The nationwide outrage at the beheading of Lance Naik Hemraj and the mutilation of the body of Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh is symptomatic of a collective and deep sense of angst across the country. The brutal streets of the national capital region (NCR) and the treacherous heights of the LoC are increasingly becoming a metaphor for a State that is unable to provide security to its citizens. Security, in its fundamental sense, is freedom from fear. Today, large sections of both urban and rural India are terrified at the prospect of what the future may unfold. And because emotions are running high, it is important for the prime minister to build a national consensus on critical issues before another incident overwhelms us all. What is needed, above all, is clarity of mind and sobriety of action based on distilling the lessons of our contemporary experience and past history. Nowhere is this clearer than in our Pakistan policy, steeped today in national confusion.
Consider this. At the height of the Kargil war, on June 3, 1999, the Pakistan International Airlines flight from Delhi to Lahore and then to Islamabad carried two unusual emissaries of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. On board were joint secretary of the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran division of the ministry of external affairs, Vivek Katju, and chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, Rishi Kumar Mishra. Katju, a brilliant Kashmiri Pandit diplomat and a known hardliner on Pakistan, was later blamed by Pervez Musharraf for sabotaging the Agra Summit of 2001. Mishra — a fountainhead of Brahmanical wisdom, a confidante of Vajpayee and his ace principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, as well as many former PMs — had been part of the back-channel established by Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif at the Lahore Summit; his Pakistani counterpart was the experienced but rather fragile former Pakistani foreign secretary Niaz Niak.
This unusual Mishra-Katju couple delivered to a shocked Nawaz Sharif, a tape intercepted by the Research and Analysis Wing of a conversation between General Musharraf and his chief-of-staff, Lt-Gen Aziz Khan: incontrovertible evidence of the Pakistani army’s involvement in Kargil. Subsequently, Mishra remained in continuous dialogue with Naik to explore ways to find an amicable resolution to the war through bilateral means, and Katju would get a sense of the conversation as he escorted Naik from Delhi airport, on at least one occasion, to the Imperial Hotel. Kargil would have been settled bilaterally, as it almost was (the Mishra-Naik plan had Nawaz Sharif stopping briefly in New Delhi on his return from China towards the end of June, meeting Vajpayee and issuing a joint communiqué leading to a Pakistani withdrawal) if Nawaz Sharif had shown greater sagacity and foresight. Instead, Sharif had to travel to Washington on July 4, to be arm-twisted by US President Bill Clinton to declare a unilateral withdrawal of Pakistani forces from the LoC as well as call for a ceasefire and a restoration of the Lahore Summit peace process — precisely the terms that Mishra had communicated to Naik in a non-paper partially drafted by Vajpayee himself.
This episode, buried in the saga of lost opportunities, is important, however, for at least one reason. It illustrates how even at a moment of Pakistan’s greatest perfidy, there was a range of options, instruments, out-of-the box thinking and creativity that were brought into play by the Indian political leadership. Not since the Bangladesh war had the Indian military force, intelligence and diplomacy worked in such flawless synergy in the pursuit of a clear objective. Contrast this with today and the manner in which television, rather than South Block, seems to be setting the national agenda on Pakistan and tapping the palpable anger on the streets of India. Foreign policy, it is said, is too important to be left to diplomats. And India’s Pakistan policy is far too important to be left to TV anchors, with their wars over TRPs and their penchant to appeal, often, to the lowest common denominator of public opinion. Indeed strident debates in the Indian media — frightening in their Manichaean simplicity — reflect a total lack of appreciation of the intricacies of the Gordian knot of bilateral relations.
The reality is, as our TV anchors must understand and appreciate, that Pakistan is not as much a foreign policy issue as it is part of a larger sub-continental tragedy of unsettled communal relations. That’s why the conflict between India and Pakistan may be easy to describe in terms of events and episodes, but it is painfully difficult to understand. When a street mechanic outside Agra describes a nearby Muslim colony as ‘chhota’ Pakistan, you know that this relationship is about more than just borders and border skirmishes. In reality, the India-Pakistan relationship is — and has been — about everything that matters: history, memory, prejudice, territory, identity, religion, sovereignty, ideology, insecurity, trust, betrayal and much more, in a very desi way.
The tragedy is that while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh understands Pakistan perhaps better than most scholars in the country, he has been unable to sell his goal of a grand reconciliation with Pakistan to a nation simmering with anger over multiple issues. And Pakistan, unfortunately, destroys its own case by instigating outrageous acts that seem to be almost designed to alienate Indian public opinion.
Today, there is no Indian strategic policy towards our most troublesome neighbour, only tactics. No long-term goals, only endless ‘debates’ over short-term gains and losses. No national consensus over Pakistan, only national confusion. We, as a nation, are not even clear about the kind of Pakistan that we want in the future: a stable and prosperous country; or a fragile and failing State; or disintegrated multiple Pakistans. While it may not be possible, as Singh stated, to have “business as usual” with Pakistan, can we at least have a long-term ‘business’ plan?
With the Americans marching out of Afghanistan next year, it is important to evoke the Pakistani academic Pervez Hoodbhoy’s wise words: “Pakistan’s State is already fractured by multiple violent ethnic and religious conflicts. Disintegration into molecular civil war with fiefdoms and warlords is a terrible possibility. India will find, too late, that it has created a South Asian nuclear Somalia for a neighbour.”
Amitabh Mattoo is professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Director of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed by the author are personal.