A bankrupt policy

Print edition : February 14, 2003

Vipin Handa (second from left), one of the four diplomats and staffers of the High Commission expelled from Pakistan, walks through the Wagha border checkpoint on January 25. - AFP

The BJP's antipathy towards Muslims and Pakistan is driving India's foreign policy towards ever-greater bankruptcy; this must be resisted to promote a rich multifocal, supra-regional thrust.

IF India and Pakistan had consciously decided to compete with each other to prove to the world that South Asia will remain its "most dangerous place", their rulers could not have done better or more than they did over the past few weeks. This period witnessed fresh exchanges of hostile rhetoric and vile nuclear threats, physical harassment of high-level diplomats and expulsion of eight members of diplomatic mission staff, a hardening of nuclear doctrines and strategic postures, furious military preparations and plans for new weapons acquisition, and a blitz of nasty propaganda campaigns against one another.

Thus, in the very week in which four staffers were expelled from each High Commission, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee launched repeated attacks on Pakistan, from the Andamans to New Delhi. Home Minister L.K. Advani went on a tour of Qatar and France with a Pakistan-specific agenda. And the Foreign Secretary addressed the Conference on Disarmament with the same, narrow, focus. The emphasis at the Parliamentary Conference in the Capital too was on isolating Pakistan.

Pakistan duly reciprocated with multi-pronged attacks on India, with tit-for-tat diplomatic measures and the announcement that it has inducted the India-specific Hatf-V-Ghauri missile into its army. Of striking importance was India's one-point Pakistan-obsessed agenda and its complete failure to respond to some of the greatest global events of our time, including differences between the United States and some countries of Western Europe over war on Iraq and the Palestinian crisis. Our foreign policy agenda has never been more bankrupt.

With this spiralling military rivalry and hostility at every level, India-Pakistan relations have sunk to their lowest depth since 1947, lower indeed than during the 1971 War, which dismembered Pakistan. Then, the strength of the two diplomatic missions was not reduced by one half, as it was a year ago. Rail and air links were not severed for prolonged periods as they have been since January 2002. Nor had India and Pakistan become nuclear powers.

Today, it is hard to say how much lower India-Pakistan relations will fall and just where they will draw the line on what is acceptable, and what is simply impermissible. There are disputes even over the "bedrock" 1960 Indus Waters Treaty and a move to take recourse to international arbitration.

Take the harassment of diplomats, perhaps one of the most embarrassing instances of uncivilised, brutish behaviour on the part of governments.There has long operated an unwritten rule or understanding between New Delhi and Islamabad: they might subject middle-level diplomats and consular staff - often recruited from intelligence agencies - to aggressive surveillance, including tailing of cars, but never extend that to the Heads of Mission.

Sordid as it might be, this rule was honoured even in periods of extreme tension, whose undesirability was recognised 10 years ago when the two nations' Foreign Secretaries signed a bilateral Code of Conduct (CoC). That the CoC became necessary at all despite the existence of numerous international conventions on treatment of accredited diplomats and their rights - in particular, the Vienna Convention of 1961 - is a sad comment on the level of maturity with which India and Pakistan conduct their affairs.

It is even sadder that the two countries have repeatedly breached the CoC. Yet, until now, they did not violate the unwritten rule on sparing the Heads of Mission, including acting Chiefs, from intrusive surveillance, and actions such as "physical harassment, disconnecting of telephone lines, threatening telephone calls, pursuit in cars and unauthorised entry into residences".

All that changed in January 2003. On January 19, India's Charge d'Affaires in Islamabad Sudhir Vyas complained that his official car was repeatedly blockaded the previous day by police and intelligence agencies. The mission car, flying the national flag, was allegedly boxed in by four four-wheelers and two motorcycles. It was blockaded "for up to 45 minutes at a time". In a supposedly "calibrated response" to this harassment, New Delhi expelled four Pakistan High Commission personnel. Pakistan expelled four Indian personnel in retaliation.

