If there was any containment of tensions possible after the terror attack on the Indian Army at Uri on September 18, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif shut the door on that with his speech at the United Nations. In perhaps the most inflammatory public comments of his current tenure - especially given the platform - Sharif remained silent on the attack, not even serving up a perfunctory condemnation. Instead, he hailed the Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani as a victim-hero. Given the gun-toting videos of Wani - who has come to represent a dangerous new phase of militancy in the Valley of local, educated boys picking up the gun - the attempts by Sharif to present him as some sort of peaceful protester was laughable.
In a post 9/11 world haunted by the spectre of the Islamic State (IS) one has only to carefully watch Wani’s videos to know that no global leader could support Sharif’s UN eulogy to him. Surrounded by half a dozen militants all brandishing automatic weapons, Wani calls for Kashmiri youth to join the jihad that will eventually usher in a ‘Caliphate’ - first in Kashmir and then globally. He warns the media to step in line or face the consequences. And he threatens those Kashmiris who join the police with death. In an age before the twin towers were brought down and al-Baghdadi became the world’s most wanted man, Sharif may have had some luck making a martyr out of Wani. But now all that foreign minister Sushma Swaraj needs to do when she speaks in New York next week is to play the Wani tapes. Wani’s choice of words --- “Caliphate”, “Jihad” --- are too close to the idiom of the IS and other global Islamists for the world to express empathy. Sharif scored a giant self-goal.
This is not to say - and some of us have been saying it for two months --- that India does not have a genuine problem of alienation and rage in Kashmir. But that is our own problem to resolve, not Islamabad’s to lecture us on. The fatal mistake the government made was for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to invest all his political capital and imagination in Islamabad, instead of in Srinagar. One longed to see a domestic version of a flamboyant gesture like Modi’s unannounced visit to Lahore in the Valley with our own people - but that did not happen.
The government wrongly calculated that the road to peace in Kashmir was via Pakistan. If anything, it’s the other way around. The best way to render Pakistan irrelevant is in fact to reach a settlement at home. Pakistan’s hold over the Kashmiri people has been exaggerated. During the recent unrest, I asked a young street protester who pointed my camera to a Pakistani flag flung over a street lamp, what its relevance was to them. He laughed and said, “None. We put these flags up to irritate you people.” But the crying need for a domestic Kashmir dialogue is a longer conversation for a different time; the Uri attacks have brought home the need for the Centre to find an authentic and consistent Pakistan policy.
So far there has been confusion and inconsistency in its approach to Islamabad - lurching wildly between romanticised notions of friendship (the hand-in-hand walk in Lahore), untenable red lines that had to be swiftly shifted (no dialogue if the Pakistanis met with the separatist Hurriyat Conference), wild leaps of faith (allowing Pakistani investigators, including the ISI, into the Pathankot air base where its own Deep State had attacked us) and now a clear intent to sever ties in the short term at least. Some of this seeming confusion is understandably the malleability that is required of smart diplomacy. But some of it – a substantive part - reflects political confusion. The missteps betray a conflicted identity: Does the BJP want to be the tough-guy it promised it would be while in Opposition; the ‘Action Hero’ alternative to the Congress’s more chocolate-boy wimpish instincts; or, does it want to be Vajpayee-esque in its optimistic and statesman-like determination to keep looking for solutions while hardening stands when needed.
The government is right in gauging that Uri is a tipping point. As the single largest such attack on security forces in years it has triggered seething rage among people. It is correct for the security forces to be given a free hand and autonomy in determining the appropriate response - covert, overt, localised at the Line of Control or otherwise.
But as India determines her next steps here’s what we should all avoid at all costs — loose talk - either of war or cutting off the flow of the Indus water or cross-border raids. This is no time for delusional talk of peace either, please. It’s a moment to hold our nerve and be cold and calculating instead of impetuous and hot-headed. War is too serious to be treated like an X-Box game. Leave it to those who know better - our military - to make their own assessments. In the meantime, a range of other options exist: Postpone the Saarc summit and allow it a NAM-like slow fade into irrelevance; strengthen other regional forums such as Bimstec that keep Pakistan out and yes, while I would never support using water as a weapon, go ahead and scrap the MFN status to Pakistan. If there is no response from Pakistan to the Uri evidence provided by India then think about recalling the Indian envoy or asking the Pakistani envoy to leave. In the meantime, please quit picking on Pakistani actors and artistes in the film industry. Threatening them is shameful. Action is about real ‘targets’, not fall guys.
And finally, a little silence won’t hurt any of us. The gladiatorial thirst and thrust is good for studios and social media warriors. Not for those who actually have to go to battle.
Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective
The views expressed are personal