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Right honourable intentions

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband hasn’t said anything that should upset us, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2009 10:29 IST

On the eve of his visit to Mumbai last week, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote in the Guardian that the appeal of terrorism to Pakistanis might be reduced if Pakistan and India settled their dispute over Kashmir. This was universally interpreted in the Indian media and the Ministry of External Affairs as a reflection of his conceit, if not of his ignorance. Few have bothered to entertain the possibility that he might have been briefed poorly by the British Foreign Office, or may have been quoted out of context in the Indian media. A close look shows that both have happened.

What Miliband actually wrote in the Guardian was: “…on my visit to South Asia [my emphasis] this week, I am arguing that the best antidote to the terrorist threat in the long term is cooperation. Although I understand the current difficulties, resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders”.

Miliband meant these comments for ‘South Asia’, i.e. India and Pakistan, and not only for India. His reference to current difficulties was a reminder that these are of recent origin. In other words, he was asking for a revival of the Pervez Musharraf-Manmohan Singh Kashmir peace process. Nowhere in the paragraph is there even a hint of a quid pro quo — India give a little more on Kashmir to allow Pakistan to give a little (to Nato) in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan (Fata). If this was really what the British had in mind, it would have been the last thing that even a callow foreign minister would have published in the Guardian.

Where Miliband went wrong was in his failure to anticipate how differently his remark would be interpreted in the two countries. Thus the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba has already announced that it will cease its jihad if India grants “freedom to Kashmir”. Needless to say, Lashkar will be the decider of when this freedom is given. Miliband could easily have avoided this by being a little more explicit. And by endorsing the composite dialogue — or even better, the Manmohan-Musharraf framework declaration of April 2005 — he would have given the peace process in Kashmir a strong push forward. But that was an opportunity missed.

Once Miliband had used the ‘K’ word, in India, he could do no right. So unnamed sources and a section of the media have also pilloried him for saying that the terrorists arrested by Pakistan can be tried in Pakistan. But his actual views expressed in a TV interview to Karan Thapar are ones that few Indians will be able to quarrel with. “What is important,” he said, “is that those accused of heinous crimes feel the full force of the law, whether in India or in Pakistan... the Pakistani authorities have detained these people. They have said that if there is evidence they should be prosecuted. I say there is evidence [my emphasis]. Let them be prosecuted and, if they are found guilty, let them be punished.” He couldn’t have been more explicit.

Miliband has also angered many Indians by showing a marked reluctance to brandish a big stick at Pakistan. But once again, few can fault his reasons. “There is a debate going on,” he said, “between those who recognise that there is a serious need for reform in Pakistan and those who are... in denial. It is very important that the reformers win.” Brandishing threats, he implied, would make sure that the reformers lose.

Finally, Miliband’s reference to Kashmir was not intended to internationalise Kashmir. At the end of his interview with Thapar he says without qualifications: “Our position has been that the bilateral track has been a good track and should be used.”

Miliband’s remarks reflect his and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s visceral belief that terrorism cannot be wiped out by wiping out terrorists. It is born of a mixture of ideology and specific grievances. So, while it is important not to let terrorists go unpunished, terrorism has to be tackled at its roots. What is more, they reflect a determination to move from confrontation to dialogue, and from military to political engagement in other fields as well.

His words will come as manna to the ears of a world that has lived in dread of escalating conflict for the last eight years. New Delhi’s hawks will do well to ask themselves whether they want India to remain the odd man out.

(Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based commentator)