Why We Cannot Ignore Pakistan

(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.)

The horror in Peshawar this week has left us all in shock and distress. No Indian I know has failed to feel the pain of the Pakistani parents who sent their children to school in uniforms and got them back in coffins. Our country, starting with the Prime Minister, stood in solidarity with our grieving neighbours. "#IndiaWithPakistan" started trending on Twitter.

Then the Lakhvi outrage shook our solidarity, when a so-called anti-Terrorism Court, after a travesty of a trial, granted bail to the principal plotter of 26/11. The announcement by the Pakistani government that they will appeal the decision, and that till then Lakhvi will remain behind bars, gives us some measure of relief.

Where do we go from here? If the unspeakable tragedy in Peshawar  leads to Pakistan acting to cauterize the festering sores of terrorism their own ISI has incubated, and they see that India is not their real enemy but the extremism they fanned is, there is hope that peace can emerge from this carnage.

One of the problems in the India-Pakistan relationship is that it is the last one left with sharply opposed binaries. The two sets of ideas in India for dealing with Pakistan involve a choice between those advocating a military attack on the sources of terrorism, and "peace at any price."  Our leaders are either exchanging sentimental letters about their mothers or ignoring each other in a stagnant silence. Too much of Indian public opinion is divided into sharply polarized camps of hawks and doves - the former insisting on nothing less than implacable hostility towards Islamabad, the latter advocating talks with whoever is in office in Islamabad, through a process "uninterruptable" even if new terrorist strikes emanating from Pakistan were to occur.

Neither position, in my view, is tenable. Hostility is a mood, not a policy, and hostility in perpetuity is neither viable nor desirable between neighbours. And while the doves may be right that New Delhi's visceral reaction to the terror attacks is tantamount to giving the terrorists a veto over our foreign policy choices, no democratic government can allow its citizens to be killed and maimed by forces from across the border, without reacting in some tangible way that conveys to Pakistan that there is a price to be paid for allowing such things to happen. At the same time, bombing the terrorist training camps at places like Muridke, as the hotheads advocate, can only prove counterproductive, cementing the popular hostility we are seeking to eliminate.

What, then, is the way forward for India? It is clear that we want peace more than Pakistan does, because we have more at stake when peace is violated. To those who suggest that we should simply ignore our dysfunctional neighbours, accept the occasional terrorist blast (and prevent the ones we can), tell ourselves there is nothing we need from Pakistan and try to get on with our development free of the incubus of that benighted land, there is only one answer: we cannot grow and prosper without peace, and that is the one thing Pakistan can give us that we cannot do without. We cannot choose to be uninterested in Pakistan, because Pakistan is dangerously interested in us.

By denying us the peace we crave, Pakistan can undermine our vital national interests, above all that of our own development. Investors shun war zones; traders are wary of markets that might explode at any time; tourists do not travel to hotels that might be commandeered by crazed terrorists. These are all serious hazards for a country seeking to grow and flourish in a globalizing world economy.

Even if Pakistan cannot do us much good, it can do us immense harm, and we must recognize this in formulating our policy approaches to it. Foreign policy cannot be built on a sense of betrayal any more than it can be on illusions of love. Pragmatism dictates that we work for peace with Pakistan precisely so that we can serve our own people's needs better. But we must do this without illusions, without deceiving ourselves about the existence of genuine partners for peace across the border, and without being taken in by the insincere press releases of the civilian rulers who are occasionally allowed to don the masks of power in Pakistan.

We must accept that the very nature of the Pakistani state condemns us to facing an implacable enemy in the self-perpetuating military elite next door, for lasting peace would leave them without a raison d'etre for their power and their privileges. 

In my own view, it is time for a different approach: one that separates the issue of political dialogue from that of trade and people-to-people contact. Yes, punish each incident of violence by freezing official talks: let the Pakistanis understand that if they want to talk to us officially, they have to take credible steps to rein in Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hafiz Sayeed, and they have to punish the 26/11 killers whose trial has so far been a travesty.

At the same time, we should open our doors and hearts to Pakistanis who have nothing to do with the military establishment. India can build on the generosity it has often shown - as witness the unilateral most-favoured nation status it gave Pakistan in 1996 - by extending itself to its neighbour, offering a market for Pakistani traders and industrialists, a creative umbrella to its artists and singers, an enthusiastic market for its fashion designers, and a home away from home for those seeking a refuge from the realities of Pakistani life. Multiplying our channels of contact away from Track-I and Track-II to embrace the ordinary people of Pakistan would put both countries back on the right track - towards genuine peace.

Sadly India has reacted to 26/11 and other Pakistani provocations by punishing the wrong people -- tightening visa restrictions and restraining other possibilities of cultural and social contact. The terrorists of 26/11 did not apply for Indian visas before coming onshore with their deadly baggage. Those who apply are genuinely people of goodwill towards, and interest in, India.

The advantages of openly issuing visas and enhancing opportunities for Pakistanis in India outweigh the dangers; after all, almost every Pakistani visitor here is entranced by the land that Partition has denied to them. I am strongly in favour of a liberal visa regime, which would require India to remove its current restrictions on which points of entry and exit the Pakistani visa-holder can use, the number of places that may be visited, and the onerous police reporting requirements. To begin with, a list can be drawn up of prominent Pakistanis in such fields as business, entertainment and media, who would be eligible for more rapid processing and for five-year multiple-entry visas.

It will be argued that Pakistan will not reciprocate such one-sided generosity, but India should not care. Insisting on parity with Pakistan is to bring ourselves down to their level. Let us show a magnanimity and generosity of spirit that in itself stands an outside chance of persuading Pakistanis to rethink their attitude to us.

Accepting Pakistan the way it is but pushing for peace nonetheless is, in my view, the only way forward. It will mean isolating those elements and those issues that both sides consider intractable, and placing them on the back burner for now, in order to proceed with those that can be solved. Trust and understanding can be built on the basis of Insaniyat -- welcoming non-official Pakistanis -- thereby improving the atmosphere within which the more difficult problems can be tackled.

Standing still gets us nowhere. It is time to move forward with Pakistan.

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