Let’s face some hard truths about Pakistan

Mint, 20 August 2014

Exasperation and mild amusement: these are the two primary feelings I get as I watch the hullabaloo over India cancelling foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan in the wake of the Pakistani high commissioner meeting separatist Hurriyat leaders in spite of being warned by the Indian foreign secretary.

The amusement went from mild to high this morning when I read Congress Rajya Sabha MP and former Indian foreign service officer Mani Shankar Aiyer in The Indian Express newspaper. Even for a known peacenik and alarmist as far as any aggressive Indian move on India-Pakistan affairs go, Aiyer outdoes himself. His essay ends with the following sentence: “We stand warned that whimsicality and bullying are going to characterize our relations with Pakistan over the next five years; exactly the kind of whimsicality and bullying that led to the Austro-Hungarian Empire attacking Serbia a hundred years ago, leading to the devastation of the two world wars.”

Is this guy for real?

In any case, it’s probably time to state some plain facts that we in India are too polite to articulate, at least most of the time. These are the following:

• Pakistan’s raison d’etre is hatred and fear of India. Indeed, it is a country which defines itself in terms of India. If there was no India to feel bitter about, Pakistan would have no reason to exist. Its dismemberment in 1971 into two parts aggravated this mindset even more.

(Thirty years later, at the breakfast meeting with Indian editors during the Agra summit, Pervez Musharraf brought up 1971. He accused India of being a wanton aggressor—an utterly delusional and repulsive statement that denied the shameful rejection of national election results; an inhuman genocide (codenamed Operation Searchlight) that left three million people dead—including all doctors, engineers, teachers, intellectuals the Pakistani army could find—and hundreds of thousands of women raped (perhaps the first time in the 20th century that rape was used systematically as war strategy); and India overwhelmed with 10 million helpless refugees from what would soon be Bangladesh.)

In the fullness of time, Pakistan may develop its own self-image with no India angle to it, but that day seems distant indeed. We should acknowledge this unfortunate fact and make that the basis of our policy towards Pakistan.

Because other than some parts of northern India and the media, we are not obsessed with Pakistan in any way. People in east India are not, nor in west or south India. This gives India a much freer and stronger hand in dealing with Pakistan.

• Pakistan is obsessed with Kashmir, and can rarely think beyond that. But the vast majority of Indians do not lose their sleep over the valley. When I was working in a weekly news magazine in 2004, we sent two journalists to Pakistan to cover the India-Pakistan test series. Whichever city they travelled to, they were hosted for an evening by the local Press Club, and the first question they were asked was: “What do you think about Kashmir?”

One of our journalists was a Keralite and the other a Bengali. They would reply, quite honestly, that they did not think about Kashmir. The reaction of the Pakistani press ranged from astonishment to “Hey, come on, we are all brothers of the media here, you needn’t be diplomatic” to hostility towards the two “Indian liars”.

Even most Pakistani leaders have no idea about the vastness and diversity of India. While Musharraf was ranting about 1971 to the editors, he was struggling with the main course of the breakfast: an uttapam. He had never seen anything like it before, and after a few futile attempts to make sense of it, set it aside (doubtless convinced that this was another sly Indian put-down gesture.).

But the fact is that India is massive, complex and has many other issues to focus on, of greater importance than Kashmir. Pakistan will never understand that, because it is a prisoner in that cage of a resentful world view it has built for itself.

• Pakistan wants Kashmir and India will never give up Kashmir. Territorial integrity is of course paramount, and the Kashmir issue actually even goes beyond that. If India gives up the valley because it is a Muslim majority area, it loses the moral right to call itself a secular nation. This seems like weird logic, and certainly counter-intuitive, but I’d request you to think about it.

• Some commentators have observed that by calling off the foreign secretary talks, India has weakened Nawaz Sharif and played into the hands of the hard-liners, from the army to that born-again messiah of fundamentalism Imran Khan (who, according to Salman Rushdie, was known as “Im the Dim” in his Oxford days). Things, apparently, can only get worse from here on.

But surely, we have been hearing these Cassandra predictions for decades now? In the 1980s and early 1990s, we were told that if Benazir Bhutto goes, all hell would break loose. We were then told that if Nawaz Sharif goes, there will be anarchy. Post 9/11, the US insisted that if the Musharraf regime fell, the region would be plunged into dangerous chaos. Even Asif Ali Zardari—a man who escaped conviction in a London court by producing a medical document certifying him as mentally unsound—was thought to be necessary for Pakistan’s stability.

All have gone their way (other than Sharif), and the situation remains exactly the same. Islamist fundamentalists roam, rant and raise funds at will; large tracts of the country are outside the control of the government; Mullah Omar is possibly still directing the Taliban from inside a well-protected and comfortable base in Pakistan; the Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, continues to pursue its own agenda; prime ministers serve out their terms at the pleasure of the army chief; terrorist attacks on Indian soil continue to be planned; the ceasefire at the Line of Control is violated regularly.

Let’s face it. Pakistan, by most definitions, is a failed state. The leadership may change, but the problems will remain just as they are, because of the contradictions inherent in the very concept of Pakistan. Unless India recognizes those contradictions very clearly, it will never be able to deal boldly and effectively with its neighbour.

• We should stop bothering ourselves about the internal matters of Pakistan—the politics and the power struggles—except for areas that concern us directly, like the terrorist infrastructure. Sharif is no spring chicken, and it is not India’s responsibility in any way to help him solve his problems. We should see Pakistan as a whole, a single entity to be dealt with, keeping our national interest in mind, under the accepted rules and processes of international diplomacy.

