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Stop obsessing (and get on with it)

It is absurd for India’s future to be held hostage to a dispute in the tiny Kashmir Valley. And who can deny that we are now in the same league as China and not Pakistan? Vir Sanghvi writes.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2010 23:55 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Early in his first term, when Manmohan Singh was more accessible to the media and more willing to discuss issues with those whose views were different from his, the prime minister outlined what he hoped would be his government’s policy on Pakistan.

As far as he was concerned, the dispute with Pakistan was a legacy of the 20th century. An India that aimed to be a superpower in the 21st century could not afford to be obsessed with a small neighbour. China, our great rival in the region, had border disputes with its neighbours (including India) but saw beyond them.

In our case, however, we had been defined for too long in our dealings with the international community by the Kashmir issue and by our problems with Pakistan. The challenge for his government, he said, was to move beyond Pakistan, to end the obsession with our neighbour and to stop spending billions on arms.

Manmohan Singh repeated these remarks when he spoke to journos on the plane to New York on his way to his first meeting with Pervez Musharraf. When the prime minister met the Pakistani president he made two points. First of all, he asserted, he had no mandate to redraw the borders of India. Nor would any Indian prime minister in the foreseeable future. Secondly, border disputes were fast becoming obsolete. In the 21st century, borders were soft and porous. So why not find a Kashmir solution based on soft borders and regional cooperation and prosperity?

I have dealt at some length on the PM’s views because I believe they are still at the core of his Pakistan policy. It is too simplistic to see Manmohan Singh as a dove or a Pakistan-lover. Rather, he believes that Pakistan should be a minor irrelevance and that the baggage of the dispute is dragging India down and preventing us from occupying our rightful place in the world.

Frankly, I don’t see how anyone can disagree with Manmohan Singh. Yes, of course, it is absurd for India’s future to be held hostage to a dispute in the tiny Kashmir Valley. And who can deny that we are now in the same league as China and not Pakistan?

But here’s the problem: it is not enough for us to think like that. Pakistan must also be willing to accept that a peaceful solution that does not compromise India’s sovereignty is possible. Sadly, everything we have seen over the last year suggests that Pakistan is a long way from accepting that position.

Islamabad recognises that India has a lot to gain by settling this dispute on terms that do not radically alter the status quo. But what does Pakistan gain from such a solution?

At present, Pakistani policy is guided by three major factors: the jihadi threat; the need for the Pakistani establishment (politicians and army) to retain the support of its people; and the relationship with the US over Afghanistan and the war on terror (or whatever they are calling it today).

All three factors work directly against the Manmohan Singh formulation.

India has always believed that the terrorists who come across the border are guided by the Pakistani State. The Pakistanis say they are freelancers beyond the control of the State.

The disagreement over which characterisation is accurate still rages but it seems unlikely that the terrorists who are exploding car bombs in Pakistan are State actors. Rather, it seems as though the State is losing control of Pakistan. So, the ISI may still be able to control the Laskar-e-Tayyeba and a few other outfits but there is no way in which Pakistan can rein in all the terrorists it has spawned. The monster of terrorism is now consuming its maker.

In these circumstances, no Pakistani government can guarantee that peace will return to Kashmir because militants will stop streaming across the border or even that India’s cities will be free from 26/11-type attacks. If the Pakistani government can’t even secure Lahore or Karachi, how can it prevent attacks on Bombay?

Nor is it clear that the Pakistani State even wants to rein in the terrorists. Elements in the State (in the army, the ISI, etc.) are delighted by the global attention paid to 26/11-type incidents and do not see how Pakistan gains if these stop.

Nor does the Pakistani public believe that the terrorists who cause mayhem in the name of Kashmir are a bad thing — they treat them as freedom fighters. Moreover, Pakistanis also believe that much of the violence in India emanates not from Pakistan but from Indian Muslims who are finally fighting back after decades of mistreatment. (You and I may laugh at this characterisation but Pakistan needs to believe that Muslims are treated badly in India. After all, if Muslims can live happily in Hindu-majority India, then what was the need to create Pakistan?)

So, an embattled Pakistani State has nothing to gain by cracking down on those who attack India. On the contrary, it risks alienating its own people by appearing to let down the ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘poor Indian Muslims who are fighting for justice’.

The chest-thumping tenor of recent statements made by senior Pakistani ministers (‘India has blinked’ etc.) is a clear indication of the desire of Pakistani politicians to demonstrate how they are standing up to India. In a situation where ministers play to the gallery, no real progress is possible in the peace process.

And finally, there is the American angle. The US has now recognised that the violence in Afghanistan (and the terrorism that emanates from there) will never end as long as Pakistan offers safe haven and support to the militants. (It is the same with Kashmir: no peace is possible as long as Pakistan exports terror.)

The Pakistanis have told the Americans that they would like to help but domestic public opinion is deeply hostile to the US. The only way they can mollify their own people is if they can say that Washington is on Pakistan’s side against India, that it will help secure Kashmiri freedom, etc.

Naturally, the US cannot do all of this. But it can put pressure on India to talk to Pakistan (so that the Pakistanis can claim we blinked). And that is exactly what the Americans are now doing.

Given this background, how can any peace be possible? Every concession we offer (the inclusion of Baluchistan in the joint statement at Sharm el-Sheikh, for instance) is treated as evidence of Indian perfidy. We are just being used by the Americans and the Pakistanis and our genuine desire for peace is being exploited.

I subscribe to Manmohan Singh’s vision. Of course, we must stop being obsessed with Pakistan. But can we do this while Pakistan is still obsessed with us?

And when that obsession is expressed through violence, murder and terrorism?

The views expressed by the author are personal