India's Ministry of External Affairs(MEA) claimed it was the aggrieved party. However, at least going by the written documents exchanged by the two sides, it seems it was India which upped the surveillance ante. It started tailing the official vehicle of Pakistan's acting High Commissioner Jaleel Abbas Jilani from early January. On January 7, the Pakistan Mission submitted a written complaint that "lately the surveillance of the flag vehicle... has been increased to such a level that it can be simply termed as harassment". For three days, it said, "intelligence vehicles" followed it "bumper to bumper", making "dangerous manoeuvres... that can lead to a serious accident". It registered "a strong protest".

The MEA ignored the complaint, and later dismissed it as "baseless". It is not known if Vyas was harassed earlier than January 18 but chose to keep quiet. It is also not clear what caused the Indian authorities to start tailing Jilani's car. But in today's inflamed situation, it is irrelevant beyond a point to ask who fired the first shot. What is material is that both states use grossly intimidatory methods. They abuse each other in repulsive ways; indulging in "preposterous political propaganda" and "wilful harassment", or concocting "motivated" and "baseless" allegations. They intend to cause damage to each other - including bodily harm to their diplomats - thus undermining the notions of their dignity and personal inviolability.

Such deplorable behaviour probably has no parallel in the post-War era. Even in the worst phase of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet Embassy staff did not have to fear for their physical safety. Such conduct is indefensible and impermissible, no matter what the circumstances, and irrespective of the consequences. In ethics, there are both consequentialist and deontological arguments about what is wrong and must not be done. Some things are impermissible because they are inherently immoral and wrong. Some acts must not be committed only because their consequences are evil. Harassing diplomats emphatically belongs to the first category.

It is deeply deplorable that India should have descended to this level.

ANOTHER sign of official conduct beneath any acceptable norm is the Home Minister's personal intervention to ensure that prominent Pakistani activists such as Pervez Hoodbhoy, I.A. Rahman, Asma Jehangir and A.H. Nayyar would not get visas to participate in the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad. They are some of Pakistan's best-known liberal dissidents, who have fought for peace and reconciliation with India. Singling them out, while welcoming all sorts of hawks, suggests a pattern: hardliners in one state feeding on the hardliners in the other, and helping to further ratchet up mutual hostility.

There is a perverse kind of complementarity and synergy here, similar to the perfectly synchronised goose-step and rooster-walk drill that takes place every morning and evening at the Wagah border - even the military swagger, the hostile rituals and aggressive gestures are well-rehearsed and totally symmetrical.

It is impossible to separate India's current Pakistan policy from hawkish and extreme right-wing influences. In the recent past, especially since mid-2001 (after the failure of the Agra Summit), this policy has been heavily controlled by people who really believe that peaceful coexistence between India and Pakistan is probably impossible; at least that Pakistan is bent upon destroying India and India must defend itself, if necessary, aggressively, by pre-empting "the enemy".

We had some evidence of this orientation earlier too in NDA policies. For instance, the top brass of the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh ludicrously assumed in May 1998 that going overtly nuclear would give India a decisive strategic edge over Pakistan, rather than impose strategic constraints. But now this orientation seems to have become dominant in official thinking. That alone explains the Deputy Prime Minister's, and now even the Prime Minister's, daily outpourings of anti-Pakistan venom, the expenditure of colossal energy in anti-Pakistan propaganda in all conceivable fora, and drumming up of "terrorism" as the principal, if not the sole, threat to our security.

For the BJP and the NDA, "fighting terrorism" is a slogan to heighten the hostility with Pakistan. They add a viciously communal angle to it, identifying Pakistan as the external manifestation of the "threat from within" (read, Muslims).

THIS is not to argue that Pakistan is a benign democracy, that harbours no hostility towards India, but merely that the bulk of India's "security" problems are of internal origin, including Kashmir's azadi movement, the extreme-Left People's War-style militancy, or the secessionism in northeastern India.

Pakistan does exploit India's problems - just as India once did its rival's in Sindh and Baluchistan. But it is not their principal cause. Islamabad is not an independent variable in determining South Asia's strategic or political reality. Pakistan is far more amenable to diplomatic engagement than the hawks even imagine. To blame Pakistan for all of India's ills, one must take a distorted view of things on the basis of paranoid attitudes.

