Essay

Playing to the gallery

Print edition : October 03, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi beating a traditional Taiko drum at a TCS function in Tokyo on September 2. His veiled but fairly obvious reference to China's "expansionist policies" lacked diplomatic propriety. Photo: PTI

Pakistani High Commsioner Abdul Basit sees off Kashmiri separatist leader Shabir Shah after their meeting at the embassy on August 18. Basit received the Indian Foreign Secretary's demarche disapproving of his meeting with Hurriyat leaders at 3-45 p.m., when Shah had already arrived for the talks. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. He lamented, in 1950, that it was something of a disgrace that the Kashmir dispute had been allowed to drag on for so long. More than half a century has since passed, and the wound is still festering. Photo: The Hindu Archives

India will not become a “great power” by courting the “great powers”. Its greatness will be recognised and lauded only if it succeeds in resolving its disputes with the neighbours and establishes an atmosphere of civility and relaxation.

India today seems to be the victim of three traumas: Kashmir, the Aksai Chin, and poverty. To try to resolve the first two by vast military expenditure can only divert her funds and energies from the struggle against poverty. India cannot afford to play Russia’s war game with China, nor her own war game with Pakistan. China, whatever the ruling power, will continue to make the same demands that Peking is making today, since her national interests must remain the same and the geographical background is permanent. She, too, cannot risk two enemies on her frontier nor a series of Vietnams round her periphery. India is, in fact, faced with the alternatives of the Himalaya as one vast radar screen or the initiation of an active foreign policy to reopen talks with Pakistan and China. To settle for the present stalemate is to condone a militarily active frontier across Asia.” (Emphasis added, throughout.)

The scholar Dorothy Woodman thus concluded her masterly work Himalayan Frontiers in 1969. It was an objective, meticulously documented account of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute, based on the archives, with a tilt in favour of India. She and her partner, Kingsley Martin, once editor of the New Statesman and Nation, were Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s house guests when they interviewed Gandhi a week before his assassination. The transcript of the interview is a most enlightening document.

Much has changed since 1969. China made up, first, with the United States and, next, with the Soviet Union; moved much closer to Pakistan; and ended its estrangement with India. But there are no signs of a settlement of India’s boundary dispute with China or the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan.

If not settled soon enough, disputes fester and acquire a life of their own. On July 30, 1950, Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel lamented to the United Nation’s Mediator on the Kashmir dispute, Owen Dixon, one of the most distinguished judges of Australia’s apex court: “Many of us think that it is rather disgraceful, and does no credit to India, that this matter should have dragged on… so long.” Patel spoke introspectively, like a statesman. He did not list Pakistan’s defaults which, of course, were not absent from his mind. But he was anxious to settle the dispute. A settlement implies compromise of conflicting interests. To insist on a settlement on one’s own terms is not to settle but to dictate terms.

Dorothy Woodman rightly linked a settlement with Pakistan and China to India’s war on poverty. But there is another consideration besides. It is the “peace dividend” it will yield on the reduction of defence expenditure. It will add to India’s prestige in world affairs. India’s friendship is being eagerly sought by the countries that matter, to the delight of loud-mouthed television anchors and the legion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cheer boys in the media at large. But professionals in Foreign Affairs and Embassies watch critically for signs of real action, as distinct from Modi’s trademark demagogic rhetoric. Is he prepared to stake his reputation on a genuinely determined and sustained quest for a settlement?

How to reconcile the conflicts

What we have embarked on is a process of decades-long talks, not negotiations proper. They require a party to accept (a) the existence of a conflicting interest, besides one’s own interests and (b) a willingness and ability, in the larger interest, to reconcile the conflict.

There are six prerequisites for such a process to succeed. (1) A desire and readiness for a settlement. (2) Willingness to negotiate, to give and take, as distinct from holding talks. Nehru told Parliament on August 14, 1962: “First of all, there is a world of difference between negotiations and talks, a world of difference. One should always talk, whatever happens, whatever the position and whatever the chances. If I have the chance to talk I will talk to [the Chinese]. It is quite absurd not to talk… talking must be encouraged whenever possible. Negotiation is a very formal thing: it requires a very suitable background. It should not be taken up unless a suitable background comes…. Talking is an entirely different thing.” He had refused to negotiate with Prime Minister Zhou En-lai in New Delhi in April 1960 and continued to do so before and after the war in October 1962. Successors followed this safe route.

