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Trapped in hysteria

by I A Rehman, 28 December 2008

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Dawn

THE escalating tension between India and Pakistan exposes the efforts powerful elements in both countries are making to change the Mumbai raiders’ failure into a success — for a clash between the two major South Asian states was obviously one of their prime objectives.

There were many matters of serious concern to the people that one wished to take up today but these have to be passed over because almost the entire population of the subcontinent has been trapped in conflict hysteria. Little attention is being paid to the colossal loss the two countries are inflicting on themselves by diverting all their energies into pursuing a course mature people might loathe to adopt.

As was feared, in both countries professional warmongers are choreographing a waltz of insanity and politicians in authority are afraid of falling out of step. Hawks in the opposition parties see in the situation opportunities to further their electoral prospects. This will harm both countries, Pakistan to a greater extent than India.

A ball-by-ball coverage of petty happenings is inflicting nerve-racking strain on the ordinary people. For instance, a delay in a flight’s scheduled departure is interpreted as cancellation dictated by an ominous turn in the security climate and distressful rumours sweep the land at supersonic speed. The flight is rescheduled barely 15 minutes later but corrective information travels at a snail’s pace and many are no longer listening or are in no mood to revise their first reaction.

A TV channel announces the Indian claim that a letter from Ajmal Kasab has been delivered to the Pakistan High Commission. The next moment the news strip says “the High Commission has not received any letter” and the insinuation introduced in the line by dropping ‘as yet’ is clear. Only a few minutes later comes another — “the High Commission has received the letter”. This kind of phurti (indecent haste) reminds one of a half-baked cricket commentator who begins a sentence by praising the batsman for a brilliant shot and closes it on his offering a dolly catch. What is the harm in allowing a situation to crystallise before rushing to spread consternation?

The race to be the first to cause a scare does not allow quite a few to wait for a turn of events that they can pounce on as an omen of doom. Anyone who counsels restraint must be denounced as a coward lacking the mettle of patriotism. A search is made for people who can condemn a Pakistani cultural troupe for visiting India at the present juncture. Has anyone assumed the power and the right to change geography? Whatever may happen in the short run, India and Pakistan have to live side by side as permanent neighbours and prudence demands the avoidance of actions and words that either country, or both, may eventually find impossible to live down.

It is not clear whether an overheated media has tricked the government spokesmen into talking more than they should or whether it is the other way round. The need to advise the Pakistani gladiators (the Indians have their own counsel) to eschew banal cliches and reduce their contribution to gloom is manifest.

For instance, statements such as ‘we do not want war but will resist with full force if a conflict is imposed on us’ amounts to stretching the obvious. Of course, in the event of conflict, however unwelcome, the people will do their duty but the real issue is how will their resistance be organised? That the defence forces are prepared to meet any eventuality is reassuring. But only up to a point, for no country’s security can be guaranteed by the defence forces alone. An equally crucial role belongs to the people.

However, the citizens can play their part best only if they know what they are defending or fighting for. The slogan ‘my country right or wrong’ is a throwback to the days when the people used to be their rulers’ galley-slaves. Today’s Pakistanis will fight for their country with the requisite fire in their hearts if they know exactly what is what and are convinced of the justness of their cause.

Unfortunately, the official spokespersons do not appear inclined to take the people into confidence. For instance, we are told that Pakistan is not isolated. The authorities should have in their possession facts and information on which this claim is based. Withholding such facts and information from the people causes confusion, to put it mildly. Why can’t we be told about the nations siding with us?

Are our supporters China and the US or Canada, Germany, the UK or Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Nigeria? If a country is with us only in private and not in public, it should be deleted from the list of friends that can be depended upon. Is Islamabad alive to the risk of a repetition of 1971 when soldiers and citizens both were fed false tales about powerful friends’ intervention on Pakistan’s side?

Things will be better managed if the government admitted to the people that it is not up against India alone. The stark reality is that over the past 30 years the authoritarian rulers (and the elected ones who were unable to defy their legacy) have destroyed Pakistan’s credibility in the councils of the world and the present government will compound its problems by not disowning this inheritance. The Foreign Office is being taken to task for not taking a stand in the Security Council while it ruled against some organisations and individuals although the critics know very well the limits of vacuous rhetoric.

The impression one gets is that the government is banking to a great extent on American keenness to ensure that Pakistan is not forced to withdraw its troops from the western front. This is much too rickety a bridge to promise safe passage. The danger in assuming the situation on the western border to remain unchanged should be obvious. Is it impossible to admit the possibility of a shift in the US strategy about Afghanistan and the Taliban? Where will Pakistan in such a situation find itself?

Much good will accrue by admitting that Pakistan has been pushed by the enemies within into a marsh from which it cannot extricate itself by bluff and bluster. Rootless confidence and simulated panic are two sides of the same coin that no one should rely upon. Pakistan most of all needs today to break out of the make-believe world of armchair warriors and concentrate on winning the international community’s diplomatic support. Instead of looking all the time for ways of diverting India and the US from whatever they might be suspected of Pakistan must look for support in the rest of the wide world.

For this it will not be enough to find brilliant counsel. More important is the need to check Pakistan’s brief. It will win the day for this country only if it is based on truth and a verifiable commitment to justice at home and abroad. Any other course will be an invitation to disaster.