'Natural' disaster hits the poorest

At least 40,000 people are thought to have perished in the 7.6-magnitude earthquake that hit northern Pakistan, northern India and Kashmir - with Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, taking the full brunt. Subsequently, millions were left stranded with no food, water or shelter. To make matters worst, torrential rain has afflicted the region. However, while the actual earthquake itself was the product of geological fault lines, what communists stress above all else is the fact that we are not confronted here simply by a 'natural' disaster - one of those 'acts of god' that just happen every so often. No, nature - including earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes - is at all times mediated through the agencies of human society and class relations, which are in a constant state of change. Simply put, and no matter what spin governmental and religious ministers may come out with, it is a grim monument to capitalism that we have seen such a calamitous death toll. Clearly, the vast majority of those who died did so because they suffer from crippling poverty and marginalisation, living in a society with no governmental/state social-welfare system to speak of and forced to live in sub-standard accommodation. Constructed with little regard for the inadequate safety regulations, multi-storey buildings collapsed from the first floor. Bribery, corruption and lack of supervision made a few people rich "¦ but at the cost of thousands of deaths. Indeed, reports coming in from the affected areas starkly reveal that the whole infrastructure - such as it is - in Pakistan and Kashmir quickly fell apart. There is still no food, clean water or electricity in many parts. Those who did not lose absolutely everything are camping out on the streets, afraid to return home for fear of aftershocks - one of which registered 6.2 on the Richter scale. In other words, many more thousands are in danger of dying quite literally from neglect. Of course, here is the real story behind the earthquake. Given a real democracy and a planned economy, most buildings would have remained perfectly intact and where there was damage emergency measures would have ensured speedy and generous relief. After all, this part of the world periodically suffers from earthquakes, hence there is every reason why there should be robust building regulations and preparations in place for such an eventuality - but instead there is endemic corruption, the siphoning off of wealth to London, New York and Hong Kong and the pauperisation and degradation of the majority of the population. So it is most definitely not the case that the victims of the earthquake were totally random, as Respect councillor Michael Lavalette stated in his idiotic motion to Preston council after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. The working class and impoverished masses were in the front line - they are the one's who live in earthquake-vulnerable shanty towns and rural shacks. Predictably, anger is growing amongst the survivors. Many in the more remote parts of northern Pakistan and India have yet to receive any sort of aid or assistance at all. When Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh visited the disaster zone he was jeered by angry locals. "Government? We have given up on it," a woman in the mountain village of Garkote told Reuters. "Now it is up to god to save us" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4330488.stm). Grotesquely, the governments of the subcontinent have wasted huge sums on arms - India and Pakistan are now both nuclear. It is estimated, that by the end of 2005, Pakistan will spend 277 billion rupees on its military budget. For the same period, it will spend 11.7 billion rupees on education and a mere 4.128 billion rupees on health. Naturally, for all of the massive amount of money spent on the military, when it came to the earthquake relief effort, the sky was hardly thick with military helicopters and aircraft rushing to provide material aid and support to the injured, the cold and the hungry. Rather, earthquake or no earthquake, what really concerns the authorities is 'security'. Kashmir is one enormous military zone, with both the Indian and Pakistani military erecting an endless succession of checkpoints - all of which, of course, obstruct the passage of aid to the regions damaged by the earthquake. These checkpoints are designed not just to keep 'foreign militants' out, but also to keep out unwanted outsiders - in this case streams of refugees pouring over the border in search of food and shelter. Here we have a striking, and depressing, parallel with the instinctive response of the Indonesian government to the Boxing Day tsunami - that is, to continue its brutal military campaigns against secessionists in the province of Aceh, located right next to the epicentre of the earthquake which triggered the tsunami. As we saw, far from declaring a cessation of hostilities in the light of the tsunami, the Indonesian regime continued its military operations. In fact, as an Indonesian military spokesman confirmed to The Australian newspaper, while two-thirds of the military's 40,000-strong force in the province was taking part in the relief effort, the remaining third was engaged in military actions against insurgents (January 4). Furthermore, according to eyewitness accounts at the time, even that other two-thirds of the army was moving into secessionist-held territory under the guise of relief operations. Communists argue that money being raised for the earthquake victims in Kashmir should not go through the 'official' channels - where huge percentages will be pocketed by corrupt politicians and their friends and associates in the business sector. Nor should it go to the islamic charities - unlike Respect, we have no wish to further empower the mosques and the mullahs (see Respect press