(3) The government must define its interests realistically and, thus, define what it can and cannot concede in the national interests. This exercise belongs to the realm of policymaking. Expediency might dictate a different public posture, though. (4) A stable government, able and strong enough to push it through. (5) A government skilled enough in the art of politics to be able to forge a domestic consensus in support of its policy of reconciliation, alike in the political sphere and in the media, so as to be able to secure Parliament’s endorsement of the accord. It must be an educator. (6) The government must stay the course and never allow itself to be deflected from it by monetary setbacks, no matter how grave. All these apply to the other side as well. It requires two to settle. Every leader of any worth must remember Margaret Thatcher’s example. She was as tough a Prime Minister as you can get. This episode deserves to be set out at some length for it illustrates how a true leader responds to a setback.



At 2.54 a.m. on October 12, 1984, a bomb sent the cement and dust flying, killing five people, and wrecking much of Brighton’s Grand Hotel. It was a lethal Republican strike against the heart of the British establishment. The Conservative Party was holding its Annual Conference in Brighton. Yet, within a few years the Thatcher government was secretly in contact with the Irish Republican Army as part of Ireland’s peace process.

When the bomb went off, most of the hotel’s occupants were asleep; but Thatcher was working in the sitting room of her first-floor suite, joined by her private secretary, Robin Butler, who years later as Cabinet Secretary was to play an important part in the Irish peace process. The device had been planted almost a month earlier by Belfast IRA member Patrick Magee and another Republican.

Cabinet Ministers and others gathered in the corridor, but debate on what to do ended with Thatcher announcing: “I’m not leaving Brighton.” Millions watched on TV as rescue workers gingerly brought injured Minister Norman Tebbit out of the shattered hotel. A Tory MP was one of two men and three women killed in the attack. Dozens more were injured.

“The IRA at the time concurred with her view that the Northern Ireland problem was essentially military rather than political. In a statement addressed to Thatcher after Brighton, the organisation chillingly declared: ‘Today we are unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.’ …

“Yet she was sometimes prepared, under pressure, to turn from security to explore other avenues, two of which would prove to be vital episodes in the development of the peace process. Less than a year later she would sign a historic accord with the Irish Republic, which laid more emphasis on politics than on security. A little later still, she did not prevent the intelligence agency, MI5, from contacting the IRA, the people who almost killed her in Brighton.”

Patrick Magee, who was already known as an IRA member and had been involved in republican activity in Belfast, England and Holland was convicted of the crime. The judge recommended that Magee should be kept behind bars for a minimum of 35 years. The Brighton bomber served 14 years, during which he gained a first-class honours degree and a doctorate in politics and literature.

“In the event, Britain and Irish republicanism were to come to terms, of a sort, during the 1990s, as key figures on each side came to believe that each should lower its sights from absolute victory to a negotiated settlement. But it would be a long and difficult road, with many deaths and much political turbulence along the way” (Eamon Mallie and David McKittrick; Endgame in Ireland; Hodder & Stonghton, 2001; pages 15-21).

Impetuosity in foreign policy

In 2003, Manmohan Singh allowed the beheading of two soldiers to end the peace process with Pakistan and in 2014 Modi personally decided to call off the Foreign Secretaries’ talks on August 18 at 1 p.m. because Pakistan’s High Commissioner had invited Hurriyat leaders for talks. They had received the invite a week earlier and had made it public. The High Commissioner received India’s Foreign Secretary’s demarche at 3.45 p.m., when Shabir Shah had already arrived at the High Commission for his appointment at 4 p.m.

Impetuosity is reflected no less in Modi’s remarks in Tokyo on September 1 on some nations “that are still pursuing the expansionist policies of the 18th century encroaching on the land and in the waters of the nations”. Never mind the bad history—Western expansionism went on a spree in the 19th century and in the early 20th century and is still at work. What is shocking is the sheer lack of sense and diplomatic propriety. He did not, and did not need to, mention China. But none was in doubt about the identity of the target of his off-the-cuff tirade. After all, only six months earlier, on February 22 this year, he had warned in so many words: “China should stop its expansionist policy and make efforts to forge bilateral ties with India for the peace, progress and prosperity of both countries.” The 30,000-strong audience at Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh cheered him. Modi, desperately eager to be accepted and loved as a national leader, attunes his remarks to the tastes of his audience, whether in Pasighat or in Tokyo.

For innocuous remarks, stating his country’s position on Arunachal Pradesh, the media leapt into a wild dance, as they faithfully do, under the baton of the Official Spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs. He, in turn, speaks on a brief given by his superiors, who seek thereby to mobilise public opinion. Jawaharlal Nehru exploited Kashmir as well as the boundary dispute to mobilise domestic support against an ignorant, unprincipled opposition that was baying for his blood, none more so than the Jana Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) parent. Prime Minister Modi, with no background in foreign affairs, disdains professional advice, treats Cabinet colleagues as his pupils, and goes about with the zeal of an unlettered Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak. There was perhaps nothing wrong in presenting the Bhagwad Gita to Japan’s Emperor, as it was in pouring scorn on that occasion in a foreign country on his critics at home.

