Mihir S Sharma: Peacemakers' courage

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 11, 2013 19:33 hrs

Perhaps the most significant development of the past three years in India has been the sanctity awarded to the outrage of the governed. Whether it be on corruption, on violence against women, or on inflation, public anger has consistently been the focus of government appeasement – usually late and clumsy – as well as the axis of informed debate. On occasions, such as the recent protests in Delhi on India’s public misogyny, that’s to be welcomed. On other occasions, however, the synthetic outrage sparked by one or another horrific incident needs to be condemned for the silliness it is.

In particular, the recent spike in tensions along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir – which have featured bombardments, raids and counter-raids and, reportedly, the mutilation of bodies – serves as a classic illustration of the principle that policy should never be made to appease transient outrage. Don’t shop for groceries when you’re hungry; don’t drive when you’re drunk; don’t make policy in anger.

One of the ridiculously few achievements of the second edition of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is that India appears firmly on the road to greater economic integration with Pakistan. That Manmohan Singh has gone ahead with this, in spite of the fact that his second term started with the humiliation handed out to him by the Congress leadership over a joint statement at Sharm el-Sheikh that dared to step beyond the contours of existing Indian policy, speaks well for his determination in this field at least. Yet many influential voices are completely unwilling to see this as progress, but instead as “appeasement” — and have seized on the barbarism that is being inflicted by one army on another up in the frozen wastes of the LoC as an excuse to water down the policy. That would be a mistake of colossal proportions.

A word, first, on the nature of this latest outrage. First, the claim that Lance Naik Hemraj Singh was beheaded by the Pakistani army – or by irregulars, possibly answering to Hafiz Saeed, that the Pakistani army was using – remains unconfirmed by highly placed, official sources on the record. The Northern Command has, in fact, denied it. But Indian opinion makers have long been distinguished by their weak-kneed inability to question anonymous state sources when it comes to matters military. They have instead used it to stir up anger to their own purposes, or as fodder for their own private crusades. Second, it is an important, if distressing, fact that beheading and post-mortem mutilation have been used by both sides since at least the Kargil skirmishes, over a decade ago. Several war reporters have written in their memoirs of that war that local brigade headquarters of the Indian army hung a head on a tree – not-so-discreetly draped in a gunny sack – for several days during that conflict. And, according to Praveen Swami in The Hindu, as recently as last year an Indian raiding party beheaded two Pakistani soldiers. Here’s the right question: what is wrong with the military culture on both sides of this border that sees vengeful beheading as acceptable? Even if Pakistan’s pampered, bellicose army does, how can ours be allowed to?

Both those questions, important as they are, aren’t the ones that are being asked. Instead, a policy of increasing interdependence in the subcontinent is being questioned. So let’s repeat why it is important.

First, no other policy has worked. Outright belligerence? Failed. Using the United States to nudge the Pakistan establishment towards peacemaking? Failed. Turning our back on that border completely? Failed.

Second, Pakistan is not its army alone. The drum-beaters of outrage need to recognise that it is a country nearly as complex as our own and even more chaotic. India cannot meddle directly in that country’s internal affairs in order to ensure the failure of the more belligerent and India-hating factions in the long struggle for Pakistan’s soul. We don’t have the state capacity; perhaps some of us even think it would be immoral. Either way, there’s no alternative but to use blunt instruments to effect whatever social change we can. And the change we want to see is the rise of a trading class that depends on India; of a middle class that sees Indian goods and Indian money as important to its lifestyle; of a working class lit by Indian electricity.

And if you don’t think this would change Pakistan, listen to the terrified bleats from the more regressive sections of Pakistan’s establishment at what they call the Zardari administration’s headlong rush to “economic dependence” on India. If India’s trade with Pakistan is normalised, it will go up 10, possibly 30 times. That’s something they justifiably fear. And those who wish to derail the process here are these India haters’ best friends, not their enemies.

India must push the agenda of increased openness and interdependence for its own reasons and in its own interests. This will, tiresomely often, require of us the high road. It will involve ignoring frequent provocation from one or another of the many interests in Pakistan who see rapprochement with India as dangerous — whether the bearded prophets of India’s dismemberment or the Scotch-swilling empire-builders in the cantonments. It will involve making concessions when returns seem non-existent or delayed — Pakistan still hasn’t granted India most favoured nation status, as it promised to do by the end of 2012.

But that is what bigger partners do; and that’s the price of securing our neighbourhood. If you want an example of the benefits and dangers, look to China. A few years ago, it had handed out so many trade concessions and deals to Vietnam, to Asean and even to Taiwan that it looked secure in its sphere of influence; since then, its leaders have overstepped and become jingoistic in an attempt to placate domestic opinion — and found themselves retreating before a resurgent Japan, a re-involved US and an unusually unified Southeast Asia. India must not make the same mistakes; it has far less capacity to face down its neighbourhood than China does.

The UPA and its prime minister are politically weak. The electronic media has seen that money flows from jingoism, and in any case happily confuses mindless hyperventilating with mature criticism. And, as I said, we have of late sanctified public outrage as the highest form of politics. Put together, that means the pressures on the government to step back from its policy of engagement with Pakistan’s civilians independently of progress on counter-terrorism are considerable. Yet India’s long-term ambitions, and the prize of stability and interdependence in South Asia, are too important to allow such moments of outrage to shape India’s foreign policy. Dr Singh, his foreign minister, and his government must stand firm.


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