Seasonal afflictions and quick remedies —Tanvir Ahmad Khan

A much better option would be for India and Pakistan to locate themselves in the international system in such a manner that they add to each other’s strength in an environment that is volatile and fragile. It would be bad policy to weaken each other

In the last week of June, I was in London for an unusual conference on India-Pakistan relations which brought together politicians, diplomats, former generals, media personalities, novelists, artists, cinema personalities and other opinion-makers. Not many conferences attract such a large and informed audience to interact with as this one did. The frisson emanating from bouncing crusty exponents of the national security state off the easy, effortless humanity of Kamila Shamsie and the wicked humour of Muhammad Hanif, the narrator of an intriguing tale of exploding mangoes, riveted the attention of a packed hall and brought to surface emotions that may still save a troubled sub-continent.

Highly engaging conversations took place in an atmosphere that reflected the light and shade of hope and fears, not naïve euphoria. There was a good reason for it because there was a perceptible difference in visceral attitudes underlying polite presentations. This difference made for varying perspectives on the main objective of the conference i.e. a joint and concerted effort to transform the India-Pakistan relationship by imagining it in new semantics and fresh images with which to weave a vision of a better future attainable through a deliberate exercise of human agency.

Participants from creative fields had no difficulty in evoking that imagination but those with roots in the strategic enclaves seemed to be clearly divided between those who were willing to embrace it ungrudgingly and others whose priorities were embedded in narrow national advantage. The Pakistani contingent was slightly vexed by a rather gratuitous effort made by some Indian speakers who were less interested in crafting a happier future for both the countries than in indulging in dark hints that Pakistan was a failed state. They were also still carrying the brief of projecting the image of shining India to the West rather than focus on the agenda of the conference.

In his key note address, the veteran Indian politician Jaswant Singh questioned the wisdom of applying the Westphalia model to South Asia and came within an ace of implying that the states of this region of great disparities of size and power were not ideally suited for the principle of the sovereign equality of states. Fortunately he balanced this drift in his argument with an emphasis on regional cooperation.

A month after this conference, one is dismayed by the factor of “stress” creeping into the India-Pakistan peace process. The summer wine at the negotiating table is turning sour; the coming autumn does not look like a season of mellow fruitfulness; the next spring is a distant thought unless of course the leaders of the two countries rise to the challenge of eliminating old and new threats to what Pakistan has been calling a grand reconciliation.

Consider the main threat. Despite the Havana spirit and the joint mechanism it produced to combat terrorism, India and Pakistan are still unable to immunise their quest for reconciliation against men of violence who oppose it. Recent events portend regression, not progress. The horrific attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul and the serial bombs that brought murder and mayhem to Bangalore and Ahmadabad have resurrected old misgivings that must be credibly allayed. The intemperate statement by the Indian National Security Adviser which I have discussed in this space before might have forced Pakistan to abandon its restraint in making public a growing perception in the country that India is aggravating Pakistan’s time of troubles especially in FATA and Balochistan. Rahman Malik avoided an intimidatory tone but, all the same, squarely blamed India for terrorist outrages in Pakistan. The last thing that the two countries should permit is a clandestine conflict between their respective intelligence agencies and, as this newspaper aptly put it, a war of consulates.

References to terrorism during the opening addresses by heads of state and government at the 15th SAARC summit on August 2 were educative. President Karzai who had failed to protect the Indian embassy in an otherwise heavily surveilled and guarded district of Kabul laced his reference to this growing menace with barbed phrases which may well be adversely decoded in Pakistan. He spoke of sanctuaries (FATA?), institutional nurturing of terrorists and support for them (ISI?) and outmoded geopolitical interest (strategic depth, a facile doctrine long since repudiated by the Pakistani generals who might have once articulated it).

In an act of commendable statesmanship, Prime Minister Gillani declined to recognise Karzai’s coded language. Pakistan can thus focus more on Karzai’s useful highlighting of Afghanistan as the shortest route for transporting energy from Central to South Asia.

Karzai is the leader of a country dominated by more than 50,000 (and still counting) foreign troops. Invariably, one has to decipher how much of what he says publicly is determined by this stark reality. Dr Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, leads a nation all poised to take a pre-eminent place in regional and global politics. His speech at the Colombo summit dealt with terrorism in the right key; he correctly identified it as the single biggest threat to stability and progress. He had obviously decided wisely that the issue was grave and would be better dealt with, inasmuch as it concerned Pakistan, in his exclusive meeting with his Pakistani counterpart. This discretion on his part should encourage a closer cooperation between the two countries.

It is difficult to put a value on the bilateral peace process; it is simply infinite. No effort should be spared to remove obstacles in its path. The global, the regional and the national are heavily correlated at the moment. India may well be tempted to take advantage of this explosive mix at Pakistan’s expense as Karzai seems to be doing. But would this be in India’s long-term interest? A much better option would be for India and Pakistan to locate themselves in the international system in such a manner that they add to each other’s strength in an environment that is volatile and fragile. It would be bad policy to weaken each other.

The writer is a former foreign secretary who can be contacted at tanvir.a.khan@gmail.com

Source: daily times, 4/8/2008

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