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PM Imran Khan addresses the nation to explain the government’s decision to return the Indian pilot to his country | White Star
PM Imran Khan addresses the nation to explain the government’s decision to return the Indian pilot to his country | White Star

When a 22-year-old local Kashmiri boy, Adil Ahmed Dar, attacked a convoy carrying India’s Central Reserve Police Force personnel, just 20 minutes from where he had grown up and suffered daily humiliations at the hands of security forces, India was shaken, though for all the wrong reasons.

The attack did not result in self-reflection. Nary anyone in India asked the question of why a young man would take the extreme measure of killing himself and, in the process, kill 40 or so paramilitaries.

Instead, there was anger, swelling and snowballing. Shrieking voices on Indian TV channels called for revenge. Pro forma, India, ruled as it is by the right-wing Bharatya Janata Party, pointed the finger at Pakistan: Pakistan had sponsored the attack and Pakistan must pay for it was the refrain.

Kashmir, Kashmiris and the atrocities against them were lost in the din of xenophobic jingoism.

This was predictable. Ever since India-Occupied Kashmir rose in revolt against what Pankaj Mishra pejoratively calls India’s “civilising mission”, India has sought to steer the conversation away from its denial of the right of self-determination to Kashmiris to making it about Pakistan and India.

Equally, the armed resistance by the Kashmiris has been dubbed “terrorism.” Since 9/11, India has also found international buyers for the terrorism line. Various countries, led by the United States, got down to the task of creating an elaborate legal regime to justify invasions to punish non-state actors attacking US interests. This was the tide India was waiting for and small wonder that it took it at the flood.

But what is problematic is that Pakistan has gone along with this narrative. The prime minister in his two short speeches — the press release after the National Security Committee meeting and then in his policy speech from the floor of the National Assembly — referred to the attack in Pulwama as a terrorist attack. Later, his information minister Fawad Chaudhry, in an interview to Dawn News, talked about non-state actors and said that Pakistan had decided in its National Action Plan that it will act against all non-state actors.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi outlines Pakistan’s stance in the wake of Indian aggression | White Star
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi outlines Pakistan’s stance in the wake of Indian aggression | White Star

Unfortunately, despite the limited but robust military response to India’s aggression, we have lost the diplomatic round by ignoring, woefully, how language works and why words are so important, nay crucial in the game of perceptions and building of narratives.

As I have written elsewhere, “Terrorism is one such word. It is supposed to evoke a response, a negative one for anyone who is branded a terrorist. But its placement in the language is more than that. It is about setting a context and wielding power.”

Language is meant to create a context to exercise power over the narrative and, therefore, control the politico-strategic outcome. Since 9/11, there has been an attempt to conflate terrorist acts by extremist groups with freedom struggles. Palestine and Kashmir are two recognised disputes involving peoples’ right to self-determination.

The United Nations General Assembly’s resolution, A/RES/37/43 of Dec. 3, 1982:

“1. Calls upon all States to implement fully and faithfully the resolutions of the United Nations regarding the exercise of the right to self-determination and independence by peoples under colonial and foreign domination;

“2. Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle;…”. (italics mine.)

It is vital for the current government to understand that every word has meanings and connotations. This is why I have been at pains to point out to the PM that he must issue policy statements through a written, vetted text which is carefully drafted instead of rambling and ad-libbing. As the prime minister, every word he speaks, every comma or full stop, every sub-clause has meanings or will be ascribed meanings to.

Language, in this sense, is not what the playwright Harold Pinter described as “a highly ambiguous business.” It is a highly strategic business.

In his play, Translations, Brian Friel dramatised with great poignancy the power dynamics between the colonist and the colonised. One of the most enduring and ruinous ways in which the colonist can exercise power over the colonised is not just through weapons but by controlling the language they speak.

Pakistan cannot allow its military response to flounder on the rocks of our inability to understand the imperative of controlling the narrative, or at least appreciating its interactive dynamics with power. Yes, there’s reason for us to purge this country of extremism and of terror groups. But to make it look like there’s some linkage to Kashmiris’ freedom struggle is to lose the plot, and badly.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 10th, 2019