INDO-PAK: A DOVE’S-EYE VIEW

Despite the hawks on TV channels, it would be dangerous to let the LoC incident snowball especially with elections nearing

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

This winter has been unusually cold in Delhi, and all over North India. The effect of the chill was limited to the aam admi, huddled around fires, and not India-Pakistan ties. The relationship between the neighbours seemed to be getting better, even if ever so slowly. Up until January 7. The next day, two Indian soldiers were killed in apparent retaliation to casualties suffered by the Pakistani army in an exchange of fire at the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed region of Kashmir. Soldiers die in these testing tit-for-tat exchanges all the time, but this time around the Indian side said their soldiers’ bodies were mutilated and one was even beheaded. Top army brass on both sides is loathe to admit to the violence and occasional barbarity at the LoC as it is violative of the Geneva Convention.

The outrage that followed was extraordinary. True to our times, the TV news channels went ballistic, demanding reprisal against the alleged perfidy of the Pakistani army at a time when the political leadership of both countries was trying to normalise ties by liberalising the visa regime and trade. The views of all manner of superannuated diplomats and strategic affairs specialists — many of whom make a living by selling war or peace, depending on which is in vogue — were fielded to demand action against Pakistan. So shrill and aggressive were some TV anchors and their hawkish guests that they seemed to be ready to give Pakistan a bloody nose on their own if the government or the Indian Army did not respond adequately to their exhortations. Anchors on Indian news channels sounded as obnoxious as the fire-breathing Lashkar boss, Hafiz Saeed.

The government tried not to respond to the incessant demands of the TV channels. First, army chief Bikram Singh promised that the army would take tough action at a time of its own choosing. Congress leader Raashid Alvi uncharacteristically supported the outrage expressed by the lunatic fringe represented by the Shiv Sena, which was agitating against the Pakistani players taking part in the professional hockey league tournament. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expectedly criticised the government for being soft towards Pakistan and overlooking grave provocation. Finally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had invested so much diplomatically in peace and amity with Pakistan, was forced to fall in line and say that, in the wake of such barbaric acts “there cannot be business as usual”.

The net outcome of this sabre-rattling was that all the steps announced as Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) were put on hold. The liberalised visa regime that allowed people above 65 years of age to get visas on arrival, that was to start from January 15, was put in pause mode. The bus that was going up and down across the LoC braked to a halt. Trade between the two countries, that held so much promise and was seen as a way to get around the Kashmir dispute, was also put on hold. All these may restart if the Pakistan government responds positively to New Delhi’s demands to punish the mutilators. The big question is, would life return to normal very soon? Would the hockey players return to the astro turf in Delhi and the women cricket players taking part in the World Cup continue their stay in Mumbai? And what about the trucks laden with tomatoes and other perishable goods heading to Pakistan? Would they reach their destination or would their goods just rot on the highway to nowhere?

So shrill and aggressive were some TV anchors and their hawkish guests that they seemed to be ready to give Pakistan a bloody nose on their own if the government or the Indian Army did not respond adequately to their exhortations. Anchors on Indian news channels sounded as obnoxious as the fire-breathing Lashkar boss, Hafez Sayeed 

As soon as the electronic media began to aggressively seek government action, it became clear that the circumstances were little different from the results of recent media-driven agitations. Whether it was the anti-corruption agitation led by the Gandhian, Anna Hazare, or the more recent gangrape protest in Delhi, the visual and social media built up so much pressure that it became difficult for the central government to ignore it. To control the anti-corruption agitation, the government was compelled to invite the leaders of the protest to help in drafting the Lokpal Bill to get people off the streets. Similarly, to quieten the angry young women and men over the barbaric gangrape, the government was forced to announce a slew of measures to provide greater security to women in workplaces and also promised to bring in a stringent rape law. This time around, too, the government was forced to act.

On the face of it, the media campaigns are helping in creating new norms which should drive government and society. They have helped in fuelling anger against poor governance and the ruling elite’s routine obfuscation and prevarication at taking hard decisions, but in many ways this demand for urgent action ignores our violent history and the complexities of our plural society. These norms are also very upper caste, middle class and majoritarian in construction. Expectedly, the message going out from the TV chat shows is that the government is dithering and is incapable of handling a violent neighbour. There are routine suggestions that the peace process should be called off until Pakistan behaves. Sportsmen, musicians and artists should be forced to pay a price for giving legitimacy to a rogue government, is the refrain of such commentators.

Such simplistic messages feed the lunatic anti-Muslim constituency in India, where the wounds of Partition still run deep. Time and again, the example of the US is cited: how it chased down the terrorists in Afghanistan or Iraq. Needless to say, both invasions were based on dubious assumptions. Such debates go on ad nauseum. All these years, Manmohan Singh has exercised great restraint and not allowed himself to be swayed by this mindless chatter of armchair experts. In 2008, he earned kudos for not sending in the troops after terrorists originating from Pakistan caused mayhem in Mumbai. On a few other occasions, he gave meaning to the expectation that a country like India cannot be a regional power until it sorts out its relationships with its neighbours.

There has been some visible de-escalation since, but the domestic compulsions, weighed down by regional faultlines, could still spark violence at the LoC. On the face of it, the foreign ministers of both countries have made friendly and conciliatory noises. Pakistan’s attractive and articulate Hina Rabbani Khar offered to talk with her Indian counterpart, Salman Khurshid, to sort out the issue. Khurshid appeared tempted to accept the invitation, but seemed to have been restrained by the political leadership. However, he was critical of the jingoism peddled by the media and asserted that the dialogue between the two countries was back on track.

The threat to peace remains as the two countries head for elections. Political parties will figure out what works for them better: war or peace. If the discussion at the Congress’s Chintan Shivir is anything to go by, the party leaders want a tough stance towards Pakistan so that the BJP does not run away with this issue, claiming across the country that the Congress is incapable of looking after national security. This threat looms ominously as the Congress seriously takes on the challenge of the BJP and RSS, which seem cramped by a fratricidal power struggle on the one hand and allegations of supporting rightwing terror against the Muslims, on the other. Confronted by a serious existential crisis, the BJP could revive its communal campaign by rebuilding the links between radical Islam and the threat from Pakistan. Tough times ahead!

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2013