release, October 10). Money should go via working class and progressive groups and organisations. The entire Indian sub-continent has been plagued by structural poverty, inequality and backwardness and has been a hotbed of communalist/sectarian violence. Communists have no hesitation in pointing the finger at the main cause - the US-dominated world economy in which countries like India and Pakistan are locked into a subordinate position in the international pecking order. The export of call centres and students with degrees in computing will do nothing to change that. There is also the palpable burden of history and the venal role of a declining British empire, which in an act of revenge at being forced to hand over the jewel in its imperial crown ensured that the subcontinent was divided, and divided against itself. The prior conditions for India being torn asunder were put in place by the colonial authorities, who encouraged muslim separatism in order to weaken the Indian National Congress and others demanding independence. The British authorities cynically agreed to a partition. On June 3 1947 Attlee introduced a bill in the House of Commons calling for the independence and partition of India. On July 14, the House of Commons passed the India Independence Act, by which two independent dominions were created on the subcontinent. There followed a huge movement of people to and from either side of the newly created border and massive bloodshed. Millions moved and millions died. The Pakistan that gained statehood was artificial and inherently unstable. Eg, east and west Pakistan spoke entirely different languages and were separated by 1,500 miles of Indian territory. The west viewed the east not as an equal: more an object of exploitation. Military or semi-military governments have been the norm. Partition also planted the seeds of conflict between India and Pakistan over disputed areas and states. The main flashpoint being Kashmir. All but three of the 500 princely statelets were quickly absorbed by either Pakistan or India under guidelines laid down by Lord Mountbatten - the last British viceroy. However, Hyderabad, the most populated of the princely statelets, was ruled by a muslim, but had a hindu majority and was surrounded by territory that would go to India, while Junagadh (a small statelet with a muslim prince but a hindu majority) also did not fit neatly into the partitionist schema. Both hesitated but were taken into India. Jammu and Kashmir, proved to be the most problematic. The British had 'pacified' Kashmir in 1846 and installed an autocratic, corrupt hindu prince as ruler of this predominantly muslim region. Upon partition, Pakistani forces invaded Kashmir. The then hindu prince of Kashmir, Maharaja Sir Hari Singh, fled to Delhi and there agreed to place Kashmir under the dominion of India - with the region being given a form semi-autonomy. Indian troops were flown to Srinagar to engage the Pakistani forces. The fighting was ended by a UN ceasefire in 1949, but the region was divided between India and Pakistan along the ceasefire line. A constituent assembly in Indian Kashmir voted in 1953 for incorporation into India, but this was delayed by continued Pakistani-Indian disagreement and UN disapproval of the disposition of any portion of the region without a plebiscite. In 1955, India and Pakistan agreed to keep their respective forces in Kashmir 10 kilometres apart - the 'line of control'. A new vote by the assembly in Indian Kashmir in 1956 led to the integration of Kashmir as an Indian state - Azad Kashmir remained, however, under the control of Pakistan. India refused to consider subsequent Pakistani protests and UN resolutions calling for a plebiscite. The situation was complicated in 1959, when Chinese troops occupied the Aksai Chin section of the district of Ladakh. Indian-Pakistani relations became more inflamed in 1963 when a Sino-Pakistani agreement defined the Chinese border with Pakistani Kashmir and ceded Indian-claimed territory to China. Serious fighting between India and Pakistan broke out again in August 1965. A UN ceasefire took effect in September. In January 1966, president Ayub Khan of Pakistan and prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri of India met in Tashkent at the invitation of the Soviet government and agreed to the mutual withdrawal of troops to the positions held before the latest outbreak. Then, after a bloody, civil-cum-secessionist war in East Pakistan, which saw the establishment of the Bangladesh state, India and Pakistan went to war again in December 1971 - with India making further excursions into Kashmir. Finally, by December of 1972 a new ceasefire line along the positions held at the end of the 1971 war was agreed to by India and Pakistan. Since then, the 'Kashmiri question' has remained a source of constant tension and conflict. More to the point, as far as communists are concerned, the Kashmiri people have been denied the right to self-determination - they are viewed as mere pawns by the governments in India and Pakistan. The masses of India and Pakistan must demand the free organisation of such a plebiscite - which if it is to be democratic must see the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the repressive forces of both occupying states from Kashmiri territory. Communists say that the people of Kashmir, both in the state territory of India and Pakistan, should freely decide their own fate - whether or not to retain the status quo, go for a greater or lesser degree of autonomy, opt for full independence, etc. As things stand, we would be against any further fragmentation. Indeed, what objective circumstances demand is the reunification of the sub-continent, something that for communists goes hand in hand with the fight for a fully democratic and fully secular constitution and the rule of the working class in alliance with the rural and urban masses. Eddie Ford