After the Pathankot affair

Published January 7, 2016

The terrorist attack on the large Indian Air Force base at Pathankot threatens to undermine the prospects for the India-Pakistan understanding that had improved somewhat following the Indian prime minister’s decision to invite himself to his Pakistani counterpart’s birthday party. Both governments will need to act with great prudence to save the agenda set by the two leaders and, for obvious reasons, a special responsibility has fallen on Pakistan.

An incident like Pathankot would have seriously upset any Indian government. It is especially embarrassing to the present rulers as it came in the midst of their campaign to derive maximum advantage from the Jati Umra episode. After having claimed distinction for sending both of its prime ministers to Pakistan over the past 15 years, while the Congress holder of this office could not travel to Islamabad even to sign an accord on Kashmir that he had worked out with Gen Musharraf, the BJP was beginning to celebrate the Lahore encounter as a victory for its communalist designs.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh declared that the Modi visit to Lahore had washed away the charge of India having become an intolerant state. The BJP general secretary, Ram Madhav, was reported as saying that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were going to be reunited as Akhand Bharat through people’s goodwill. His explanation that he had made this observation much before Modi’s brief stopover in Lahore made little difference as his remarks fully echoed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh credo.

In the aftermath of the IAF base attack, Indian public opinion has not totally surrendered to the hawks.

While a BJP spokesperson, M.J. Akbar, tried to ward off protests by recalling that as prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had accepted Pakistan as a sovereign state during his 1999 visit to Lahore, a union minister (Paswan) said reunification of the subcontinent now meant a federation. And the Communist Party of India and Congress were sticking to their stand that the grave issues that stood in the way of India-Pakistan rapprochement could not be resolved through the exchange of pleasantries over a cup of tea.

The Pathankot incident not only put a stop to these exchanges it also enabled the hardliners in the Shiv Sena to warn Modi that terrorism and talks with Pakistan could not go together. Soon enough, unnamed Indian officials began to refer to the possibility of this month’s foreign secretaries’ meeting being put off. Significantly, however, the Indian public opinion has not totally surrendered to the hawks. For one thing, public debate came to be centred on the inadequacy of the security forces’ response to terrorists, and for another, the BJP supporters saw that terrorist attack as a bid to discredit Modi.

Thus, it was possible for The Hindustan Times to declare on Monday that “disengaging with Pakistan after the Pathankot attacks, is to play into the hands of terrorists”. The home minister was also quoted as saying that a single incident of terrorism could not be allowed to derail the process Modi had initiated.

Now the Indian government has chosen to defer acceptance of the hardliners’ call till Pakistan has responded to the questions it has raised regarding the identity of the terrorists and their handlers. The situation is too grim to allow room for prevarication. The uproar in the Indian media will keep the Modi government under pressure and reinforce its plea for confining the India-Pakistan talks to terrorism alone, at least for the present.

As matters now stand, the resumption of negotiations between India and Pakistan will depend on the Pakistani national security adviser’s success in convincing the Indian side that this country cannot be held responsible for the latest act of terrorism. The task that Gen Nasir Janjua faces is by no means easy.

The first question to be tackled will be regarding the origin of the raiders. Efforts have already started to attribute the Pathankot attack to the militants operating from the Indian part of Kashmir. First, we had a story told by the Indian citizen who was left half-dead by the terrorists so that he could spread the word that they had come to avenge the execution of Afzal Guru. Now a hitherto unknown outfit is not content with owning responsibility for the raid but goes on to rebut the Indian media’s attempts to implicate Pakistan The government of Pakistan will be better off without such self-appointed counsel.

This country cannot forever rely on the excuse that the terrorists who mount attacks on India do not spare Pakistan either. This argument means, in the final analysis, that Pakistan cannot overcome the challenge to its own sovereign status, an admission no self-respecting state can hope to live with. If some non-state actors in Pakistan can seriously threaten India and thus precipitate an India-Pakistan clash, then they can also find some other ways to undermine the Pakistani state. It should not be impossible for Islamabad to realise that whenever any Pakistan-based terrorist group assaults India it threatens the integrity of Pakistan itself.

Besides, Islamabad should avoid dealing with the Pathankot affair the way it responded to the Mumbai attacks. As a former chief of the FIA pointed out in these columns sometime ago Pakistan must be “prepared to muster the courage to face uncomfortable truths and combat the demons of militancy that haunt our lands”.

The challenge Pakistan faces is not confined to defending itself against any Indian allegations of exporting terrorism or convincing the world of its innocence; much more real is the need to prevent the cancer of extremism from destroying Pakistan. While the bills for our folly of preferring the good Taliban to the bad ones are still coming in we are now required to stop, for our own survival, dividing terrorists operating within our boundaries into benevolent jihadists and the malevolent ones. This calls for a fresh look at the National Action Plan in order to ensure that the enemies of the state and the people are not able to escape under any garb or pretence.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2016



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