Scope for hope on the subcontinent?

THERE is precious little risk of anyone putting too much store by last week’s talks between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan. Although Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir parted on a vaguely civil note by agreeing that the channels of communication would remain open, there has thus far been little indication of plans for further meetings.


It has been speculated that Rao could visit Islamabad this month, ahead of the opportunity for prime ministerial talks on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Bhutan in April, but the insistence of both sides on differing agendas for future encounters sharply diminishes the scope for optimism. As far as New Delhi is concerned, terrorism needs to be tackled before meaningful negotiations can be conducted on any other matter. Islamabad, on the other hand, has been seeking a return to the so-called composite dialogue, whereby a range of subjects can simultaneously be addressed.


Although the resumption of a broad dialogue would indeed be welcome, Pakistan evidently finds it difficult to understand the extent to which India’s mood has been soured by the November 2008 terrorist rampage in Mumbai, when a fourth war between the neighbors was narrowly avoided – not least because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was adamantly opposed to it. A surprisingly large number of otherwise rational Indians were convinced at the time that the most appropriate response would be to “teach Pakistan a lesson” through military means, unwilling to recognize that a conflagration was likely to unleash terrorism on a considerably wider scale, or provoke a nuclear exchange, with unspeakable consequences.


The sensible alternative was to take up the Pakistani government’s offer of cooperation, despite the suspicion that not much – or at least not enough – would come of it. In Delhi last week, Pakistan’s foreign secretary was handed another three dossiers containing information and demands related to Islamist militants suspected of involvement in terrorist activities on Indian soil – and it is hardly likely that Bashir’s description of a previous dossier as “literature” rather than evidence went down well among his hosts. He also expressed his resentment over being “lectured” on terrorism, pointing out that Pakistan had “suffered many, many hundreds of Mumbais”.


That is not, strictly speaking, an accurate claim. Terrorists have indeed inflicted a series of wounds on Pakistan, many of them serious, all of them painful. But the equivalent of Mumbai would be a bunch of armed Indian fanatics wreaking havoc in Pakistan’s commercial centre or another large city. The fury such an incident would unleash would undoubtedly be of a different order of magnitude, given that – to put it euphemistically – India and Pakistan have a bit of a history.


This history cannot be wished away. That does not mean it can’t be overcome. But the task is obviously rendered much harder by instances such as the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, followed by the impression that the authorities in Pakistan have been lackadaisical in pursuing the perpetrators. The constant complaints about insufficient evidence from India are muddied by the fact that it ought to be possible to gather more than enough incriminating evidence within the country where the plot was hatched.


What’s more, there have been indications that 26/11 wasn’t a one-off. Responsibility for the recent bomb blast at the German Bakery in Pune has been claimed by an organization calling itself Lashkar-e-Taiba al-Aalmi. While the credibility of the claim – and any connection with Pakistan – has yet to be established, it isn’t exactly unnatural for people to jump to conclusions, not least because a series of sports fixtures in India, from the current Hockey World Cup to the Commonwealth Games in October, face terrorist threats. Hopefully, if they turn out to be anything more than empty boasts, the plots will be foiled. But circumstances such as these should help to clarify why New Delhi’s insistence on attaching primacy to terrorism isn’t purely a product of paranoia. 


It is also well worth remembering that, not all that long ago, a decidedly positive strain in bilateral relations, at a time when right-wing governments were in power on both sides of the border, was decisively thwarted by Pakistan’s stupendously ill-advised Kargil misadventure, spearheaded not by a terrorist outfit such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), but by the army – which, tragically, has more or less throughout its existence perceived the confrontation with India as its primary raison d’être.


Of course, Pakistan too has its dossiers of complaints on subjects ranging from water flow to purported Indian assistance to nationalist insurgents in Balochistan and even to elements among the Taliban, the latter supported by “photographic evidence”. It is hardly unknown for the two sides to lend succour to separatist movements on each other’s terrain, but it would so obviously be self-defeating for India to help the Taliban in any way that the charge seems like little more that a red herring (although one mustn’t forget that Realpolitik occasionally overrides logic and produces very strange bedfellows).


Deeply ingrained prejudices are, of course, not exclusive to either protagonist. Nor is political posturing. It appears that pressure from Washington played a decisive role in rekindling a dialogue between India and Pakistan. If so, that’s a nudge in the right direction, even it’s based chiefly on Uncle Sam’s own interests – and these, deplorably, include increased arms sales to both countries. However, even if the two sides were eventually to kiss and make up under a heart-shaped umbrella provided by the US state department, the residual venom in their arteries would make it at best an artificial and temporary conciliation.


A far more desirable alternative would be a permanent peace and goodwill treaty that springs from the heart, from the gut instinct that it is profoundly in the interests of peoples on both sides of the border to overcome the post-traumatic stress disorder that is arguably the cruellest legacy of partition. Will New Delhi and Islamabad ever be able to muster the reciprocal audacity required for such a mutually beneficial feat? At the moment, the most optimistic answer one can come up with is an equivocal maybe.



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