February issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 14 years ago

When candles were lit in Kolkata for Ankik Dhar and his friends Shilpa and Anindyee, tears flowed — and hatred brewed. This has happened whenever explosives have been detonated in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore or Hyderabad — or most recently Pune. Whenever Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militants have been accused of igniting an incendiary, the men on the ‘wrong side’ of the northwestern border have been demonised. Even an innocuous Sufi-Dervish strolling along squalid Indian streets has been looked at with terror and suspicion: is he an ISI agent?

Over the years, this animosity has also been skilfully manipulated by the civil-military elite of Pakistan to stoke similar hatred in the Indus plains. The ‘hate cycle’ has formed a regenerative loop. Hence the self-sustaining model of Indo-Pak rivalry has grown into its current state of egregious maturity.

Commencing with the terrorist attack on India’s Parliament in 2001 and continuing with the infamous siege of India’s financial capital, Mumbai, on November 26, 2008, the bilateral relationship of the two South Asian giants has slowly been pushed towards political bankruptcy. In between, a minor salvage was attempted by creating a Joint Anti-Terror Cell so as to smooth out future scenarios involving terrorism. Indubitably, parties with vested interests existed, and continue to exist, that leave no stone unturned in their bid to pump energy into the hate cycle. The hitherto unknown Lashkar-e-Taiba Al Alami appears to be the latest inductee into the list of such potent candidates.

Lashkar-e-Taiba Al Alami claims to be a breakaway faction of LeT. It claims it has separated from LeT because the latter was acting as a puppet of the ISI. If this breakaway faction really does exist, what does this mean for the two neighbours? Does it portend a much more ominous future for South Asia darkened by an uncontrolled chain reaction of terror?

Already Pakistan is reeling under the venomous Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). India, meanwhile, had been terror-free for 14 months since 26/11 (this can be perceived in one of two ways: either India has enhanced the efficiency of its security personnel and has fostered better security-intelligence co-ordination, or terrorist groups have been too preoccupied in the Af-Pak region to worry about targets on mainland India). Nevertheless, the RDX-ammonium-nitrate blasts of February 13 at the German Bakery in Maharashtra’s cultural capital of Pune shocked Indian citizens. The Pune blasts were probably tailor-made to unsettle the upcoming Foreign Secretary-level talks to be held between India and Pakistan on February 25.

So after an interregnum, India and Pakistan are to sit across the table again. The astute political observer would definitely hint at an American influence behind this, as India was reluctant to chalk out the talks because of the lethargic movements of the civil bureaucratic machinery of Pakistan in acting against Hafiz Saeed, the head of Jamaat-ud-Daawa. Furthermore, India is likely to tread cautiously in these bilateral forums, keeping in mind the diplomatic fiasco on the sidelines of the recent NAM Summit in Sharm-el-Shaikh.

Surely, Foreign Secretary-level talks are just the beginning, but at least there is a beginning. However, the agenda of the talks remains unclear. Is the situation so benign that both the secretaries could just exchange pleasantries and end with Sir Creek, while meandering around the Indus Water Treaty?

But why should a head-on collision with the obvious be avoided? Why should Islamabad continue to evade India’s concerns regarding cross-border terrorism and why should New Delhi shy away from Kashmir? Both the parties need to appreciate the fact that by just talking about these two contentious issues they are not going to loose Karachi or Mumbai.

If a few things need to be sorted out, then those things ought to be prioritised. Decades ago, the Italian fascist Mussolini, amongst his many “not to be revered” acts and policies, uttered: “The Nation is a single fixed point, the rest is obvious.” Regarding Indo-Pak bilateral ties, it could be said that “Kashmir is a single fixed point, the rest is obvious.” In fact, cross-border terrorism too is inextricably intertwined with Kashmir. However, that in no way means that the terms of the negotiation should be dictated by any terrorist outfit or even by obdurate authorities.

Flexibility, adaptability and pragmatism on both sides would enliven matters and lessen tensions. Both Islamabad and New Delhi need to traverse some distance toward each other without succumbing to past follies. Islamabad has its own domestic predicaments, be it the National Reconciliation Ordinance, the judiciary-executive tussle, the Balochistan tangle or the terror-implosion since the launch of the Swat and South Waziristan offensives. India, too, cannot prevaricate regarding its Maoist insurgency, the tumultuous northeast or, for that matter, the ‘Kashmir burden.’ And while the naïve commoner walking along the alleys of Kolkata or through the by-lanes of Rawalpindi may not appreciate the jargon of “geopolitics,” “strategic depth” or “composite dialogue,” he still has the inalienable right to ask the respective policy-makers these questions: “When you talk, why don’t you talk seriously? And why do you only posture?”