India and the war

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Indian diplomacy in the time of America's war is a many-headed wonder.

DESPITE a phase of frenetic activity involving multiple channels of engagement, the rewards for Indian diplomacy since the September 11 attacks in the U.S. have been rather meagre. The final word on India's ardour in joining the global wars against terrorism was delivered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair during his brief visit to Delhi on October 6. While joining the chorus of condemnation of the October 1 terrorist attack in Srinagar, Blair was at pains to emphasise that the attention of the West was for the moment focussed on Afghanistan and the task of capturing Osama bin Laden. Limited though it was, the objective required a broad coalition of nations. Fighting terrorism in all its manifestations remained the ultimate purpose, including in the South Asian region. But stability in South Asia, Blair insisted, would have to be "based on respect for the rule of law and civilised values".

A.B. Vajpayee receiving British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his residence on October 6. Looking on is Foreign Secretary Chokila Iyer.-RAJEEV BHATT

This rather elliptical formulation could be construed as an implicit reproof of India's position on Kashmir. On India's extraordinary campaign since September 11 to press for the inclusion of Kashmir in the new wars of the West, Blair seemed to pronounce a verdict rather more clear and adverse. But the British Prime Minister was keen to soften the blow of this rejection with effusive references to India's status as an "immensely important power in the world" and expressions of gratitude for India's clear and unambiguous reaction to the attacks on the U.S., which in his view played a role in cementing a consensus of world opinion in favour of strong retaliatory action.

In March 2000, President Bill Clinton made a triumphal tour of India, seemingly heralding a new era in India's engagement with the West. He only stopped briefly and seemingly grudgingly in Pakistan, spending little time in closeted discussions with the political leadership and utilising the opportunity to deliver a presumptuous message about the need for the people of Pakistan to change their ways. Today, Blair as the U.S.' main understudy in global affairs pays a visit to Pakistan full of substantive commitments. He assures the military regime that multilateral financial assistance will be resumed, that the interests of Pakistan will be accorded due priority in any plan for a political transition in Afghanistan. He only stops by in Delhi in a token concession to India's size and eagerness to be part of a Western coalition against "terrorism". But he makes no substantive commitments and fails even symbolically to promise the future redress of grievances about Pakistani meddling in Kashmir.

This is by no means the only indication that the world changed beyond recognition, especially for India's opportunistic foreign policy strategists, on September 11. In a reversal of honoured national priorities, the Indian government is now virtually arguing for a war without frontiers against imprecisely defined enemies, sanctioning the kind of open-ended military response that the U.S. seemed inclined to adopt until it was compelled by global scepticism to focus its retribution more narrowly. Responding to a question at his media interaction with Blair, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee cautioned against an approach that treated the problem of terrorism "in isolation". "We are fighting a global war and there has to be a global solution," he said. In line with current diplomatic practice, he refused to name Pakistan, but strongly hinted that its credentials as a "frontline state" against terrorism were rather dubious: "Even while extending our whole-hearted support to the pursuit of the guilty terrorists of September 11, we should not let countries pursue their own terrorist agenda under cover of this action. India will remain vigilant against such threats and will counter them decisively."

It is an irony of this situation that both India and Pakistan, which were poised to resume their summit-level dialogue in late-September, today find it difficult even to name each other in formal diplomatic exchanges with other countries. Insinuation has now become accepted currency in neighbourhood diplomacy. For two countries which had seemingly moved some way towards mutual political intelligibility at the Agra Summit, the relapse into bellicosity, even if it is understated, is ominous.

VAJPAYEE on October 6 was of course speaking with the knowledge of the U.S. government's decision to disregard India's petition on the formal designation of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. As required by U.S. law, a listing of all organisations deemed to be engaged in terrorist activities was due to be made public on October 5. This formal necessity was met by the U.S. government, but there was no mention of three organisations that External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh haad urged the U.S. to consider as candidates for this list. Although the purpose of Jaswant Singh's four-nation odyssey remains a mystery, it is known that he had strongly urged that three organisations - the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Al Badr - be considered for inclusion on the list. This mission, however, proved futile.

