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War hysteria abating on both sides

December 30, 2008


NEW DELHI, Dec 29: There is always a risk of exaggerating the prospects of peace breaking out between India and Pakistan, just as there is that irrepressible tendency to overplay the fear of war lurking round the corner.

Three separate reports on Monday from different parts of India, however, indicate that, notwithstanding what high strategy might dictate, at least the recent deafening hysteria on both sides of the border is abating.

In Shimla, India’s Junior Foreign Minister Anand Sharma stated that New Delhi was not fixing a timeframe for Pakistan but it expected the leadership to act demonstratively against the attackers of Mumbai.

In Kolkata, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee was defending Islam against accusations that it encouraged terrorism. And in Amritsar, a short drive from Lahore, police were preparing to repatriate on Tuesday 65 Pakistanis languishing in Indian jails.

These are separate, even disparate, stories but they share a thread — dispelling the imagery of an incensed big brother in the neighbourhood about to do something reckless or worse over accusations, which really could be better thrashed out calmly and jointly.

“As a mature democracy of the world India does not want to fix any time-frame for Pakistan to initiate action against culprits of Mumbai terror attack,” Mr Sharma told reporters during what could be a pre-election trip to his hometown of Shimla.

If the current crisis has been a nightmare for many in both countries, at least for 65 Pakistanis, including three women who were lodged in different jails across India it may herald the end of an ordeal.

Amritsar Central jail Superintendent S. P. Singh said their repatriation through Attari joint checkpost would be made as per the directions of the Indian home ministry. That’s bonus.

From Kolkata came an equally encouraging bit of news. Foreign Minister Mr Mukherjee who was holding forth about some ominous-sounding unilateral actions till recently, was actually making a strong defence of Islam, and even accusing its unnamed detractors of misrepresenting it.

Describing as “unacceptable” the term ‘Islamic terrorism’, Mr Mukherjee spoke of a “disinformation campaign” that has been launched to vitiate the atmosphere and asked the people to protest it.

Significantly, given the current context, Mr Mukherjee said that after 9/11, people in Europe and the United States had coined the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ and tried to project it as a conflict between Islamic and Christian civilisations.

And yet, all these signals could amount to no more than a few wayward straws in the wind that might drift or be divined any which way. One fear that has dominated a pattern of thinking among a sizeable section of people is the idea of an axis emerging from the Mumbai crisis between India and Israel under the benign watch of Washington.

The Indian foreign ministry’s strong condemnation on Monday of Israel’s undeclared war on Gaza didn’t fit with such an axis, even if it may not have entirely negated one either. And yet, in a rare censure of Israel by New Delhi’s recent standards, the foreign ministry spokesman was candid. He said: “It is disappointing to note that the use of disproportionate force is resulting in a large number of civilian casualties on the one hand and the escalating violence on the other. This continued use of indiscriminate force is unwarranted and condemnable. The Government of India urges utmost restraint so as to give peace a chance as the peace process may well get derailed irreversibly by Israel’s attack in the Gaza strip and continued violence.” At the moment all the pointers from New Delhi raise hope. Or, shall we say, they don’t look bleak?