Neglected solution

The pity of it all is that on both, Kashmir and the boundary dispute, an accord, based on an acceptable compromise, is easily achievable, given the will to arrive at one. On Kashmir, the Four-Point formula was just a signature away in 2007 when domestic upheaval aborted the peace process. It is impossible to exaggerate the impact of that solution. Kashmir will remain in India. The Line of Control will also remain but become a mere line on the map. De facto Kashmir will reunite, the troops will withdraw and both parts of the State will have virtual azadi. The one single source of bitterness will vanish. The borders will open and a sea change will come over South Asia. On the border, each side has its vital non-negotiable interest securely within its possession and control. India has the McMahon Line and China has the road through the Aksai Chin. It is the political equation and the atmosphere it breeds that need to be set right. In glaring contrast to India’s loud responses every time, China left it to its Global Times to pronounce on Modi’s gaffe. The official spokesman was silent.

Admiration for India

Relations with Pakistan have another dimension: the impact on the domestic situation and, thus, on the situation of the minorities. Nehru’s hard line on Pakistan affected his brave stand on India’s secular credo for the worse. Closer ties, free movement of persons and cultural exchanges will dilute Pakistan’s two-nation theory, on the one hand, and diminish the forces of Hindutva on the other. Remember the impact on both countries of freer travel in 2004? We do not realise our enormous potential for good in the entire South Asia. The Indian model of democratic governance, administrative efficiency, judicial independence, freedom of the media and the assertiveness of civil society are hugely admired everywhere.

This is particularly true of Pakistan. In the weekly MAG of August 5, 1982, “Zeno” wrote in his “Cultural Notes” of the cultural affinity between the two countries. He bears quotation in extenso: “The disaster of 1971, which shook the national conscience to its very foundations, did not immediately register any palpable changes either in the content of our literary creative work or in the terms of our various views of Pakistani culture.

“We continued to talk in terms of anthropological, linguistic, nationalist, or Indo-Muslim dimensions of our culture: we still do. In more recent times, however, there seems to be every remarkable and profound change in both the content of our creative literature as well as in the terms of our cultural debate.

“For lack of a more suitable term to describe it we can call it an ‘Indian dimension’ of our literary evolution and of the concept of our culture: and it is precisely among those sections of our writers who have been most vociferous in the past about the claims of Urdu as the exclusive vehicle of national and Islamic culture, that this tendency is most pronounced.” Urdu is a unifying bond.

“Of course, the most important current in the ideological debate of recent years, which has the added advantage of official support is the one for transforming our so-called Western-oriented society into a so-called Islamic society. [This was written in the Zia era.] But this is merely on the surface: it seeks to have made little headway in the cultural or in literary field, mainly because it negates altogether the artistic forms and content of practically every section of artists and writers. In actual fact it is the above-mentioned ‘Indian dimension’ which has become the main current in our creative process and critical appreciation. One way of gauging its importance is that less and less emphasis is being placed by our writer and critics on the aggressive Pakistani nationalist content of our culture.” Witness the appeal of Bollyood in Pakistan. Its leading lights are household names there. Indians who participate in literature festivals in Pakistan are warmly welcomed, almost lionised.

Indian high-handedness

Far from cultivating or wooing this constituency, India has done a lot to repel it. Pakistani businessmen were, at the last minute, denied a visa to participate in an exhibition at the World Trade Centre in Mumbai in the weekend of August 29-30. The Ministry of External Affairs bows to the Home Ministry in such matters. No wonder a former Home Secretary found comfort on the bandwagon of the BJP. What would have been his mindset when he was in the Home Ministry?

None of this is to deny the existence of a hawkish constituency in our neighbours, especially in Pakistan. A senior editor in Lahore, who died recently, aspired to enter India on a Pakistani tank. But, in Karachi particularly, in Lahore and in Islamabad, one meets very many eager to visit India, and anxious for ache din (good days). If Narendra Modi’s concept of those days covers that, it remains his best kept secret. He represents a sad fall. The sad truth is that while the country’s elite is desperately eager that India become “a great power”, it lacks the vision that makes for true greatness. India will not become a “great power” by courting the “great powers”. Its greatness will be recognised and lauded only if it succeeds in resolving its disputes with the neighbours and establishes an atmosphere of civility and relaxation. The neighbours do not seek parity, only security.

What Edmund Burke said in the House of Commons on March 22, 1775, is all too true even now: “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.”

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