Despite their formal avowal of responsibility for the Srinagar bomb attack of October 1 - and the subsequent hasty retraction when the global consequences were explained to them - the Jaish-e-Mohammad has escaped being included in the list of terrorist organisations in the U.S. estimation. This has been a setback of even more serious moment to the Indian government, since it had been working hard to establish that the Jaish-e-Mohammad had connections in organisational structure, ideology and political strategy with the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden.

The Harkatul Mujahideen remains on the list of U.S.-designated terrorist organisations. But India finds little solace in this token concession, since the Harkat has long since disbanded itself and transferred its core group of militants to other better concealed front organisations.

If consistency and coherence in the pursuit of diplomatic objectives is normally considered a prerequisite for success, then the reasons for India's multiple rebuffs in the last few months should be clear. For a while after the Agra Summit in July, there was a sustained effort by India to play down the possibility of continuing the dialogue with Pakistan. When it seemed likely that the Pakistan government would publicise the entire negotiating record of Agra, India moved hastily to squash any notion that may have been entertained that a half-cooked deal from Agra could supersede the compacts of Shimla and Lahore. But in agreeing to continue the dialogue during the U.N. General Assembly session in New York, India did attempt to put its own spin on the half-completed deal at Agra: Pakistan had formally agreed, said the Indian government, not to raise the Kashmir issue at any multilateral forum. This implied that Kashmir would henceforth be treated as a bilateral matter.

Pakistan of course denied that it had ever agreed to such a deal. But following the terrorist attack on the city that was supposed to host the summit-level dialogue, it is India that seemed to show the greater alacrity in breaching the norms of bilateralism. In the immediate aftermath, India made an ardent effort to outbid the global consensus and even anticipate the strategy that the U.S., possessed by the spirit of retribution, was beginning to evolve. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh spoke of a sense of horror and revulsion at the killing of innocent civilians in an act of premeditated terror. But where the worldwide orthodoxy was to counsel restraint and careful deliberation rather than instant retaliation, India was quick to offer itself as a staging post for U.S. operations in a broadly conceived campaign against terrorism. In this respect, the Indian government strayed far beyond what are considered the prudent limits of declaratory diplomacy.

THE undue ardour that India displayed only had the effect of wearing down any reservations that Pakistan may have had about participating in the new wars of Western imperialism. Few changes of image in the recent past have been quite as dramatic. For long viewed as a state poised precariously at the cusp of civility and terror, Pakistan has now been restored to the status of a forward-line state against terrorism. This is precisely what India worked very fervently against, since it believed for long that it was on the verge of securing the ostracism of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. For Pakistan itself, the new-found status is an ironic reprise of a role it played all through the 1980s as a "frontline state" in the struggle against communism. The seeds implanted then grew into the full-blown scourge of terrorism in the 1990s. That was an epic mistake of the military cabal that ruled Pakistan in the 1980s, which the military cabal that rules today believes it can reverse. The global patrons of the crusade against communism have today mobilised their forces in a renewed campaign, once again using the hospitality of Pakistan, to crush the proxies and agents who have refused to fade away after that earlier battle was successfully concluded. In the process, Pakistan may be laying itself open to a multitude of new hazards that could only compound the severe internal threats it faces today.

The U.S. and the U.K. are keenly aware of the precarious internal balance of forces in Pakistan, which is why they have been disinclined to entertain India's pleas to be included in the global coalition against terrorism. The first indication of the reversal of India's fortunes came with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's affirmation at his very first press conference after the attacks that the U.S. considered Pakistan a "friend" whose help it could rely on at critical junctures. This of course followed a not very subtle exercise in coercive diplomacy and a tacit acknowledgment from the Pakistan government that it was obliged to assist the U.S. with logistical and intelligence support.

