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BRITISH-Built India Gate in the heart of New Delhi serves as a memorial to martyred soldiers of the country. Its imposing walls are etched with names of brave men from different races and religions of India who were dragged into war by British colonialism. Inscribed on top of the monument in capital letters is the line:

“To the dead of the Indian armies who fell honoured in France and Flanders Mesopotamia and Persia East Africa Gallipoli and elsewhere in the near and the far-east and in sacred memory also of those whose names are recorded and who fell in India or the north-west frontier and during the Third Afghan War.”

Going by Rudyard Kipling’s exhortations Take up the White Man’s burden, and reap his old reward the words inscribed on the monument should make perfect sense to an adventurer with a missionary zeal.

They beckon him to the far corners of the planet to demonstrate a responsibility to improve the quality of life for distant people, peacefully where possible and with force if required.

However, if we look at the list of places on India Gate where the colonial misadventures occurred, they are, curiously enough, the very hotspots where today’s so-called war on terror is being fought most viciously. Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq and unrelated to the original reasons given to make it a target, is bleeding under foreign occupation. Persia, today’s Iran, is in the crosshairs of the West as the next likely target. East Africa is where the war on terror remains intense and inconclusive. The situation in the subcontinent’s north-west frontiers continues to be as intractable as ever. And Afghanistan, outsourced to Nato and special American forces, does not have a government whose writ runs beyond Kabul.

As for the Battle of Gallipoli, the joint British Empire – most notably the Australians and Indians and French operation laboured on till January 1916 to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul), and secure a sea route to Russia. The attempt failed, with heavy casualties on both sides. This is the sordid history that India Gate reminds us of. Much later, after the Bangladesh war of 1971, the monument was turned into a memorial also for Indian soldiers who died after independence, but the names etched on it are still reminders of its actual origins. Should we be proud of our colonial history and continue to mess around with other’s affairs? Or should we regard it as a lesson that forbids us from undertaking future misadventures abroad or in the neighbourhood?

We know that the Cold War cast India and Pakistan on the opposite sides of the divide. From the Middle East to Afghanistan we continued to step on each other’s toes. India became an ally of Soviet Union’s Arab clients like Iraq, Syria and the PLO. Pakistan, spearheading US presence on the other hand, helped crush the PLO with a brutal assault on its camps in Jordan. It militarily guarded the region’s dictatorships that the US had groomed. Closer to the subcontinent, Pakistan’s ISI and India’s RAW cultivated their own idolatrous followings at home and also in each other’s territories.

They have poked their noses in Kashmir and Balochistan and the cat and mouse game has led to untold misery and countless deaths. And now they are locked in an anachronistic duel in Afghanistan. The Cold War was over long ago but theirs is still on, not a face to face combat, but one largely fought in the mind with a baggage of prejudices from history which their colonial masters crafted.Had Indian policymakers learnt anything from history, they would have allowed Pakistan to be sucked into the quagmire of Afghanistan.

British foolishness in Afghanistan aside, they had practised a policy of ‘masterly inactivity’ to good effect. But this was not to be the case with India. The Cold War saw New Delhi backing the wrong side in the Big Game in Afghanistan, and it sided with an unpopular regime. I stayed with Indian ambassador J.N. Dixit in Kabul during the Soviet occupation and saw the absurdity of India’s position from a close range. On one occasion the ambassador took me to meet Soviet envoy Fikriat Altabeev, a burly man from Central Asia. He was considered even more powerful than President Babrak Karmal. Flares were shot in the sky to signal our movements even in those tense days. The situation today is far worse.

After the overthrow in Kabul, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, wisdom should have dawned on Delhi. But India again picked the unpopular side in the raging war in Afghanistan and it remains committed to stick with it through the thick and thin of it. Not just that, it even offered military bases for the US to take on a country with which it does not have a common border. Such is the desperation of our ruling classes to be aligned with the US, often not even as equal partners but as its sherpas. Matters came to a head last week when the Indian embassy in Kabul was targeted in a suicide attack.

Two of India’s bright representatives one a much admired diplomat with a long career ahead of him, and the other an affable defence attaché who was popular with Indian expatriates and local Afghans alike, were killed with 40 others. The involvement of Pakistan’s spy agency was immediately suspected and, in fact, was officially affirmed by New Delhi last week. Given their history, the charge sounds credible but at the same time it may not be true. Much will depend on the kind of evidence Indian National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan shows, which he says he has to nail the ISI. Anyway, he has now called for the agency’s destruction. This is not something about to happen, while it does inject further bad blood between the two countries.

From all accounts, senior members of Pakistan’s democratically elected government too are fearful of certain ‘rogue elements’ within the ISI, euphemism for religious fundamentalists who were injected into the national institutions by Gen Ziaul Haq. Everyone, most of all the United States and Nato forces in Afghanistan, would want these elements weeded out from Pakistan’s body politic, but that remains easier said than done. If there are rogue elements meaning that they are a law unto themselves within Pakistan’s military establishment, it should be a source of big worry for the military establishment there. It should of course also be a major issue for the United States and Nato forces getting increasingly stuck in Afghanistan. But what leverage does India have to get even with the rabid elements it accuses of involvement in the terror strike in Kabul other than to get militarily involved?By contrast, a more powerful country like China, which has a border with Afghanistan, unlike India, has kept a low profile in the volatile neighbourhood. Even though India is not involved in the war in the classic sense, it has taken up cudgels on behalf of a government in Afghanistan whose clout looks restricted to Kabul and whose moral support from its people is doubtful. The saga of ‘reconstruction’ that New Delhi has undertaken in Afghanistan is peppered with misjudgment. Nowhere else in war-torn parts of the world has reconstruction been undertaken when the conflict is still raging.

On an ideological plane too, India’s political stance in Afghanistan doesn’t look thought through. In a historical context, the war in Afghanistan is not too dissimilar to the First Battle of Panipat, which was fought in 1526 between the Mughal invader Babar and Delhi’s Pathan ruler Ibrahim Lodhi. That ethnic battlelines are even today the crux of the conflict there. There was a phase in history when Pashtun nationalists looked up to India. People like Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Wali Khan presented an ideological handle to New Delhi to use in its political battles with Pakistan. Tagore’s Kabuliwala, a Pathan trader in Bengal, had become part of the Indian lore. Siding with today’s Dari-speaking rulers of the former Northern Alliance may please the memory of a Mughal emperor, but it neutralises the advantage India once had but seems to have lost in the quagmire of Afghanistan. So much for continuing to carry the White Man’s Burden and ignoring the message etched boldly on India Gate.