During the Cold War, the doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) purportedly deterred the nuclear-armed United States and the Soviet Union from ever engaging in all-out war. Today, relations between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are being seriously tested. In the wake of the atrocious Mumbai attacks, while a motley crew of warriors continues to threaten the elected government in Islamabad, pre-election sabre-rattling in India and potentially suicidal Pakistani politicking has been intensifying. MAD is going, well, mad.
As with virtually every other violent event on the subcontinent, the fallout from the Mumbai tragedy has included a predictable exchange of hostile public statements and media missiles between India and Pakistan.
Demands from India to hand over Pakistani fundamentalists — like demands from Pakistan to hand over the Indian colonel implicated in the Samjhota Express sabotage — have (unsurprisingly) been met with indignation on both sides. Beyond the economic losses incurred from the re-tightening of trade barriers and the withdrawal of foreign investment, both countries have much to lose by perpetuating the blame game.
The situation is perhaps most aptly described by the great Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) in his much-loved short story Toba Tek Singh, a dark yet hilarious satire depicting a Pakistan-India exchange of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu lunatics three years after Partition in 1947. The story features Bishan Singh, a Sikh inmate of an asylum in Lahore from the town of Toba Tek Singh.
News of the cross-border exchange of inmates “created quite a stir in the lunatic asylum in Lahore, leading to all sorts of funny developments,” Manto wrote. “One of the lunatics got so bewildered with this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day while sweeping the floor he climbed up a tree…When the guards asked him to come down he climbed up still higher and said, ‘I don’t want to live in India and Pakistan. I’m going to make my home right here on this tree.’…There were two Anglo-Indians in the European ward. When informed that the British were leaving, they spent hours together discussing the problems they would be faced with: Would the European ward be abolished? Would they get breakfast? Instead of bread, would they have to make do with measly Indian chapattis?
“One of the lunatics had declared himself God… As was his habit the man greeted Bishan Singh’s question [about where Toba Tek Singh was] with a loud laugh and then said, ‘It’s neither in India nor in Pakistan. In fact, it is nowhere because till now I have not taken any decision about its location.’…Bishan begged the man who called himself God to pass the necessary orders and solve the problem. But ‘God’ seemed to be very busy with other matters…What [Bishan] wanted to say was: “You don’t answer my prayers because you are a Muslim God. Had you been a Sikh God, you would have surely helped me out.”
The satire ends with a desperately distraught Bishan collapsing in existential crisis: “On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”
This ‘bit of earth which had no name’ could easily allude to modern-day Kashmir or, increasingly, Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan, held hostage by crazed crossfire. Continuing state atrocities in Kashmir, the political rise of Hindu fundamentalism and associated violent incidents, and the socio-economic marginalisation of the Muslim minority in India do not bode well for good neighbourly relations.
On the opposite side of the “barbed wire”, since the days of the anti-Soviet mujahideen, members of Pakistan’s army have viewed US-backed jihadis as an “ingenious and cost-effective” means of achieving certain regional military objectives, William Darymple writes in a February New York Review of Books piece on Ahmad Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos. Although “many in the army still believe that the jihadis make up a more practical defence against Indian dominance than even nuclear weapons”, ironically such groups “have now turned their guns on their creators…bringing Pakistan to the brink of a war it cannot possibly win”.
Pakistani officials now claim that the US is rethinking its use of pre-emptive drone strikes in the tribal regions and plans to present NATO with the Obama administration’s new policy on April 2 after consultations with Pakistan. On the heels of so much irreparable damage, however, any ‘new and improved war on terror policy’ may prove too little, too late.
“Eight years of neocon foreign policies have been a spectacular disaster for American interests in the Islamic world”, culminating in the “implosion” of Pakistan, Darymple warns, “probably the most dangerous development of all”.
To prevent Pakistan-India tensions from collapsing into a nightmarish Cuban Missile Crisis-type scenario in a South Asian no-man’s land, both countries should not only cooperate but also compromise in a joint investigation into the Mumbai attacks, mediated by a third party. Pakistan’s Interior Adviser Rehman Malik’s official statement on February 12 about the Mumbai attacks represents a significant step in that direction. Direct communiqués should replace media missiles.
Failure to compromise and diffuse tensions may reinforce the thinly veiled warning of Manto’s 1950s satire: “It was all so confusing! And who could say if both India and Pakistan might not entirely disappear from the face of the earth one day?”
Any policy that places short-term gains ahead of regional compromise and longer term cooperation on a wide range of mutually shared interests could prove suicidal — for India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond. The madness must come to an end before it ends us.
Syed Mohammad Ali is a Lahore-based independent research consultant. Pamela Kilpadi is a postgraduate researcher with the University of Bristol School for Policy Studies, and served for a decade as the founding director of International Policy Fellowships