Missing an opportunity

Print edition : October 13, 2001

India and Pakistan are advancing their narrow, parochial agendas in a myopic manner, while supplicating to the U.S; they could both end up hurting themselves.

AS the United States gets ready to launch a "new kind of war" against "terrorism" in South Asia's immediate periphery, the region's two biggest powers begin a new phase of mutual rivalry. America's war is likely to be a prolonged, complex operation, involving high technology as well as low-level covert operations, manipulation of the Taliban's rivals (for instance, the Northern Alliance) and its close friends (such as Pakistan). India-Pakistan hostility will also be played out on many planes: over Kashmir and nuclear weapons, through despicable courting of Washington, and Machiavellian manoeuvres to influence power balances in Afghanistan. It promises to be no less dirty, and no less menacing to South Asia's peoples.

Today, a decade after the Cold War ended, once-Non-Aligned India and former U.S. ally Pakistan are clashing, although they are on the same side - with the U.S. Nothing could be more ironical. Nothing could be more dangerous for the future of this region. To start with, it should be plain that the possibility of a thaw in the half century-long India-Pakistan 'hot-cold war' opened (admittedly shakily) by the Agra Summit is now dead. This happened well before the October 1 bomb attack in Srinagar. Its demise can be traced to New Delhi's and Islamabad's unseemly moves after September 11 to establish an intimate "strategic partnership" with the U.S.

Jaswant Singh, to the Indian people's abiding collective embarrassment, offered unsolicited, unlimited military cooperation to the U.S., including the use of airbases. General Pervez Musharraf too, soon offered to be America's critical ally - provided India and Israel are kept out of that alliance. Musharraf's September 19 televised address to his nation and Atal Behari Vajpayee's riposte declaring that neither he nor Jaswant Singh would visit Pakistan "in the foreseeable future", only formalised the beginning of a new war of words. Since then, the two establishments have been abusing and parodying each other's intentions and plans.

Behind these moves lie incompetent and naive miscalculations, devious designs, but above all, an attitude of servility towards the U.S. India's foreign policy and security establishments have misunderstood the fundamental causative factors in the September 11 attack, which are rooted in extreme discontent and popular anger with U.S. policies towards political Islam (especially the question of Palestine, but also Iraq and other countries), as well as the appalling injustices of today's world order.

External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell outside the State Department in Washington on October 2.-MANNY CENETA/ AFP

Going by all available evidence, there exists today a unique overlap between militant political Islam and popular anti-U.S. sentiment in West, Southwest and South Asia. The key link is U.S. support for Israel's terrible policy of repressing the Palestinians, and its brazen breach of the Oslo peace agreements. India's policy-makers have also profoundly misunderstood U.S. motives, which go beyond fighting "terrorism", itself ill-defined. Pakistan's rulers have been less naive, but cynical in looking for temporary gains. They have shrewdly cashed in on Pakistan's obvious locational and logistical advantages, and its leverage over the Taliban. But they seriously underestimate the huge risks involved in collaborating with the U.S. to fight monsters of their own creation. These risks are both external and internal.

NOTHING exemplifies India's miscalculation better than Jaswant Singh's shocking conduct. He remains undeterred by widespread domestic criticism, including from within the ruling National Democratic Alliance, and the entire Opposition, of his offer of "cooperation" weeks before evidence had been presented of Osama bin Laden's culpability for September 11. Unconcerned about democratic decency, he went to the U.S., Britain and Germany to beg the West, especially Washington, to support India's plea for criticising Pakistan and banning Kashmiri militant groups. This meant granting to the U.S. a role as the global hegemon and ultimate arbiter of Kashmir - in violation of India's position opposing external mediation in this "bilateral issue," and its support for a plural world order.

Jaswant Singh was, expectedly, more than satisfied with his "full round" of discussions with U.S. officials, especially George W. Bush, although all he could extract by way of public support was a statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell, which condemned the Srinagar bombing as a "terrible terrorist act," but carefully avoided mentioning Pakistan. The State Department briefing only said: "We have continued to maintain a policy on Kashmir that looks to everybody with influence to reduce the violence and to try to see the situation there is resolved peacefully." Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld too ducked specific questions about Pakistan harbouring terrorists. He merely said: "We've had discussions about a number of countries and the issue of terrorism..." As of now, a full-scale U.S. ban on Kashmiri "terrorists" seems unlikely. Its utility seems even more doubtful.

Equally breathtakingly, Jaswant Singh also said that the U.S. had "shared ... with India and me" evidence linking bin Laden to the September 11 carnage. This was declared by an adoring section of the media as proof that India has now "joined the select club of nations," including those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, that has "been shown [this] convincing evidence". He went on to say, with characteristic pompous flourish, that in any case the real evidence is "the evidence we have been living with all these years" - in Kashmir. This echoed the observation by other Indian Ministers that it is the U.S. that has now joined India's struggle against terrorism, not the other way round.

Jaswant Singh alone is not guilty of serious miscalculation. Vajpayee too stands indicted. His October 2 letter to Bush is an eloquent mix of obsequiousness towards the U.S. and hawkishness towards Pakistan: "Pakistan must understand that there is a limit to the patience of the people of India..." He chose extremely unfortunate words such as "our supreme national interest," used in declarations of war or of solemn intent to withdraw from multilateral treaties in exceptional circumstances that threaten the very existence of a state. This was fully consistent with the exuberant reception by senior BJP Ministers, including L.K. Advani, to Bush's September 21 address to Congress, in which he imperiously told the world: you are either with us or with the terrorists. (Jaswant Singh called it "brilliant".)

