Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Posted on 1-February-2013
In India, the New Year opened with an epidemic of jingoism. Between the 6th and the 15th of January, there took place a series of--on any sensible reckoning, minor--skirmishes along the Line of Control separating the parts of Jammu and Kashmir under Indian and Pakistani control. There are credible reports that tensions along the line had slowly been building up since September last year in the region where these skirmishes took place. As often happens in such situations, particularly when two armies long used to treating each other as inveterate enemies, some local commander decided to order his men to shoot and the other side retaliated. As also happens when enemy soldiers shoot at each other, atrocities were committed. One Indian soldier was decapitated and another's body was mutilated. Outrage that was felt by the kin of these men was obviously justified. And these people were entitled to receive emotional and material support from the authorities, which were both extended to them. There are some reports--dismissed as anti-national by the high priests of nationalism--that such atrocities have been committed by men in the Indian army too in the past. Regrettable as these incidents are--they will continue taking place in future too until such time as India and Pakistan finally agree to bury their sixty-three year quarrel over Kashmir--the leadership of the armed forces, as well as the political leadership of the two countries must at all times ensure that such incidents are not allowed to escalate to larger conflicts. Institutional mechanisms for doing this exist and eventually they were used to restore calm along the line on which they agreed in 2003 to observe a cease-fire. But before calm was restored along the line, there was a show of bad temper by people on both sides. It is intriguing why there was this outburst of ill temper.
Newspaper columnists, commentators and political savants of different kinds are not slow in producing theories. The favourite theory on both sides this time was that the government on the other side being beset by many domestic difficulties, including widespread public anger, deliberately exaggerated these incidents in order to distract public attention. Others on the Indian side attributed the escalation of tensions to elements in the Pakistani army unhappy with greater attention being given by their superiors to action against jihadist elements in the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet others blamed the incidents on the attempts of the Pakistani army to smuggle in armed militants into the valley of Kashmir. Whatever the explanation--and the simplest explanation may yet be that the cease fire was broken due to a series of miscalculations at the local level--the benefits of the 2003 ceasefire cannot be gainsaid. There was obvious advantage in the two governments quickly consulting with each other to re-establish calm.
In spite of the advantages of bringing the situation on the Line of Control back to normal, many people in India took delight in hawkishness towards Pakistan. Of these the most to blame were television talk shows with anchors and participants all breaking into a kind of mass hysteria. The beheading and the mutilation of the bodies of soldiers were talked of as if these were the first acts of barbarity committed in armed conflict. Worse things have happened in war in other places and at other times. But in public discourse in India in the days following the incidents on the border ( i.e. the Line of Control, which should in 1972 have been converted into a permanent border), the country's strategic community--perhaps another name for retired soldiers, sailors, diplomats and serving and veteran newsmen (could the last two substitute for tinkers?)--all competed with each other in advocating toughness towards Pakistan. Even those retired diplomats who when active had dealt with policy formulation towards Pakistan and would in all probability as loyal servants of the state have shunned war-like rhetoric, joined in the chorus. The leader of the opposition in the lower house of parliament called for ten heads of Pakistanis for every head of an Indian and Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra based regional outfit, never responsible and sober and never more vehement than when it spews venom against Pakistan issued threats against all kinds of Pakistani sports people. Government of India, ever inclined to wilt under pressure when it sees its electoral prospects threatened--also inclined to ignore protests howsoever legitimate when it reckons it can brazen its way out--gave in to the hysteria. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said it could not be business as usual. It was announced that a Pakistani womens' hockey team had been asked to go back and a new visa regime of which the main beneficiaries would have been people above 65 years of age and people travelling for business had been put on hold. An advisory was issued in Kashmir, it seems by some people in the Army, telling people how to prepare for a nuclear war. A Pakistani diplomat was prevented from going to Jaipur to attend a literary festival and another was not allowed to go to Agra for a trade meet--worst kinds of acts of pettiness even if the two diplomats were known to be intelligence operatives. At last saner heads on the two sides have calmed things.
Pakistan has always been a difficult neighbour for India and will continue to be so as long as it is controlled by delusional generals willing to take part in American or Chinese geopolitical games. As long as Pakistani generals think they can wrest Kashmir from India or they can bleed India through acts of terrorism they will create trouble in Kashmir or elsewhere in the country. India has to live with such a neighbour and keep on honing its capacity to deal with Pakistani trouble making. But open war with Pakistan--conventional to begin with--should now or ever be ruled out, with the assumption that Pakistani generals are not suicidal. This is the single most important reason why hysteria of the kind witnessed in India last month must be avoided--it can be dangerous or it is futile, ugly ranting when not dangerous. There is another reason why Indian media and Indian intelligentsia should control their anti-Pakistani rhetoric. Whenever there is an ostensible rise in tension between India and Pakistan, there arises a noise in the world outside--mostly in west Europe and the USA-- about the dangers of a nuclear conflict between the two countries, giving a fillip to numerous peacemakers ever ready to meddle in Indo-Pak affairs. A third reason is that in the realm of public perception gratuitous Indian hostility towards Pakistan does not do India much good. Maintaining a level of normal relations with Pakistan in the full knowledge that cultural exchanges, people to people contacts, candle light vigils, playing sports together will none of them lead to good relations can do India no harm; good or bad relations between states are still made by governments--by politicians, soldiers and diplomats-- and not various sections of civil society.
I shall conclude with a few observations based on personal experience. Soon after the nuclear tests of India and Pakistan in May 1998 I happened at a diplomatic reception in the capital I was located in to be talking to the Pakistani Ambassador who maintained quite cordial relations with me. We were interrupted by a rather impudent European junior diplomat who asked if he could help sort things out between us. Both of us spontaneously and almost simultaneously said that we were capable of talking to each other without him and looked away from him. The reason I am narrating this is that I think the attitude of that European is typical of the way much of the West looks upon India and Pakistan especially when they go complaining to the West against each other. I have spent a good part of my working life trying to explain India's point of view on Indo-Pakistan disputes to officials and non-officials of other countries. On many occasions, I have come away with the impression that my interlocutor while seeming to listen to me attentively was in another part of his mind simply wishing to be done as soon as possible with another round of Indo-Pakistani bickering. Through their public quarrel over their--at times minor--disputes they belittle themselves in the eyes of the world, without getting any closer to establishing much needed rapprochement between them. While India cannot control Pakistan's rhetorical excesses, it can control its own public posture and actions. Excess of patriotism does not help with the need to keep calm nerves and keeping nerves calm in the face of provocation does not mean surrender.