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Nothing black or white about it

A strange thing happened this week. A close journalist friend called from Pak, upset and angry, that I, along with the rest of the Indian media had supposedly turned “hawkish.” Barkha Dutt elaborates.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2009 23:09 IST

A strange thing happened this week. A close journalist friend called from Pakistan, upset and angry, that I, along with the rest of the Indian media had supposedly turned “hawkish.” She argued that civil society voices of pressure on Pakistan’s security establishment were weakened every time the Indian media sounded a “war cry”. I argued back: these generalisations were not accurate; there were many different journalists and as many views that shouldn’t be dumped into one basket and I certainly did not believe that any Indian wanted a war. A few hours later, at a government function in Delhi, I bumped into a senior official. As we jumped into the obvious exchange of what India could do next, he said to me, only half-jokingly, that “peaceniks” like me were “too soft on Pakistan” and out of touch with reality. I argued with him about his over-simplistic understanding of my position, but in vain. To be labelled by opposite tags on the same day was very frustrating, but symptomatic, I think, of how the current discourse across borders is pushing people into easy for and against categories that they neither believe in nor stand for.

I think most of us recognise that the current situation between India and Pakistan is complex and intra-ctable. Anyone who has easy answers is either naïve or a magician. Despite the aggressive statements from the Indian government on military options being “open” or recurring speculation about “surgical strikes” being the way forward, there is a private realisation that none of these measures will strike at the root of terrorism. Instead, they will push two nuclear nations into a war that neither side can afford. But equally, there is justifiable anger in India against the Pakistani security establishment using its nuclear status as a veritable safeguard against an escalation of conflict. Some Indian security experts see it as the cheapest form of blackmail.

Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist and perhaps the world’s foremost writer on the Taliban, elucidates why the Pakistan army believed it could get away with an audacious misadventure like the Kargil infiltrations in 1999. “Musharraf,” he writes in his acclaimed book Descent into Chaos, “had calculated that India would never escalate the conflict for fear that it could lead to an unsheathing of nuclear weapons. He expected the United States to step in and mediate a ceasefire, after which Pakistan could demand talks on Kashmir…The world was stunned at Musharraf’s audacious threat of using nuclear weapons as a form of blackmail to settle an international dispute.” As it turned out the Clinton administration swiftly forced Pakistan to withdraw its forces after losing an estimated one thousand men.

We can hide behind the bravado of bilateralism but the truth is that Washington holds the key to the locked doors of dialogue this time as well. Except that US intervention needs much more finesse and subtlety this time around. The growing antipathy for America in Pakistan means no civilian government can afford to be seen as kow-towing to orders from across the Atlantic. Especially, not after, American signed off on a nuclear deal with India that it declared Pakistan just wasn’t good enough for. In other words, America needs to play a strong hand, but an invisible one, to be effective.

At the same time, public opinion in India needs to be goaded into greater complexity despite the volatility of sentiment involved. It’s clear that the terrorists who assaulted Bombay did so to provoke a breakdown between India and Pakistan. And if the operation did involve the ISI and sections of the Pakistan military, then any conflict only strengthens their hand.

None of this means India should not use every pressure tactic it can to make Islamabad deliver. Friends in Pakistan often ask what it would take to ease tensions. The answer to that is simple. Start with turning Hafiz Saeed’s house arrest into a prison arrest. The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba chief is an internationally recognised terrorist, whether or not his affiliate groups help with charity or not. Please don’t expect Indians to believe that the Pakistan government, with all its might, does not know where Masood Azhar is. Yes, it was a failure of the Indian judicial system to not prosecute him when we had him. It will remain contentious that we let him go. But, why does Pakistan need to protect him? And, let Pakistan’s government stop speaking in multiple narratives that only add to the cacophony. To sack a top-ranking security official for speaking the truth betrays guilt not innocence and adds to India’s worries about who is really in charge.

A small start has now been made in Islamabad with the admission that Ajmal Kasab did not drop from the skies. The Indian
government has also toned down its demand that the Bombay perpetrators be handed over to New Delhi. Pakistan’s interior minister promises a fair and firm investigation. Let us see signs of it, and soon.

But in the meantime, as a liberal democracy, we cannot condone how Pakistani artistes who have nothing to do with terrorists, are being thrown out of television shows and pushed off film sets by violent goons. Yes, India may not feel that the Bombay attacks permit a business-as-usual attitude to life. But how can we allow innocent people to be blamed? How can we undermine all that we stand for as a nation? We all know how miffed we feel when we are profiled at American airports, just because of how we look or where we come from. And yet, America has fiercely guarded the rights of all communities, even in the aftermath of 9/11. We too cannot allow prejudice to substitute rightful anger. Whether that makes me a ‘hawk’, or a ‘dove’, or maybe neither, I leave it to you to decide.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)