Sunday, January 13, 2013

A dish best served cold

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Wednesday, Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control, fired on an Indian army patrol and killed two jawans. They then subjected the bodies to “barbaric and inhuman mutilation”—an act that revived memories of the brutal killing of Captain Saurabh Kalia and the mutilation of his body during the Kargil war.

Not unnaturally, this provocative act has outraged public opinion and nullified the contrived, gush-gush diplomacy of recent months. No foreign policy can work in defiance of the popular mood and, for the moment, attempts to ‘normalise’ India-Pakistan relations are destined to be in deep freeze. However, before emotive calls for retribution unsettle matters further, it is instructive to travel down a by-lane of history.

History is rarely the great healer but its reading can often help understand contemporary events a shade better.

In Return of a King, a thoroughly researched and gripping account of the First Afghan War of 1839-42, popular historian William Dalrymple has vividly described the unspeakable horrors of two military expeditions across the Khyber and Bolan Passes. A passage relating to the return journey through the Khyber Pass of the ‘army of retribution’ in November 1842 stands out: “The following day, (Neville) Chamberlain and John Nicholson cork-screwed down the path just below Ali Masjid, accompanied by the chaplain Allen. Turning a sharp corner the three found the road thickly strewn with the bodies of their colleagues from whom they had parted the previous afternoon. The entire party had been trapped and overwhelmed by an Afridi ambush. Now their remains were ‘lying here and there, stripped and mangled, some already devoured by dogs and birds of prey…’ Among the dead was Nicholson’s younger brother. His body was stark naked, and hacked to pieces. In accordance with Afridi custom, Alexander had his genitalia cut off and stuffed in his mouth.”

Nor was this bestial conduct reserved for the feringhee ‘dogs’, it was extended to the ‘kaffir’ sepoys of the British-Indian army. Indeed, for many of the Afghan tribes participating in the jehad, the Sikhs were a particular enemy on account of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s occupation of Peshawar and Kashmir which the Afghans saw as belonging to them.

As opposed to the rah-rah histories of the imperial age, Dalrymple has proffered an alternative ‘Black Armband’ view of a past British encounter with Afghanistan. Written with a sharp eye on the West’s grim predicament in the war against a Pakistan-backed Taliban, its message is unequivocal: the pacification of the tribal badlands along the Durand Line is a hopeless project.

To an India confronted with an unending conflict along the LoC with an enemy that believes it has a legitimate claim on the Kashmir Valley, this history may sound ominous. But it need not be so.  

First, there are clear lessons in allowing a grand strategic vision—in the 19th century it was the fear of Russia encroaching on India from the North—to determine diplomatic and military options. Mercifully, today’s governing elite in India lacks any vision, strategic or otherwise. Foreign policy tends to be either ad hoc or governed by mushy sentimentalism, neither of which (mercifully) are conducive to adventurism.

Secondly, approaching Afghanistan with a ‘strategic’ baggage, British officials allowed themselves to be swayed by dodgy intelligence reports that reinforced pre-existing convictions. Other ground reports which didn’t fit into a grand design were wilfully ignored, with disastrous consequences. The implication is obvious: no policy is workable without a credible intelligence network which, alas, is not a Government of India priority.

Finally, the disaster which overtook the Army of the Indus was a consequence of the failure to comprehend the complexities of Afghan society and, most important, its value systems. The British made a grave error in judging Afghans through a European prism, a mistake subsequently rectified by the work of the Political Department. Independent India has, unfortunately, frittered away this institutional understanding of local societies with different moral orbits. Policy is often made in a sociological void.

In sum, India needs a prolonged period of capacity building before it can substitute angry frustration with meaningful action to hit the enemy where it really hurts. Do we have the foresight and will to do what it takes? 

Sunday Times of India, January 13, 2013

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