dollars on securing their defence weapons control systems.

It is estimated that the two superpowers experienced no less than 20,000 false alarms between 1977 and 1984 alone. Of these, 1,000 were serious enough for bombers and missiles to be put on full alert. The risk for India and Pakistan, however, is “much, much worse”, said MIND's Dr Satyajit Rath.

India is estimated to have around 65 nuclear weapons and Pakistan between 24 and 48, according to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF). Strong doubt is being expressed as to how secure these weapons are. MIND has accused India and Pakistan of a poor safety culture and a relatively high rate of accidents, compared with the world average. For instance, their first generation weapons do not have adequate safeguards such as authorisation locks and insensitive explosives, it said.

Furthermore, there is serious concern about the military and intelligence infrastructures of both countries. “Admiral L Ramdas, retired Chief of the Indian Navy, stated earlier this year, `India and

Pakistan lack effective command, control, communication and intelligence systems. When these infrastructures are not there, it makes the whole system more sensitive, accident-prone, and therefore dangerous,'“ said NAPF's Carah Ong.

Calls for action

Since the crisis reached new heights this year, both sides have taken limited steps towards defusing tensions, an advance that has been welcomed by the Movement Against Nuclear Weapons (MANW). But there is caution against early optimism. The only way to prevent “a nuclear disaster of historic proportions” is by ridding South Asia of nuclear weapons altogether, said MIND.

In the interim the group called for India and Pakistan's leaders to negotiate nuclear risk-reduction measures. These measures would be transitional only and no substitute for disarmament. The preferred measure is non-deployment: separating nuclear warheads from their delivery systems (eg planes and boats) for storage elsewhere and vigilant monitoring - which would mean sacrificing military readiness in the interest of safety. Furthermore, people-to-people contact, transport and trade between the two countries must be resumed.

Pakistan must disarm itself of nuclear weapons, irrespective of India's stance, said MB Naqvi of the Pakistan Peace Coalition: “Unilateralism is the test of anyone's sincerity to a noble cause.”

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan stand accused of playing with the fate of the Kashmiris. “Perpetuation of the crisis is important for survival of both the governments,” said Saswati Roy from Swadhina, a development organisation for women and children in Calcutta, India, and a War Resisters' International affiliate. “It enables them to divert the attention of people (away) from their respective countries degenerating socio-economic realities.” Kashmiris should be allowed to articulate their views in shaping their own destiny, rather than having decisions dumped upon them.

Lindsay Barnes is the Peace News assistant news editor and a freelance journalist. She lives in Britain.