Friday, January 18, 2013

Time to end Unilateral Concessions

Kanwal Sibal 
(Member, VIF Advisory Board) 

Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh’s remark that there can be no business as usual with Pakistan after its troops mutilated the bodies of two Indian soldiers they killed, and that those responsible for this crime will have to be brought to book, is unexceptionable in so far as it goes. But to interpret this as indicating a radical reversal of our policy towards Pakistan would be a mistake. 

The prime minister has made tough sounding statements before on Pakistan’s linkage with terror threatening the peace process and the imperative need to bring to justice those responsible for the Mumbai carnage, without this affecting the fundamental decision to engage Pakistan despite provocations. The beheading incident is not more intolerable than the killing of a large number people in cold blood in the Mumbai attack, and yet after a pause we resumed the dialogue with Pakistan, the justification being that we have to live with it as a neighbour and closing the doors to a dialogue is not an option. We say that we need peace with Pakistan to realise our goals of high economic growth and poverty alleviation. The argument that as the bigger and stronger country we should be more generous with Pakistan entices us. The fluidity of our convictions and general reluctance to take hard decisions makes us choose soft options, which we wrap in the cloak of moral superiority, statesmanship and our vocation for peace.

If we could disregard the intense provocation of the macabre dance of death in the Mumbai attacks and engage in hope-filled diplomacy with Pakistan subsequently on the assumption that its propensity to bleed us through terrorism could be contained by goodwill gestures on our part and that relations with it could be normalized as between two civilized and rational countries, then to believe that all our earlier arguments in favour of a sustained dialogue have now lost all relevance would be wrong.

Defence minister Antony has called the recent events a “turning point”, which is strong phraseology but doesn’t necessarily mean a change of direction in our policy towards Pakistan. The Air and Army Chiefs have spoken of options India will use at the time of its own choosing, but these seem aimed more at boosting the morale of our forces rather than any concrete plan of action for the future. The Army Chief has in fact clarified intentions by speaking of tactical action, not any strategic change of course. The anxiety to salvage the dialogue even as accountability is demanded of Pakistan comes out in the External Affairs Minister’s statements. The seeming robustness of our statements sits ill with our proposal for a flag meeting with the Pakistani military, as if we are more nervous than Pakistan about escalation. This request appeared all the more anaemic as it was made despite the obnoxious Pakistani reaction to national outrage in India.

Pakistan is unbothered by the statements coming out from New Delhi. Its Foreign Minister , Hina Rabbani Khar, is conspicuously defiant in her tone, “appalled” as she is at the “absolutely unacceptable” Indian charges. She has added insult to injury by suggesting UN involvement, knowing our allergy to any such proposal. Assuming an ill-fitting mantle of peace, she has accused India of war-mongering. She has clearly signalled that Pakistan has no intention to “bring to book” those responsible for an incident which its own enquiry shows did not occur in the first place. Pakistan has not brought to book even after four years those responsible for the Mumbai attacks, whose occurrence at least Pakistan could not claim to be contrived by India. 

For the moment we have curtailed sporting and cultural exchanges with Pakistan. If, as the Prime Minister says, it can’t be business as usual with Pakistan after its outrageous conduct, we should act on the business front and postpone the visit of the Pakistani Commerce Minister due this month. The operationalizing of the visa agreement can be delayed too. In response to Pakistan seeking to involve the UN, we should state that the only issue for discussion is Pakistan’s withdrawal from the territory occupied by it illegally. We should bite the bullet on UNMOGIP and expel it from Indian territory as a signal to Pakistan and the separatists in Kashmir. We should avail of this incident and Pakistan’s truculence to cease equating ourselves with Pakistan as victims of terrorism and expressing our helplessness by affirming that we have no other option but to talk to it come what may.

The government’s decision to curtail sporting and cultural exchanges for the time being is appropriate, but it is being contested by some who want to sing and play with Pakistanis even as their army brutalizes inhumanly our soldiers defending our frontiers. It is true that invidual Pakistani artists and sportsmen are not involved in this barbarism, but their country is. Our people to people relations with Pakistan, good or bad, are mediated by the state and are not autonomously established at individual level. The army is defending our territory not because of a personal compact but because they discharge a function enjoined upon the state. If, as individuals, we must share the grief of the families of our soldiers mutilated on the Line of Control, indivdual Pakistanis must bear the burden of their army’s heinous conduct.

Unfortunately, it is Pakistan’s habit not to accept responsibility for violating agreements and codes of civilized conduct. In its eyes, the other party is always wrong or manipulative and Pakistan is the victim of the conspiracies of others. It is very difficult to deal with such a mind-set. We continue to nurture the false hope that Pakistan will see it in its own interest to behave differently, to discard its policies to promoting jihadi terrorism that is recoiling on the country itself, to accept that it has to live in peace with its larger and more powerful neighbour for the sake of the welfare of its own people and not cling to notions of parity and revenge fired by religious fervour. While we should not underestimate the difficulties of the government in dealing with such a recalcitrant country, we should not exaggerate the possibility of winning Pakistan’s trust by well-meaning unilateral concessions.

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