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India And Pakistan Were On The Brink Of Nuclear War In 1990, Till The US Stepped In

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The Kashmir crisis of 1990 was set off by the conjunction of long-standing subcontinental problems with the global events of 1989. Since the India–Pakistan war of 1971, Kashmir had receded into the background. Although that war was not fought over Kashmir, India ensured that the Shimla Agreement of 1972 placed the onus of resolving the dispute on the two neighbours and effectively ruled out any role for external actors. Over the following years, New Delhi also attempted to tighten its political grip on Kashmir by co-opting the stalwart leader Sheikh Abdullah. It did not work out like that. In power, the Sheikh proved a doughty defender of Kashmir’s autonomy and resisted New Delhi’s attempts to undermine it. After his death in September 1982, his son, Farooq Abdullah, took over as chief minister. Farooq lurched between confrontation and cooperation with New Delhi, resulting first in his dismissal from office and then an alliance with the ruling Congress party for the Kashmir elections of 1987.

Meanwhile, Pakistan was biding its time. As early as 1980, Zia had started to tie up with the Jamaat-i-Islami to recruit young Kashmiris from India for a covert war. The America-supported Afghan jihad provided the organizational model, the financial resources and the political cover for a future campaign in Kashmir. The dismissal of Farooq gave a fillip to these efforts by galvanizing the small Islamist groups in the Kashmir Valley. These outfits also took their ideological cue from the Islamist revolts in Iran and Afghanistan. The Islamic Students League, for instance, designed a flag depicting a globe, atop which was planted a Kalashnikov rifle with a flag on its bayonet carrying a verse from the Koran and beneath which was written: ‘Muslims of the world, unite’.

Ahead of the state elections in March 1987, a dozen Islamist parties that had hitherto lacked electoral clout banded together to form the Muslim United Front (MUF). The MUF’s campaign was avowedly pro-Pakistan and it appeared to strike a chord with young Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley. But the MUF did poorly in the polls. The coalition led by Farooq won a sweeping victory amidst allegations of widespread rigging. As political unrest began to bubble up in the Valley, the ISI reached out to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF)—a nationalist outfit that had long sought to wage an armed struggle for Kashmir’s independence but had slipped into hibernation in exile. Although the JKLF lacked the Jamaat’s Islamist credentials, it was seen as more capable of recruiting youngsters for an insurgency against India. In early 1988, the first lot of Kashmiris from India trained under the ISI’s supervision.

By the summer of 1988, the JKLF had kicked off a campaign of bombing and terror in the Valley. The JKLF’s insurgency unfolded against the wider backdrop of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the onset of the Palestinian Intifada. Their most high- profile success was the kidnapping in December 1989 of the daughter of the Indian home minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. The appointment of Sayeed, a Kashmiri politician, to this senior cabinet position had been intended as an olive branch to his people. Instead, the kidnapping and subsequent release of his daughter touched off a massive wave of popular protest against India and accelerated the insurgency by drawing many more recruits. The ISI responded by massively scaling up its involvement in the insurgency.

In early 1990, New Delhi accused Pakistan of arming and training Kashmiri militants to wage a covert war against India. Islamabad shot back that it was merely providing diplomatic and moral support for ‘freedom fighters’ in Kashmir. The Pakistan Army also undertook a large-scale military exercise close to the border with India. Very like India’s Exercise Brasstacks, Zarb-i-Momin was aimed at once at testing Pakistan’s conventional military capabilities and sending a deterrent message to India against flexing its muscles in response to the escalating insurgency in Kashmir. The Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, had been in power for just about a year and had limited say on strategic matters. After conferring with the army chief and the President of Pakistan, Bhutto sent a senior diplomat, Yaqub Khan, to convey a tough message to India. In his meetings with the Indian foreign minister and prime minister, Yaqub spoke bluntly of Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir and elliptically about ‘clouds roaring with thunder’ and ‘lightning in the skies’.

The Indians were unsure if this was a veiled nuclear threat, but they took it seriously. Prime Minister V.P. Singh made it clear that ‘India would have to review its peaceful nuclear policy if Pakistan employed its nuclear power for military purposes’. Indian intelligence suggested that Pakistan was planning a surprise attack in northern Punjab to sever the lines of communication on the Indian side and a declaration of independence by Kashmiri insurgents that would provide a pretext for the Pakistan Army to attack the Valley. In consequence, some Indian Army formations were mobilized. On 13 March 1990, Bhutto added fat to fire when she travelled to Pakistani Kashmir and vowed a ‘thousand-year war’ in support of the insurgents. While the statement may have been designed to shore up her domestic standing, it was taken gravely by the Indians. Prime Minister Singh responded in Parliament: ‘I warn them that those who talk about 1,000 years of war should examine whether they will last 1,000 hours of war.’ Warning the Pakistanis that ‘such a misadventure would not be without cost’, he exhorted Indians to be ‘psychologically prepared for war’.

The Bush administration was alarmed by this slide towards conflict in the subcontinent. Already in January 1990, a senior State Department official had been sent to India and Pakistan to confer on the situation in Kashmir. The ensuing military moves and political warnings led the CIA to worry about the prospect of war and the shadow of nuclear weapons. In early April, Islamabad complained to Washington that Indian forces had been moved into offensive positions. Although the American ambassadors in both countries confirmed that this was not true, the State Department publicly warned that ‘there is a growing risk of miscalculation which could lead events to spin dangerously out of control’. Since the CIA remained concerned about the potential for nuclear use in the event of war, the Bush administration decided in mid-May to send Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates to South Asia.

Arriving in Islamabad on 20 May, Gates met the Pakistani President and army chief—Bhutto was out of the country. Gates warned the Pakistanis that if a war broke out, it would not remain confined to Kashmir. The Americans had war-gamed every such scenario and were sure that Pakistan would end up losing the war. What is more, in the event of war, Islamabad could not expect any support or assistance from Washington. Gates urged Pakistan to refrain from supporting terrorism in Kashmir, tone down its rhetoric, and work towards confidence-building measures with India. The United States was willing to help such a process by technically verifying that both sides had pulled back their troops. In New Delhi, Gates relayed a similar message, telling the Indians to back off from the brink and adding that the Pakistanis would shut down the terrorist training camps. Although the Pakistanis had held out no such specific assurances, Gates took it that they would fall in line with the American warning. The Indians, however, insisted that until Pakistan turned off support for the insurgents, they could not initiate talks.

Nevertheless, in the wake of the Gates mission, both countries took unilateral steps to defuse the crisis. India withdrew its armoured formations to their peacetime locations and proposed several confidence-building measures. Pakistan too agreed to retract its forces and commence an expansive dialogue between the two sides’ foreign secretaries. Throughout the crisis, the Bush administration refrained from taking any position on Kashmir and maintained that it was for the two sides to discuss bilaterally. This appeared to fit snugly with India’s position on this thorny issue. Subsequently, however, American officials indicated to their Indian counterparts that they might be willing to facilitate a solution by acting as a conduit for an exchange of suggestions by the two countries. They also indicated that while they might not favour a plebiscite, Kashmir remained disputed territory and Pakistan’s claims could not altogether be ignored.


Excerpted with permission from “The Most Dangerous Place” by Srinath Raghavan, published by Penguin India.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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