Saturday, January 16, 2010

India must not blink on Pakistan (January 17, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was an awesome demagogue. Much before the technique became common currency in the inspirational-talks circuit, he used an ‘interactive’ approach to keep his audiences enthralled. In the course of his speeches he would invariably pose anodyne questions to his listeners and then await the roar of approval. I recall listening on the radio to one of his speeches during the troublesome aftermath of liberation. He posed the question “Do you want more roads?” and waited for the inevitable response. He then asked, “Do you want more buses?” and then gloated over the mass reply.

I am reminded of Mujib in the context of an epidemic of apparent brotherhood that has suddenly gripped a small section of the media and civil society in recent weeks. At numerous occasions we have been asked the question: “Do you want peace between India and Pakistan?”

The answer is obvious. Apart from a handful of crazies, there isn’t anyone in India who is opposed to peace in the neighbourhood, whether it involves Pakistan, China or even Burma. It doesn’t require strategic affairs experts and Track 3 activists to tell us that India would rather be building roads and schools than diverting resources into expensive military hardware. I can’t speak for Pakistan but, presumably, the overall feeling across the Radcliffe Line wouldn’t be all that different. Sensible Pakistanis have had an overdose of jihad and wouldn’t mind exploring other facets of theology.

Of course, there is a flip side to the earnest desire for peace. There is an un-stated assumption that an undeclared war or, if you so prefer, a proxy war exists between India and Pakistan. It is a war that India has experienced in different ways throughout the past decade and which is also being waged in Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the anarchic zones along the Indo-Burmese border. The war has made life insecure in Indian cities, created zones of treachery in ghettos, diverted tourist traffic and even made it difficult for people to accept Rs 500 currency notes without fear of forgeries. Yes, the late Gen Zia-ul Haq’s “war of a thousand cuts” has cost India dearly — although Pakistan too has suffered from the blowback.

It is easy to buy short-term peace by following the essence of Mahatma Gandhi’s intriguing advice to the persecuted Jews of Hitler’s Germany: To be prepared for immeasurable suffering and even a massacre of the entire community since “to the god-fearing, death has no terror”. In political terms this would involve withdrawal from the Siachen heights, agreeing to dual sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir and conceding Pakistan’s overriding sphere of influence in Afghanistan. In other words, leave Pakistan with no substantial grievance against India and, presumably, emerge as such a morally superior nation that the Swedes would have no alternative but to confer the Nobel Prize for Peace on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

If you imagine this is a caricature, just examine the fine print of the writings of those who are praising the “instincts” and “tactical acumen” of the Prime Minister and advocating a “region-led” (as opposed to a “US-led”) approach to Afghanistan. The grapevine in Lutyens’ Delhi suggests that the advocates of such a foreign policy course-correction have the ears of the Prime Minister, but that could well be conjecture. Manmohan does have a penchant for encouraging others to assume the part of a stalking horse — witness Jairam Ramesh’s role in the climate change debate — and taking refuge behind a shield of deniability. The joint Indo-Pakistani statement in Sharm el-Sheikh was one of the few occasions where he allowed full play to his “instincts” and “tactical acumen”. The result was a shamefaced retreat before Parliament and a silly bid to blame the unacceptable formulations on “clumsy” drafting.

What has happened in the months following Sharm el-Sheikh to warrant an overdrive for peace? Pakistan has persisted with its obstructionist attitude towards investigations into the 26/11 Mumbai carnage; more evidence has emerged of Pakistani involvement in the massacre; the wafer-thin line between the Pakistani state and ‘non-state players’ such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba has disappeared; Pakistan itself has been plagued by daily attacks on civilian and military targets by suicide bombers; large chunks of western Pakistan are in the midst of a civil war; the fragile civilian Government in Islamabad has become even more shakier and there is concern over who is actually in charge; and the Kerry-Luger legislation has set the stage for greater US involvement in the civil administration of Pakistan.

If Pakistan was a dangerous place before 26/11, it has become infinitely more volatile in the ensuing 14 months. This is no doubt tough on the Pakistani people, particularly that section of the middle classes which is more at ease in Mumbai and Delhi than at home. To be unable to reciprocate their goodwill towards India is painful and there is a very strong case for enlarging the scope of people-to-people contacts with Pakistan, if only to showcase India’s soft power.

India could certainly do with more visits by Pakistani cricketers, musicians, artists, novelists and others who are genuinely committed to cross-border amity. There is even a case for unilaterally allowing more Pakistani traders to sell their fruits, carpets and shoes to access the Indian market without expecting reciprocity. If this is what is meant by ‘peace’, India should be prepared to go the extra mile.

But that’s where it has to stop for the moment. As far as Government-to-Government relations are concerned, India has absolutely no reason to let down its guard. At least not until there is conclusive evidence that the Pakistani establishment has become weary of persisting with a policy that is aimed at causing maximum pain to India.

The Government of India must not blink.

Sunday Pioneer, January 17, 2010

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