Talking with Pakistanis

Published: December 15, 2014 14:14 IST
(Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

Meeting a visiting delegation of Pakistani Parliamentarians this week - brought to India by the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) and hosted at our Parliament library by Mani Shankar Aiyar - offered yet another reminder of the paradoxes of the Indo-Pak relationship.

On the one hand it's so easy to slip into a comfort zone with Pakistanis; with language, food, music, movies, clothes and many cultural assumptions in common, they are like familiar cousins, not hostile strangers. On the other, they serve in, and represent, a country that is an avowed enemy of India's, from which a seemingly interminable series of terrorist attacks have emanated as part of an officially-supported campaign to "bleed India to death by a thousand cuts".

The success of any Indo-Pak Track II dialogue of this kind therefore requires that it be built on denial. It focuses on making the visitors feel welcome, emphasizes the feel-good aspects of their presence in our midst, celebrates the many things we have in common, and tries to brush the real problems under a carpet (not a Kashmiri carpet, since that might provoke disagreeable thoughts). The Pakistani export of terrorism to India is never mentioned. In other words, Track-II dialogues are a self-fulfilling exercise in self-vindication. Their success depends on denying the very problems that makes such dialogues necessary in the first place.

I'm all in favour of Indo-Pak peace and bonhomie. I've seen a lot of it in my decades abroad with the United Nations - where Indian and Pakistani colleagues were always the best of friends, even military officers serving in the Peacekeeping Department. Many a Pakistani cab driver in New York has attempted to decline my money for the fare, saying that I was a brother (this of course always won him a bigger tip, but the spirit was genuine). Indians and Pakistanis overseas are almost always the best of friends, since being in foreign lands enhances their consciousness of what they have in common, which vastly exceeds what divides them.

I would love to see a time when Pakistanis and Indians can cross each other's borders with the casualness of Americans and Canadians, work in each other's countries, trade freely with each other and contribute equally to each other's films, music, clothing and creative lives, just as they did (as one country) before 1947. I would be happy if that time came sooner rather than later. But, sadly, I am only too aware that it's not now.

In a famous 1947 article in Foreign Affairs, George F. Kennan argued that the Soviet Union's hostility toward the United States was chronic and incurable, since it was rooted not in a classic conflict of interest between two great powers, but in deep-seated nationalism and insecurity on the part of Russia which the US could do nothing about. Something similar could be said about India and Pakistan. Straightforward disagreements between two states can be resolved through dialogue and compromise. But how can that work when Pakistan's abiding hostility towards India is rooted in fundamental insecurity about its national identity as the "not-India" for the sub-continent's Muslims, and even worse, driven by the self-interest of a rapacious military which commands a greater share of the national GDP than the military of any other country in the world, and needs this hostility to justify its power and privileges?

The visit of the Pakistani MNAs (as their Members of Parliament are called) did not meet with universal approbation among those who became aware of their presence in New Delhi. For there are not many takers in the Indian political space right now for pursuing dialogue with a country whose military intelligence (or elements thereof) almost certainly have had a hand in every terror attack on Indian soil, even while its government professes peace. Few in the government are prepared to accept that we are obliged to pursue normal relations with a Pakistan that incubates terror while the country's civilian government remains either unable or unwilling to curb the so-called non-state actors who roam freely preaching hatred. Hafiz Saeed's recent rally where he preached jihad against India to 5 lakh deliriously bloodthirsty fanatics could not have taken place without government support. And we are supposed to be nice to such a government, some Indians ask incredulously.

It is true that the Pakistani Army, however, selectively, has begun to take on the challenge of fighting some terrorist groups - not the ones lovingly nurtured by the ISI to assault India, but the ones who have escaped GHQ Rawalpindi's control and turned on Pakistan's own military institutions. But the unpalatable fact remains that what Pakistan is suffering from today is the direct result of a deliberate policy of inciting, financing, training, equipping militants and jihadis over 20 years as an instrument of state policy. As Dr. Frankenstein discovered when he built his monster, it is impossible to control the monster once you've created it.

Attempts by glibly sophisticated Pakistani spokesmen to portray themselves as fellow victims of terror - indeed, to go so far as to compare the number of deaths suffered by Pakistan in its war against terrorism on its own soil with those inflicted upon India - seek to obscure the fundamental difference between the two situations. Pakistanis are not suffering death and destruction from terrorists trained in India. No one traveled from India to attack the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad or the naval base at Mehran, whereas Pakistanis sailed to Mumbai to wreak mayhem on 26/11 and crossed the border to attack Uri last month. Pakistan has to cauterize a cancer in its own midst, but a cancer that was implanted by itself and its own institutions. And this will only happen if our neighbours eliminate the warped thinking, amongst powerful elements in Islamabad, that a terrorist who sets off a bomb at the Marriott in Islamabad is a bad terrorist whereas one who sets off a bomb at the Taj in Mumbai is a good one.

The moment the Pakistani establishment genuinely disavows the nurturing and deployment of terror as an instrument of state policy, and concludes that it faces the same enemy as India and should make common cause with it to stamp out the scourge, is the moment that a genuine prospect of peace will dawn on the subcontinent. Such a sentiment is, alas, far from even glimmering on the horizon.

So should New Delhi resume talks with the government in Islamabad? Track-II is all very well, but the days of sari-shawl exchanges have been supplanted by a frigid silence. Talking again before there has been any significant progress in Pakistan bringing the perpetrators of 26/11 to book, many Indians feel, would mean surrendering to Pakistani intransigence. Is there any point talking to people whose territory and institutions are being used to attack and kill Indians?

And yet it is also clear that "not talking" to any Pakistanis is not much of a policy. Pakistan can deny our shared history but India cannot change its geography. Pakistan is next door and can no more be ignored than a thorn pierced into India's side.

India's refusal to talk after 26/11 worked for a while as a source of pressure on Pakistan. It contributed, together with Western (especially American) diplomatic efforts, to some of Islamabad's initial co-operation, including the arrest of Lashkar-e-Toiba operative Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi and six of his co-conspirators. But it has long passed its use-by date. The refusal to resume dialogue has not just stopped producing any fresh results; the only argument that justifies it - that it is a source of leverage - gives some in India the illusion of influence over events that New Delhi does not in fact possess.

Instead, it's ironically India - the victims of 26/11 and other examples of Pakistani malfeasance - who have come to seem intransigent and unaccommodating. The transcendent reality of life on the subcontinent is that it has always been India that wishes to live in peace. India is, at bottom, a status quo power that would like to be left alone to concentrate on its economic development; Indians see Pakistan as the troublemaker, needling and bleeding its neighbour in an effort to change the power balance and wrest control of a part of Indian territory (Kashmir). Refusing to talk doesn't change any of that, but it brought India no rewards and in fact imposed a cost. When Pakistan was allowed to sound reasonable and conciliatory while India seemed truculent and unreasonable, New Delhi's international image as a constructive force for peace took a beating.

To say that we will not talk as long as there is terror is essentially to give the terrorists a veto over our own diplomatic choices. For talking can achieve constructive results. It can identify and narrow the differences between our two countries on those issues that can be dealt with, while keeping the spirit of dialogue (and implicitly of compromise) alive.

So yes, by all means, let us talk to Pakistan and Pakistanis on every "Track" available. It is what we say when we talk that will make all the difference.

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