Monday, August 23, 2010

Moments of Distress Remind Us That There is No Escape from History

India and Pakistan observed their recent anniversaries of independence from colonialism in distinctly sombre mood. Despite the hard times, if there was room for make-believe in India, the unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe that had Pakistan in a vice-like grip, left that country no such luxury.

Life for the estimated tenth or more of Pakistan’s population that has been dislocated by floods in the Indus river basin, will never again be the same. Few expect the corrupt and internally riven Pakistan state apparatus to live upto any norms of accountability in a moment of mass distress. And if nature’s cruelty was not sufficient, Pakistan’s independence day witnessed two lethal militant attacks in the Balochistan province and a U.S. drone missile strike in the northern areas that may have killed a number of civilians.

India faced its own national security anxieties, as mass protests raged in Kashmir and the Maoist insurgency in the country’s forested heartland kept up an insistent pressure on security forces deployed in all their coercive might. Preparations for the pageantry of the Commonwealth Games, primed as the equivalent of a debutante ball marking India’s emergence on the world stage, were meanwhile drawn into a morass of corruption and mutual recrimination.

Pakistan’s flood misery was a zone of silence for the Indian media, though that country’s singular failure to secure pledges of aid to tide through the humanitarian catastrophe, earned a number of mentions. The aid deficit was put down quite categorically to squandered trust, a consequence of the Pakistan state’s unsavoury global image.

When a newspaper in the U.S., ostensibly on the basis of privileged intelligence documents, reported that Pakistan’s security establishment had downgraded India from primary existential threat to a secondary status next to jihadi terrorism, the Indian media saw a stratagem to overcome an international trust deficit. There was yet no willingness to acknowledge Pakistan’s vulnerability to terrorism, since that would have been discordant with an official Indian narrative that the source of all evil cannot be its victim too.

Anxieties about Islamic extremists moving into the humanitarian vacuum caused by the retreat of the Pakistan state earned wide media coverage, as did the occasional outpouring of nationalist paranoia in Pakistan, that held India responsible for the devastating floods.

Yet for all the moral advantage enjoyed over its truculent neighbour at a juncture when both countries look back on shared and separate histories, India suffered its own moments of discomfiture. Kashmir continued to be under siege from within as security forces unaccustomed to democratic scrutiny faced off angry street demonstrations by a generation grown to maturity in a brutally militarised environment.

In an admission of fallibility that would have been unthinkable just months back, the Union Home Minister in Parliament, took the name of an individual associated for decades with the Pakistan constituency in Kashmir and commended him for his call for peace, after street demonstrations had claimed over fifty lives.

Mortifyingly though, the individual concerned rejected the overture and called on the people of Kashmir to celebrate Pakistan’s independence on August 14 and boycott the following day’s observances of Indian freedom.

Yet the stridency of the discourse on India’s supposedly inalienable right to reign over Kashmir and its people, showed little abatement. A statement by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, made in the context of the Kashmir turmoil, about the need to consolidate on the salutary progress made in the “composite dialogue” with Pakistan, stirred up bitter resentment in India, and a flurry of speculation over whether he had actually said what he was purported to have.

India lodged a protest and was told that Moon’s remarks were not really his, but merely a pro forma “guidance” that had been prepared by his staff. The Indian media promptly traced the hand of a Pakistan national in the U.N. secretariat behind the offending statement. When Moon arrived on a humanitarian visit to Pakistan, there were muttered remonstrances that he would be well advised not to put India too on his itinerary.

After years spent chafing at the neglect of the west, India began gaining an advantage over Pakistan when events in Afghanistan began taking a turn that the U.S. had not prepared itself for. But that phase of intimacy with the U.S. proved rather transient. For purely pragmatic reasons, the western alliance against terrorism is now prepared to factor in Pakistan as a nation with legitimate anxieties and concerns, since there is otherwise little chance for the project in Afghanistan to succeed.

India’s absolutist posture that it will not enter into any dialogue until Pakistan ceases the export of terrorism, had traction for a while. So too did India’s argument that reconciliation with the anti-government forces in Afghanistan would be a futile pursuit so long as they remained resistant to all norms of democracy.

But the sources of terrorism are now known to be much more diverse than just the one country that India attributes all its ills to. Indeed, many of the political elements that were most strident in pursuing this theme, are now known to have been eager participants in the cult of terrorism. The opportunistic advantage conferred by the benediction of the U.S. will soon dissipate. India could soon face a rather stark choice: either open negotiations with its neighbour under superpower coercion, with consequences that will be of little advantage to either, or make an honourable peace that is respectful of mutual interests and honours the rights of the people of Kashmir.

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