Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A strong and stable Pakistan is not in India's best interests


If you have been following the debate over the resumption of talks with Pakistan, then you will be startled by the kinds of arguments that are put forward by the proponents of dialogue. If, on the other hand, you are a hack of long standing like me, then you’ve probably heard it all before. I know I have heard versions of the same argument being recycled year after year, decade after decade.

Here is a small sample of what you’re probably hearing – and a short explanation about why it makes very little sense.

One: A strong and stable Pakistan is in India’s best interests.

This argument is as old as the hills. The underlying assumption is that were Pakistan to break up, thousands of mad militants would attack India. There is a tiny grain of truth to this view so I will not dismiss it out of hand but consider the opposite view.

In 1971, Pakistan broke up. Half of the country actually seceded and became Bangladesh. The immediate consequence of this weak and enfeebled Pakistan was two decades of peace. Throughout the 70s and the 80s, we had very little trouble from Islamabad. Plus, with East Pakistan gone, funding for rebels in Nagaland and Mizoram dried up. Consequently, both problems were solved and the insurgencies ended.

If Pakistan were to break up, if Sindh or Baluchistan seceded, there is no way this could do India any harm. Rather Pakistan would be so obsessed with its own problems that we would have a degree of peace.

Further, the real threat to India is not from freelance jihadis. They are quite happy killing other Pakistanis. The threat to us comes from organized terror planned by state and semi-state actors. Such forces are at their peak when Pakistan is strong and stable.

Two: We must strengthen Pakistani moderates.

Have you ever heard a Pakistani intellectual appear on Indian TV and say, “We must strengthen Indian secular forces because otherwise the Sangh Parivar will gain in strength?”

Me neither.

So why do we feel obliged to take sides in Pakistan’s internal disputes? The truth is that we have fought with Pakistan no matter which party has been in power. Benazir Bhutto began the Kashmir insurgency when she was Prime Minister. Kargil happened when Nawaz Sharif was Prime Minister. The Parliament attack took place on General Musharraf’s watch. Asif Zardari was President during 26/11.

Bitter experience has demonstrated that when it comes to India, there are no moderates and extremists in Pakistan. At some stage or the other, every political party plays the anti-India card to win support.

Three: It is only through talks that we can find a meeting ground.

Anybody who has spoken to Pakistani officials will tell you that they have only two concerns. First of all, they want us to give them more river water. And secondly, they want control of Kashmir. Some Indian officials argue that even the demand for Kashmir is related to the Pakistani desire to get more river water.

For talks between India and Pakistan to get anywhere, we have to be willing to make concessions on either or both of these issues. But the truth is that Indian public opinion will not allow any government to compromise on either of these issues.

On river water we think that we are being more than fair to Pakistan and no farmer will agree to release more water to Pakistan. In fact, there is a growing demand within India to abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty (in which case Pakistan is finished) as a counter to terrorism.

On Kashmir, it is clear that Indian public opinion will not agree to any kind of concession aimed at pleasing Pakistan. Nobody will agree to give up an inch of Kashmir. Equally, there is no public support for the concept of joint sovereignty or a soft border which allows terrorists to come and go at will.

Given that the Indian positions are so inflexible, no talks can ever succeed. This is why all summits – whether in Lahore or in Agra – end up achieving nothing.

Four: We can end terrorism through dialogue.

We have been discussing this for over a decade now and despite many attempts at a dialogue including talk of a joint mechanism to fight terror, the situation on the ground has hardly changed.

The Pakistanis claim that any evidence we provide is inadequate. When we argue to the contrary, they say that their courts are free and so the government can do nothing if the likes of Hafiz Sayeed are let off. (It is another matter that every terrorist the Americans want arrested is quickly handed over to them for extraordinary rendition.)

When we respond that we are not looking for criminal convictions, that all we seek is a crackdown on terror organizations that are openly targeting India, the Pakistanis have a new explanation ready.

They say: what can we do? We are suffering from the same malaise! Large parts of our territory are beyond our control. We would like to help but our government does not have the power to rein in the terrorists.

Which takes us back to square one: if they are not going to act against terrorists then why are we wasting time talking to them?

Five: The way forward is people-to-people contacts.

This is the one part of the classic candles-on-the-Wagah-border formulation that I actually have no problems with. Pakistanis are fed on the belief that Muslims are mistreated in India and that we have no successful minorities.

India can only gain if more Pakistanis come here and see the truth and recognize that our secular society has flourished while their Islamist society has destroyed their country. Any educated Pakistani who visits today’s India goes back impressed.

Plus, there is India’s soft power. Why do all Pakistanis long to see Bollywood movies? Why do so many Pakistanis dream of making it big in the Indian entertainment business? Why is it such a big deal when no Pakistanis are picked for an Indian cricket league? Would Indian players have cared if they were not asked to play for a Pakistani league?

The problem is that the Pakistani establishment recognizes the strengths of India’s open, secular society. It is quite happy sending the same 100 Punjabis over every year to talk peace at the India International Centre and at Neemrana. But it has no desire to allow Indian popular culture a free reign in Pakistan. And it sees no merit in allowing more Pakistanis a taste of the real India.

So, the next time you hear these hoary old clich├ęs being tossed around, be a little skeptical. Experience has taught us that they do not amount to very much. 

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