Forget sentiment, India shouldn't meddle in Pak’s internal squabbles

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 04, 2014 07:40 IST

In the uproar that followed the publication of Natwar Singh’s memoirs, one interesting chapter has been largely ignored. This deals with Singh’s tenure as our high commissioner to Pakistan. Before leaving for Islamabad in 1980, Singh writes, he called on Abdus Sattar, the then Pakistan high commissioner to India. He asked Sattar, “I know what to say to our friends across the border. Tell me what I should not say.”

Singh says that he has never forgotten the reply he received. Sattar told him, “Never say that we are the same people. We are not. If we were, then why did we part company in 1947?”

Alas, all too often Indians — especially Delhi’s Punjabi intellectuals and commentators — make exactly the same mistake that Sattar warned against. How else does one explain the obsessive interest in Pakistan politics or the conviction of north Indian peaceniks that all Pakistanis are our brothers, unjustly separated from us, who long for nothing more than peace and friendship with India?

It is this misconceived sense of brotherhood that leads so many Indian liberals to believe that it is our job to help democracy flourish in Pakistan. And Pakistani politicians are quick to take advantage of our wide-eyed naiveté, demanding Indian support either against the army or against each other.

The truth is that Pakistan is a separate, distinct, independent country. How it organises its internal affairs is no business of ours. We must deal with whoever comes to power in Pakistan, no matter how they got there. There is simply no room for nostalgia or sentiment. And it is not our job to take sides in their political squabbles.

Over the last fortnight, as Pakistan has slid closer and closer to the edge of the abyss, there has been a flurry of messages, tweets, and calls for help from Pakistanis protesting against the government of Nawaz Sharif. Sometimes these messages emanate from supporters of Tahirul Qadri, a Canadian citizen and non-resident cleric who has now returned to Pakistan to demand the ouster of the country’s legally elected government. But more often, they come from followers of Imran Khan, the Sharia-loving, Taliban-hugging, former cricketer who recently failed, yet again, to win more than 10% of the seats in the Pakistan National Assembly, despite overwhelming support from Indian news channels.

Indians who have been moved by these calls for support — as well as those who feel kindly towards Nawaz Sharif — argue that we cannot sit idly by because whatever happens in Pakistan will have significant consequences for India.

For instance, we are told a civilian government will be friendlier to India than a military regime. This view was most famously articulated by the late Benazir Bhutto a decade ago, when she told the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, “Democracies do not go to war with each other.”

Well, guess what? They sure do.

Consider Bhutto’s own record. In 1989, when she was prime minister, her government trained, financed and encouraged an armed insurgency in Kashmir. Bhutto was at the forefront of this effort, loudly demanding independence for Kashmir from India. A decade later, when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, Pakistan invaded Kargil, leading to a bloody conflict as Indian soldiers fought to recapture our territory. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was in power when Pakistani terrorists launched an attack on Mumbai. And Pakistan’s current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, allows those who masterminded the Mumbai massacres to roam free and plan more attacks against India.

When you point out to Pakistani politicians that civilian governments are no different from military regimes when it comes to violent assaults on India, a glib response is trotted out: what could the civilian leaders do? The army planned these attacks without the knowledge of the democratic government.

Even if this is true — and of course, it isn’t — it begs an obvious question. What is the point in supporting civilian governments if they are powerless to prevent the slaughter of Indians? And how does it matter who is in power when the army calls the shots anyway?

On our side of the border, Indian peaceniks fall back on another tried-and-tested argument. If Pakistan slides further into chaos, then this will be bad for India. So, we should try and promote democracy in Pakistan.

In fact, history has demonstrated that the most chaotic times in Pakistan occur when civilian governments are in power. Consider the current mayhem. A legally elected, democratic government is in office. And yet, two civilian politicians are destroying law and order by seizing TV stations, provoking battles in the streets and storming the prime minister’s house.

Even if it is true that a chaotic Pakistan is bad for India, it is worth remembering that the civilian politicians engender the worst chaos. Pakistan is at its most stable when the army is in power. Martial law is a far more effective guarantor of stability than Pakistan-style politics.

So, it is time to remember Sattar’s advice. We are not the same people. We don’t care which of Pakistan’s politicians overthrows the other. And we don’t even mind if the army takes charge.

It is their country and it is their problem. They can deal with it — or not deal with it — as they choose. We must not be foolish enough to involve ourselves in their internal squabbles.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

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