SUCH pathological hatred of Pakistan is inseparable from, indeed logically derives from, the Sangh Parivar's Hindu-supremacist or -exclusivist nationalism. For the RSS, as for V.D. Savarkar, Indianness is not defined in universal terms of citizenship and through civic nationalism. It is based upon ethnic-religious nationalism (or as the BJP misleadingly calls it, "cultural" nationalism - misleading, because this culture is all about (Hindu) India), its unique past and its presumed eternal greatness.

The Two-Nation Theory, first espoused coherently by Savarkar, is only an extension of this, with its invidious and egregious distinction between pitrabhu (land of birth) and punyabhu (sacred land). Any secular perspective on national identity and nationalism must challenge this head-on. Secular politics cannot possibly take a pathological view of Pakistan or our other neighbours.

That is why the BJP's Pakistan policy, itself closely related to its nuclear weapons obsession, to militarism, and its Great Power ambitions for India, must be forcefully contested. There is a strong link between the BJP's Islamophobia and its hatred of Pakistan, and its equation of Islam and Muslims with terrorism.

The BJP's nationalism is morally blind. It fits George Orwell's description in his Notes on Nationalism. For the nationalist, "actions are held to be good, not on their own merit but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage - torture... assassination, the bombing of civilians - which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by our side."

The reality of terrorism as a growing phenomenon in India (although it can be exaggerated) has influenced some otherwise liberal-minded people to view the BJP's "anti-terrorist" platform with a degree of sympathy. The BJP has decided to use this perception to its advantage. Thus, party president M.Venkaiah Naidu recently summed up the reasons for the BJP's success in Gujarat: "As the election process peaked, national perceptions crystallised on the central issues of terrorism and extremism... . Our adversaries were rightly recognised as willing to compromise on national interests... . The people had been watching the country being bled by terrorists... . The Gujarat elections offered an opportunity to effectively articulate their concerns on these larger issues... ."

Venkaiah Naidu is probably wrong in attributing so much importance to terrorism and security in the Gujarat vote. But the BJP has decided to adopt a political-electoral strategy based on this. The secular parties must frontally contest the BJP's claim to fighting terrorism effectively with its so-called "pro-active" policy.

For all its tub-thumping rhetoric, the BJP-NDA's strategy to prevent, counter and contain terrorism has proved bankrupt. Not only was India bled to the extent of Rs.10,000 crores - four times the Union government's budgetary allocation for health - during the pointless 10-month-long mobilisation of 700,000 troops in a caricature of Rambo-style militarism.

In fact, some of the worst terrorist attacks ( for example, Akshardham and Raghunath Temple episodes) have taken place during the NDA's rule. As former Research and Analysis Wing official B. Raman says, this government has "trivialised counter-terrorism".

The best strategy to counter Hindutva's "national security" rhetoric is to counterpose people's security to it. This means focusing centrally on the people's minimum needs: food security, income security, security of employment, gender security and personal security. This approach will also involve measures to reduce tension with Pakistan by engaging it in a dialogue and mounting diplomatic pressure. It will be even more vital to start an internal dialogue in Kashmir.

The secular parties must not be apologetic about this alternative security perspective. They should know that the BJP lost heavily in the Jammu region in the last Assembly election precisely because its militant "anti-terrorism" rhetoric proved hollow. The electorate saw through it and concluded that the BJP's policies had made Jammu more, not less, insecure.

The key to confronting the BJP in Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, where elections are due, lies here. The BJP will go to these polls on "national-security-in-danger-from-terrorism" platform. The secularists should argue nobody has endangered "national security" as badly as the BJP, by dividing the nation and severing it from the very people who constitute it. And none has divided the people as much on communal lines.

The BJP's claim to be uniquely patriotic has to be challenged at many levels, in many ways. The coalition it leads is setting more and more loyalty tests for Indian citizens: identity cards (a massive intrusion into privacy), tightening of laws honouring the national flag and the national anthem, and the chanting of Sanskrit verses at official ceremonies, etc. The Sangh Parivar has no business accusing Indian citizens of disloyalty and presuming that they lack a commitment to the nation.

The secular Opposition has no option but to challenge the BJP on its claims to nationalism, and its ethnic and chauvinistic definition of national identity. Unless the BJP is taken on this terrain, it will capitalise on prejudice and rank chauvinism, and further shift the centre of gravity of Indian politics to the Right.

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