• And so what if earlier Indian governments permitted separatist Hurriyat leaders to meet Pakistani officials, and even travel to Pakistan? Surely, India is free to change its policy and lay down new terms of engagement? Especially when these generous liberal gestures achieved nothing at all.

Some members of our Punjabi political gerontocracy still suffer from nostalgia for Lahore. Thankfully, they are all out of power now.

In its scale of loss of human life, of emotional scars that have still not entirely faded away, in the terrible trauma and havoc it wreaked on millions of people, and in many other no less significant ways, the Partition was one of the greatest tragedies in human history. But it’s 67 years past. We have to accept it. We have to accept that we are two nations, and one of them is still searching for a national identity that is not linked to India in some way.

This is certainly not our fault. We must therefore tackle the problem we have with a clarity of vision that has no space either for wishful thinking or a graciousness that is usually misconstrued as timidity.

India’s Independence Day gift to England

Mint, 18 August 2014

There are many reasons why we should be grateful to the British Raj. The British took charge of an India which was, at that time, little more than a collection of kingdoms large and small headed mostly by effete wastrels, yet not demoralized enough by the invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali to stop fighting one another. Maratha power had waned dramatically, and only Punjab retained some of its military might and glory. The Mughals had lost their relevance, and India was a Balkanized land mass, sliding back into ignorance, superstition and anarchy.

Even the greatest British-hater would have to acknowledge that the new invaders brought in a governance structure, better law and order, Western education, scientific temper, a justice system, modern technology and, unwittingly, the powerful ideas of liberty and democracy.

For all this and more, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s Indian cricket team offered a small tribute to England in the fifth and final Test at the Oval that began on 15 August, India’s 68th Independence Day.

It was a small tribute, but a very significant one, for English cricket. Over 42 days—indeed, less than that, over a mere 30 days, if you discount the first two Test matches, the Indian team took a broken-down, dispirited, confused, vilified side and transformed it into a confident, fearless, tight-knit team that looked good to take on any 11 men in the world. What sweeter gift could England have asked for, in return for all that it had blessed India with?

When the Indian team landed in London one-and-a-half months ago, England was still reeling from a humiliating 5-0 defeat at the hands of Australia. In fact, ‘humiliating’ is an understatement. After the second Test, the team’s leading batsman Jonathan Trott cited stress and anxiety and simply took the next flight home. After the third Test, England’s best spinner Graeme Swann abruptly announced his retirement from international cricket with immediate effect and vamoosed.

The team that returned from Australian shores was a shattered one. The coach, Andy Flower, was sacked. Kevin Pietersen, supremely talented but always a rebellious spirit, was told by the English Board that he would no longer be considered for the national squad. Every cricket commentator, including several former England captains, bayed for captain Alastair Cook’s head every day on every TV channel and in every newspaper.

Cook, till months ago, the golden boy of English cricket, was now a contemptible loser. It didn’t help that his batting form, too, seemed to have deserted him. Already, at the young age of 29, recognized as one of England’s greatest batsmen ever—the third highest Test aggregate among all England batsmen and the highest number of centuries, he had been reduced to prodding around at balls, desperate to get a touch. Very often, when he got a touch, he was caught.

And then India decided to take matters into their own hands.

The first Test was drawn, and India won the second one at Lord’s comfortably. After which, with a determination rarely seen on a cricket field, India set about the task of rebuilding the England team.

The first step was of course to give Cook back some confidence as a batsman. Self-assurance as captain would surely follow. So, Ravindra Jadeja, one of India’s best fielders, dropped Cook in the third Test on 15. It was a strategic move that paid off handsomely. Cook went on to make 95, and his instincts as a captain began looking suddenly better when England took the field.

But this was only the beginning of India’s game plan. The team’s two best batsmen—Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara—decided to forget where their off-stump was. Kohli chose James Anderson as the man he wanted to bestow his manna on, while Pujara opted for Stuart Broad—both strike bowlers, after all, needed their full powers restored. Neither Kohli nor Pujara sweated too much about how they would go about their mission. They just did the same thing over and over again. Kohli decided never to play for the movement of the ball off the pitch, managing to close the face of the bat a bit too early, and nicking it to the slips to grateful Englishmen. Pujara relied on sending faint outside edges to the wicketkeeper or first slip. And in an act of charity that would have brought tears to the eyes of any descendant of Sir Robert Clive or Warren Hastings, they went beyond the call of duty, and dropped more catches than they held through the series.

But even such efficient graciousness did not satisfy the Indians fully. After all, England had lost their best spinner, Swann, and they seemed in no mood to call up Monty Panesar. So our batsmen, in a frenzy of love and sharing, focused on a part-time spinner called Moeen Ali. Ali—I am sure somewhat to his own astonishment—ended up taking 19 wickets, as many as Broad! This must have confused the hell out of Cook, because in the final Test, he hardly let Ali bowl. But the Indians weren’t to be taken in by such tricks. They chose young Chris Jordan, and lavished four wickets on him in the space of 19 deliveries to finish off the Test series, with the third largest defeat ever in Indian cricket history.

You don’t mess with the Indians. They can adapt to any level of opposition facing them and escort them lovingly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In this glorious evocation of the spirit of Mother Teresa, and by eagerly turning the other cheek as soon as they had been resoundingly slapped on one, the Indians have given the world an example of selfless love and forgiveness that should be required reading in remote Himalayan gurukuls.

These are real men, with a sense of civilizational values and historical context. You gave us Jallianwala Bagh, we give you three resounding victories and a resurrection. Happy Independence Day, old men, what?