At work here is the calculated dismantling of the entire rationale of non-alignment and the edifice of an independent foreign policy, and subjugation of India's national vision to U.S. war plans, driven as much by revenge and a desire to draw blood as by wanting to bring the guilty of September 11 to justice. It is hard not to detect the despicable communal slant in official policy that goes with this. The most explicit manifestation of this is the proscription of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The government banned SIMI just when it should have bent over backwards to defend pluralist secularism, now under attack from prejudices that equate Islam with a distorted notion of jehad and with terrorism itself.

THE official case against SIMI is full of holes. A major charge is that SIMI works "for an international Islamic order." Now, this may not appeal to many, just as the RSS-VHP's (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Vishwa Hindu Parishad) Hindu supremacism does not. But holding such beliefs is not a crime. SIMI is also charged with being "in touch with militant outfits". But the Home Ministry has been "in touch" with the secessionist National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) and the Hizbul Mujahideen. The only substantial charges pertain to specific activities: for instance, SIMI's alleged collusion with the Hizbul Mujahideen in bomb explosions since February. These charges do warrant action under various laws. But they do not justify an outright ban unless it is proved that SIMI's entire structure is terrorist and threatens India's security.

This has never been established. On the one hand, the government accuses SIMI of having published pro-Al Qaeda pamphlets after September 11. On the other, Home Secretary Kamal Pandey asserts that there is no connection between its post-September activities and the crackdown. Regarding bin Laden as a hero of "the global struggle against America" is detestable. But it is not a crime. The SIMI charge-sheet is based mostly on unproved suspicions and surmises. None of these has stood legal scrutiny for 20 years.

The official double standards are appalling. Deputy Home Minister I.D. Swamy admitted in a Star-TV programme ('Reality Bites') that the Bajrang Dal and the VHP are guilty of hate crimes, but must be exonerated because they "glorify our ancient past". SIMI is not a secular or democratic organisation. It is probably fundamentalist. But it is not terrorist. Tarring Islamic groups with the terrorist brush, while letting off Hindu communalists, reeks of communal bias.

SIMI's hounding comes at a time when anti-Islam prejudices are growing the world over. This juncture demands a strong defence of secularism. If the government really wants to punish the spreading of communal prejudice, it should also target the VHP, the RSS and the Bajrang Dal, with their record of the Babri Masjid demolition, Graham Staines' killing, attacks on Christians, hounding of M.F. Husain and Deepa Mehta... Instead, the government is alienating the Muslim community.

Pakistan too has been playing dangerous games. It wants to retain its influence over the Afghanistan regime, by hook or by crook. It stiffly opposes the Taliban's exclusion from a future ruling coalition in Afghanistan. (Hence the sharp exchange with India on the issue of "broad-based" coalition and Musharraf's demand to "lay off". Hence also the change in Washington's line on a "regime change".) The Guardian's Jonathan Steele reports that Pakistan has plans to assassinate Mullah Omar and replace him with a more pliant leader. Other reports suggest that the U.S. will rely heavily on joint covert operations with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

The U.S. is far from Simon-pure in all this. It has done all manner of shady deals with the Taliban. After the August 1998 bombing of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, it tried to get the Taliban to surrender bin Laden. Earlier, it came close to recognising their regime in return for favours to an American oil company, Unocal, then in fierce competition with the Argentinian firm Bridas over a proposed pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. A galaxy of American officials, both serving and retired, were involved in this New Great Game over oil and gas in Central Asia, including Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Robin Raphael and Richard Armitage (currently Deputy Secretary of State). (See chapters 12 and 13 of Ahmed Rashid's excellent Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, I.B. Tauris; London and New York.)

Devious manoeuvres might give Pakistan some temporary advantages in its northwestern hinterland. But things could easily get out of hand. Any significant weakening of the Islamabad regime or a rise in domestic fundamentalist militancy could make Pakistan vulnerable to pressure for "neutralising" its nuclear weapons capability. This could further deepen its internal crisis. Once it is done with its own parochial agenda, the U.S. could as easily drop Pakistan as an ally as it recruited it, leaving behind an all-but-collapsing state. Prolonged U.S. presence in the region could cramp Islamabad's freedom of action and invite extreme resentment. Even within the cynical calculus of Machiavellian realpolitik, Pakistan is AOS (all options stink) land. All of South Asia could soon become that.

A truly non-aligned India, acting on solid political principles, could have played a crucial role in averting this. As a country with the world's second highest population of Muslims, India could have set a marvellous example by building a pluralist-secular political consensus in favour of bringing terrorists to justice without unleashing vengeance and mindless violence. India could have contributed significantly to the construction of an international bloc which counsels restraint and sobriety and makes the U.S. accountable to the global community through the United Nations and other multilateral instruments. A secular India committed to a just and equitable world order could have urged long-term solutions to the many festering problems that underlie the growth of terrorism.

Regrettably, India under the present regime is not such a state. The role it could have played (but did not) now falls upon the global peace movement and progressive political and civil society organisations. These alone can provide the intellectual and moral leadership the world sorely needs if it is not to become a much worse place under the coming war than it already is. South Asia's own peace movement has a pivotal role here. This must not be underestimated. But to play this, it must set its sights high.

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