The second signal of India's declining fortunes came when, despite all the fervent declarations of intent from this side, the U.S. leadership waited a full five days to open its formal political engagement with India. It was only on September 16, following one letter from Vajpayee to Bush and several unilateral expressions of intent from Jaswant Singh, that the U.S. President spoke for the first time to the Indian Prime Minister. Eager to place India's own interests before the U.S., Vajpayee took the opportunity to secure an invitation for his National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, to visit the U.S. Bush assured him that Mishra's counterpart in the U.S. administration, Condoleeza Rice, would be available for discussions.

Mishra stopped in Paris en route to the U.S. to pick up the threads of a security dialogue he has been engaged in with French interlocutors. Arriving back in India, he had little to say except that the U.S. was firm in its belief that India was a charter member of the global coalition against terrorism.

Meanwhile, contacts with the U.S. were being pursued by Home Minister L.K. Advani. On September 28 he had his third meeting with U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill since September 11. With the world watching in unease and trepidation as the U.S. mobilised for military retaliation, Advani managed to summon a tone of complete nonchalance. "The whole world is asking what proof does the United States have about the involvement of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the September 11 attacks," he told the media as he emerged from his meeting with Blackwill. But if the U.S. President himself had made a definitive affirmation of such involvement, then it would be inappropriate to question him any further.

Jaswant Singh had himself meanwhile set off on his separate mission to offer India's services in the new global wars. In a hectic six-day schedule, he covered Paris, New York, Washington, London and Berlin. In New York, he presented an urn containing waters from nine of the most hallowed rivers of India to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. This, he said, could be placed within the memorial that was being conceived by the city government as a contribution of the people of India, who would stand "shoulder-to-shoulder" with the U.S. as "two natural allies" should do in a shared battle against the "new menace that the world is confronted with".

It was obvious, however, that Jaswant Singh had failed to secure any assurance from the U.S. that Pakistan would be censured for its consistent policy of training, funding and providing logistical support for Islamic terrorism in its neighbourhood. Jaswant Singh reflected the very equivocal outcome of his meeting with Powell at a media interaction shortly afterwards: "If Pakistan were to abandon the path of violence and of terrorism and join the rest of the international community in its fight against this evil, it would be a development that India would welcome." That this rather conciliatory tone was struck just one day after Vajpayee wrote to Bush ominously warning him that Pakistan was testing the limits "to the patience of the people of India", speaks of the futility of Jaswant Singh's pursuits in Washington - all the appearances of cordiality and shared interests apart.

Shortly after his meeting with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in London, Jaswant Singh claimed that he was aware of the evidence implicating Osama bin Laden in the attacks on the U.S. Such formal proof in any case was superfluous, he said, since India's experience over the last 20 years constituted enough evidence.

Jaswant Singh's absolute sense of faith is curious, since shortly after his visit to London the British government itself put out a paper detailing the evidence that had been gathered of bin Laden's involvement. In circles with a reasonable understanding of international law and diplomacy, this paper was met with almost unanimous scepticism.

THE extreme credulity which the External Affairs Minister has been showing is by no means the only point that raises doubts about his judgment. His recent locutions need careful consideration. The consensus of opinion on September 11 is that it is related to the brewing cauldron of resentments in the Arab world. If the identification of its principal perpetrator is accurate, then the motivations are also fairly clear. Bin Laden's fatwa of 1998 is no secret and its reasoning - to the extent that any such edict can have a rationale - lies firmly within the domain of U.S. policy towards the Arab world. His specific grievances, which have impelled him to issue a blood-chilling edict to kill all American citizens wherever they are found, are the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, the siege of Iraq which persists despite the mandate for military action having long since lapsed, and the presence of U.S. troops in the Saudi Arabian peninsula, which is home to the most revered sites in Islam.

