The national security advisors’ meet fiasco has led to some graver questions.
Are both sides losing control to the hardliners?
Are they even aware of the consequences of their actions?
Is there any reset button to undo the damage done?
It is my humble view that the Indian playbook on Pakistan is at least seven to eight years old. Meanwhile, the dangerous brinkmanship on the Line of (no) Control (LoC) continues unabated. The world watches with alarm and weariness, as there is no telling if and when the escalation may spiral out of control.
See it with the eyes of a common man like me, who calls Pakistan his home and has no other place to go to. The said man has to explain to his little kids why there are power outages all the time; why there is no Disney Land in the country or in the neighbourhood; why breaking news always brings to them bad news, angry news, sad news.
He has no suitable explanation for why grown-ups attacked a school in Peshawar, and snatched from many children their right to live and innocence from the rest. And yet, that father – whose job has transformed from sheltering the delicate world of his children to painstakingly elaborate to them one tragedy after another – doesn’t have a heart to explain how close they sit to the epicentre of a possible, if not probable, nuclear holocaust; that the miscalculation of a single day can snatch from them their bright future, their health, their environment and perhaps even their beautiful forms.
Imagine the burden. The anguish and suffocation. I am sure this sense of helplessness is shared on the other side of the border.
Our legacy of hate
India and Pakistan have many things in common. Chief among them is hate. Both have extremist tendencies among their religious majorities, and yet both take incredible pains to blame it on their minorities. In India, Muslims and Christians must be responsible for everything bad. In Pakistan, it must be those wily Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians.
Both countries teach their own versions of history in schools. Recently, a significant amount of hate has been identified in Pakistani school curricula, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Hatred in both countries does not flow from these books, considering that both states have miserably failed to educate their masses (although this problem also needs to be fixed too).
The real hatred flows from their respective interpretations of history, which finds many mediums to propagate; oral tradition, popular culture, religious discourse and even fairytales when they reach us in our mothers’ laps or in the cradle.
After three generations, the indoctrination is almost complete. And sadly, the underlying motivation is not any vicious conspiracy but the insecurity of the two states. India, which lost Pakistan in 1947, fears this can happen again and Pakistan may foment unrest there. Pakistan has always thought India is out to get it. Both have some reasons to feel suspect each other.
However, when the paranoia, hatred and craziness has reached this height, you know you have to roll back this industry.
The region can no longer afford the Abhinav Bharats and the Lashkars anymore. This has to stop. History is important but not important enough to demand future in ransom. Time is the worst place to get lost into.
Indian misperceptions about Pakistan
1. Pakistan will implode soon
During my last visit to India, I felt that a very distorted view of Pakistan is prevalent there.
Indian intelligentsia perhaps inhales too much of what comes out of the idiot boxes. It is one thing to consume television sensationalism for recreation and altogether another to form an opinion based on it.
The result is that our Indian peers think Pakistan as a country is imploding, and between Indian pressure and terrorism, it is likely to collapse soon. This can lead to some serious miscalculations. But sadly, the attempts to psychoanalyse Pakistan, based on flawed assumptions, continues unabated in Indian media and policy-making circles.
2. Pakistan's military wants to prolong conflict with India
The second misperception is about the civil-military mix. It is widely believed in India and some parts of Pakistan and elsewhere, that the Pakistan Army does not want to resolve outstanding issues with India because it derives legitimacy from the conflict among the nuclear armed neighbours.
This view was quite accurate in 1998 and 1999, when the two sides exploded nuclear bombs and then briefly went to war in Kargil, but not anymore.
Since 9/11, the residual effect notwithstanding, the country’s army has fought hard and with great valour against terrorists. Yes, it was in bits and pieces. Yes, there must be some sympathy somewhere down the food chain for the terrorists and yes, old habits take some time to die. But it is strange that the critics both at home and abroad totally refuse to see the mind-boggling transformation that has taken place.
You see a few retired generals sitting on television parroting their views, and you think nothing has changed. Here is a hint for you: spare some time and meet someone who is in service. You will be surprised.
An average soldier today is better educated, better equipped, better trained and yet remarkably practical in worldview. Ask yourself after so much fight, how can he not be. The stories narrated by the likes of Zaid Hamid and a few others are a sensationalist sideshow meant to keep people amused.
The army today derives its legitimacy from the real and current threats to the nation’s security and territorial integrity, and the vision of the future. The country’s future as a regional trade hub would always justify investment in security. The 10,000 men strong force being raised by the army only to provide security to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is just the beginning. It is, therefore, in the institutional interest of the army too, to let détente and rapprochement between India and Pakistan take place in a dignified way.
Another transformation is in the mindset. I recently had a long and lovely discussion with a serving officer on mundane matters like tax returns, civic responsibility, best educational options for children and much, much more. He and many other officers are seen speaking vociferously in support of the democratisation of the country.
Misperceptions lead to miscalculations
The misperceptions lead to some serious and lethal miscalculations. For instance, I have gone through most of Indian National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval’s video clips available on the internet. The gentleman sadly chooses to live in his own past. He thinks that pressing Pakistan hard while it combats terrorists will easily bring it down. A few examples given include the unrest in Balochistan and Karachi. He seems unaware that the situation in these two places, while troubling, is no more life threatening for Pakistan.
So no, sir, it won’t bring us down. I am amazed that by your admission, you have spent seven years as an undercover agent in Pakistan and you have failed to see what is best in us – our ability to survive and fight back.
By believing in this nonsense, the current policy-making circles are only feeding a war hysteria that will soon backfire.
The second miscalculation is to think that the country’s civil and military leadership can be played against each other, giving the plotter a virtual walkover. The Dr Strangeloves in the media notwithstanding, the civil military leadership of the country right now is undivided on the matter, especially owing to similar domestic attempts recently.
In their simplistic interpretations of Pakistan, the Indian side repeatedly walks into traps that are bound to leave it badly bruised. They lack a holistic approach towards Pakistan, which treats it as a sovereign state. In trying to weaken the Pakistani government, the Delhi sarkaar betrays a characteristic lack of imagination and weakens its own standing, as the constituency for peace here loses faith in the process.
The way forward
Everyone in Pakistan understands that India has some legitimate concerns. Pakistan’s concerns are not less known in the Indian policy circles either. No one has any delusions that the longstanding issues on both sides would be resolved overnight or in a few meetings.
The only reason why the relatively new government in New Delhi opposes any mention of the ‘K word’ is because it wants to take maximum political mileage out of any interaction. It is perceived as yet another attempt to divide Pakistan and bring it down. It won’t work. In fact, this reckless attitude is bringing all stakeholders together. Better treat Pakistan as a single entity like our side tries to do.
Formal resumption of multi-dimensional talks could help both sides control unnecessary paranoia while renewing the opportunity to understand each other. But the only opportunity for that in sight is a month away, when the two sides can meet UN General Assembly sidelines. Somehow, even that seems a far-fetched possibility.
Then perhaps, the better way for both sides would be to take a break, let border forces and DGMOs interact in a professional environment and away from the prying eyes of the media hawks. Back-channel diplomacy can work too. But it is in the interest of both sides to do away with the war hysteria and to let things cool off.