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India - Pakistan: Pursue peace instead of sabre-rattling

by I A Rehman, 19 December 2008

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Dawn, 18 December 2008

APART from anything else, the terrorist outrage in Mumbai put Pakistan and India to a grim test. They have not failed — so far at any rate. That is the gratifying part of the story. The regrettable part is that the South Asian twins do not seem to have struck the path of success either. As a result, the huge population of the subcontinent is in the grip of fear or anger, both antithetical to rational thinking.

Whether so designed or not, the events of Nov 26 had the potential, at the very least, to derail the process of normalisation of relations between the two neighbours and for precipitating an armed conflict between them, at the worst. The movement for a comprehensive India-Pakistan accord has no doubt suffered a setback but both sides have expressed a keenness to reduce the damage to the minimum. And they have been quite forthright in ruling out war.

However, in this state of suspended hostility the threat to regional peace will remain alive. Sadly enough, India and Pakistan are still engaged in a dangerous debate regarding the identity of the perpetrators of the horrible massacre of nearly 200 innocent people, and their sponsors. Necessary though such a probe is, total concentration on this point amounts to taking a narrow view of the matter and entertaining the illusion that the monster of terrorism can be overcome by catching and hanging a few culprits and punishing their patrons. Anyone opting for this course will be guilty of a costly failure to learn from the disastrous consequences of the Bush wars.

What is more important than the identity and parentage of the Mumbai killers is the fact that they were enemies of the peoples of India and Pakistan — they damned the Indians by killing many of them and wounding their government’s pride and they damned Pakistanis by putting them in the dock.

Without minimising the enormous hurt to the people of India it can be demonstrated that the Mumbai terrorists caused much greater harm to the world’s Muslims, including those living in Pakistan and India, just as Muslims the world over have been more the victims of 9/11 than the Americans.

The foremost task before the governments and the peoples of India and Pakistan is to make every effort to deny the terrorists success in their criminal undertaking. The assault on Mumbai was obviously a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Since the attack on Mumbai must have been planned many months earlier it is not easy to pinpoint the objectives of those who made the plot, except for a bid to pre-empt the new Pakistan government’s attempts to normalise ties with India. This should have been the overriding goal in November too when a couple of other factors — state and union elections in India and the Kashmiri people’s shift away from violent struggle — might have influenced the terrorists’ planning.

It should not be difficult to recognise the terrorists’ (regardless of their parentage) interest in helping India’s communal factions in both state and union elections, as similar to their preferences among Pakistani political formations. Terrorists everywhere like to see in power parties that are committed to the politics of exclusion, because of their common roots in intolerance. Likewise, the prospect of the Kashmiri people’s return to a non-violent political struggle for their rights cannot be welcome to all those who have thrived on conflict and confrontation between India and Pakistan, and such elements can be found in both countries. This reading of the situation offers a fair indication of the course India and Pakistan need to follow jointly and severally.

The wave of anger in India is understandable and the emotions of a large number of Indians have been whipped up to the extent of making them impervious to friendly counsel from abroad. However, India is fortunate in having a sizeable community of peace-lovers that must not surrender to the jingoism of hate-preachers. Apart from the fact that peace is the highest moral ideal for entire humankind, the Indian people must be enabled to take into account the prohibitive cost of confrontation with any neighbour not only in economic terms but also in those of an increase in intolerance of differences based on belief, ethnicity or social status.

The people of Pakistan, on their part, have to conduct an honest self-appraisal, however agonising it may be. The question whether Pakistan has fostered terrorism beyond its frontiers has become irrelevant. What is relevant today is that the world is not convinced of its disclaimers despite the fact that militants have forced a civil war on it. Now it is the international community’s perception that Pakistan is up against — and perception is often more effective than the truth. Pakistan can escape being branded an international pariah only if it undertakes a sincere and concerted campaign against extremist elements whose existence cannot be denied.

The question of seeking foreign help in the fight against terrorists that are threatening Pakistan’s very existence also needs to be studied dispassionately. A state that has no qualms about begging for aid to buy palm oil or to keep the administration running should not feel shy about asking for help to ward off the terrorists’ challenge. It is perhaps necessary to realise that the plea that Pakistan itself is a victim of terrorism, though true, could become self-incriminatory if it does not produce the required zeal in combating terrorism.

Efforts by India and Pakistan to deal with terrorism separately will not bear fruit unless they stop demonising each other and start acting in concert. Unfortunately, both countries have become prisoners of confrontationist forces they have thoughtlessly nourished for six decades and more. The leaders of both countries appear to be so helpless in the face of these forces that they may be afraid of thinking of a summit meeting right now. Such fears will be the undoing of the subcontinent as the situation demands boldness in the pursuit of peace and goodwill instead of proficiency in sabre-rattling or diplomatic sophistry.

The governments of Pakistan and India will not be able to seize the present opportunity to close the chapter of adversarial relations without the active backing of their respective civil societies. The latter alone have possibilities of silencing extremist elements in their populations and weaning their media away from their habit of fuelling tensions.

In any case both countries should make the fullest possible use of the Track-II channels to evolve an agreed approach to terrorism. The starting point has to be the realisation that terrorism is not a transitional law and order problem, that the roots of the threat to both India and Pakistan lie in the pre-Partition communal politics and that their future lies in burying that hateful legacy of religion-based politics.