If this is the terrain on which bin Laden operates, then clearly his grievances have little bearing on India, and neither does he have any specific reason to target India. If anything, successive Indian governments have broadly indicated their sympathy for two of the issues that bin Laden has so obsessively focussed on - Palestine and Iraq. And as it sets about on its task of building a coalition of moderate Arab and Muslim states to avenge the attacks on its territory, the U.S. itself is discovering that it would have to make some concessions - likely more symbolic than substantive - on both these issues.

There is no reason to assume on the basis of available information that bin Laden has extended his activities to Kashmir. The fact of the matter seems to be that the foreign policy establishment led by Jaswant Singh has a clearly articulated motive for casting the terrorism problem in Kashmir in the same framework as bin Laden's global depredations. The idea is clearly to put the Kashmir problem in the context of international Islamic militancy and to enforce a ruthless military solution as a corollary to the U.S.' global campaign.

Unfortunately for the moral premises of Indian foreign policy, this strategy establishes an equivalence between Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians, the U.S. siege of Iraq and India's own conduct in Kashmir. This is precisely the argument that India's most strident opponents have been seeking in vain all these years to persuade the world of. In tacitly conceding the argument, India tends to lose credibility with the Arab and Islamic world, and virtually to invite bin Laden to extend his activities to Kashmir.

It is a fact, though, that the cross-border sustenance of terrorism in Kashmir has now exceeded all tolerable limits. But curiously, this is an aspect that cuts as sharply - if not more so - into political stability and social well-being in Pakistan. This much is evident from certain recent locutions of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, notably his inaugural address at the Seerat Conference in Islamabad on June 5. Speaking to a domestic audience comprised in the main of religious figures, Musharraf may have felt the compulsion to dissimulate and court the favour of the Islamic Right. But he chose a tone of absolute candour, not hesitating to tell the assembled theologians of the serious harm that had been caused to Pakistan by their insistence on religious purity: "Islam is vibrant and forward looking. But more than that we claim it is the most tolerant of faiths. How does the world judge our claims? It looks upon us as terrorists. We have been killing each other. And now we want to spread that violence and terror abroad. Naturally, the world regards us as terrorists. Our claim of tolerance is phoney in its eyes."

Musharraf also had an acute assessment of the implications that religious sectarianism had for internal order within Pakistan: "In the beginning, Shias and Sunnis were fighting with one another. And now the Brelvis and Deobandis have entered the fray. Do we realise where we are heading?... Because of our internal strife, the outside world is asked to declare us terrorists. Some say we are primitive. Others say we are a failed state. It hurts badly. We are one hundred and forty million people, we are a nuclear power, and yet somebody gets up and tells us that we are a failed state."

Clearly, the Musharraf-led military cabal has accepted that the patronage extended to the religious Right by Zia-ul-Haq's military cabal in the 1980s was a monumental error for Pakistan. That the American-sponsored jehad in Afghanistan was executed at the same time that the terrorist campaign in Kashmir was conceived is no coincidence. One was the corollary of the other. History is not easily reversed. But it is surely relevant to India's interests that an attempt at reversal is under way, despite the attendant risks of social unrest and violence. In seeking to clamp down on sectarian violence and control the proliferation of unlicensed arms in Pakistan, Musharraf has had to back down repeatedly for fear of setting off violent convulsions that may go beyond his administrative resources to control. India's unseemly grab for a role in the battle against terrorism was rightly understood across the border as an effort to heighten the pressure on Pakistan, to accelerate the dangers of cataclysmic implosion that Pakistan faced. How India's policymakers could have conceived that a social upheaval in a neighbouring state of 140 million people could have been in their interests is of course a mystery locked away in the strange mind-set of the Sangh Parivar. But in seeking to execute this sinister plan, India has faced endless diplomatic embarrassment and squandered virtually all possibility it had of a reconciliation within the neighbourhood. The courtship of superpower patronage, the Bharatiya Janata Party is slowly discovering, is not a risk-free enterprise.

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