I’ve been sitting here trying to think of something clever to say, something that would set the tone for this post and the ones that will follow and I can’t. There are so many things running through my mind all at once that my primary concern right now is coherence.
Equally prominent is a fear that talking, or rather writing, about these things is an inherently selfish and self-absorbed thing to do. I am not an opinionmaker or a policymaker, I pull nobody’s strings and I have just about as much power as the average citizen of my country – i.e. I have the power of my vote and I am fully entitled to get on my soapbox but that’s about it. I am not a billionaire businessman, I am not a celebrity, I am not a journalist, I am not a (direct) victim of the latest attack on Mumbai, I am highly unlikely to appear on your television. I am, in a word, irrelevant to the whole debate. And I do not wish to cheapen it by talking about the breadth and depth of issues that occur to me right now in a manner that suggests I know something more than you.
Because I don’t. However, I am a 27 year old Indian woman and I feel there are things that I need to say today and in the days to come because talking back to my TV and arguing with my newspaper isn’t doing anything for my sanity. And as I noted a while back, keeping quiet under the assumption that everybody must share my feelings is just woolly-headed.
So today, in the first of a series of (rambling) posts, I’d like to talk about the Mumbai terror attacks and Pakistan.
Everyone from The Economist to the BBC to US officials have used the phrase “we’re all in the same boat” and have pointed out Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s extremely positive overtures to India, in the past few weeks as well as in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, in particular while stressing on the importance of the peace process.
Let me say first up that I believe President Zardari when he says his government had nothing to do with this attack. I believe him when he assures India of his full support. I believe him when he says he and his country are in the same position today as India.
In fact, I believe him to the point where he kind of scares me. I don’t know what they did to him in prison but everytime I see him on TV, he has this fanatical gleam in his eye when he starts talking about democracy and terrorism and all the rest of it. This is a man who isn’t just parroting idle lines on a prompter. I get the feeling that this is a man who is more in tune with the fear and pain suffered by ordinary Mumbaikars than any Indian politician I have yet seen talking about the recent events.
The problem is that I don’t think either he or his government is in charge.
You can put it down to my Indianness if you like – Blind Prejudice Keeps Misguided Indian From Trusting Honest Pakistanis – but I really have trouble believing that the present civil government in Pakistan is anything more than merely tolerated by the Pakistani Army. Right now the Army, with a belligerent United States camped on its western border and hedged in by India on the eastern front, with Islamic militancy on the rise inside its borders and one deeply unpopular army dictator pushed out, isn’t inclined to take away the civilians’ toys. Which is not to say that they don’t have the power or that any one of these factors can stop the Army from once again taking power out in the open if it feels like it.
And I have reasons, both historical and current, for that belief. For example, it’s hard not to remember how powerless Benazir Bhutto felt as the Prime Minister. A powerlessness that ended by her earning the sobriquet “the Mother of Taliban”, in her own words. When plugged into the larger context what it boils down to is this: as long as civilian governments toe the line and leave the Army to its own devices, it’ll let you maintain the polite fiction that you’re in charge. Try and push the line even an inch, and you’ll go the Nawaz Sharif way if not the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto way.
Much more recently, when the present civilian government was in the process of finding its feet, it tried to bring the ISI under its control. And received a one finger salute in response. The Prime Minister quickly backtracked. So it’s not hard to imagine President Zardari rashly promising India all the help it needs upto and including a visit from the ISI chief, only to be met with a cold response from the chief himself.
Now I’m a private citizen and perhaps I’m missing some crucial nuance that only Pakistanis can understand so feel free to discount my views. But it’s important to state that this is also the view of the Indian establishment. National Security Advisor MK Narayanan, for example, said it as plain as possible that “the single most important entity in Pakistan remains the army and the ISI”.
So the challenge before the Pakistani government is not to convince India that it is a victim of terrorism. We can see that for ourselves. The challenge is to convince the Indians that the Pakistani civilian government is the entity actually calling the shots.
Then there is the question of public sentiment.
If you were to listen to some of the more inflammatory comments running through the streets, you’d be convinced that the average Indian would like nothing better than for war to be declared immediately against Pakistan – a view that the local (television) media seems only too eager to embrace going by some of the coverage I’ve suffered through. And given the utterly hapless nature of this execrable Congress-led government (good luck winning the general election, chumps!), Western pundits are rightly worried that Indo-Pak relations are headed for an all time low because this is a government that belies the Machiavellian reputation of its diplomats. They’re blundering about in the dark, trying to save what face they can and I absolutely don’t rule out some bone-headed move like troop escalation on the border.
To which I have to say two things:
1. Indians feel this strongly about Pakistan and its possible involvement in these attacks for a valid reason. For decades, terrorism was an openly acknowledged (if officially denied) part of Pakistan’s foreign policy when it came to India. Combine this with the fact that most of us have never met a Pakistani even though they live right next door and the emotional baggage older Indians carry due to Partition, and you don’t even need to delve into the 700-year history of Hindu-Muslim relations on the subcontinent the way so many Westerners feel compelled to do to see why this is a rare witch’s broth.
If at all we know more about them these days, it is because many more of us have travelled abroad and had a chance to meet our neighbors in neutral venues like the United States and the U.K. and have been pleasantly surprised to see in them perfectly reasonably human beings albeit with viewpoints that differ from our own on regional politics. Add to this the effect of the internet and the arts on our populations (and subtract the role of the local media), and things are considerably better than they used to be. And yes, it is true that we are all now in the same boat as far as terrorism is concerned and that builds a certain bond between us.
What drives Indians absolutely insane however is when people start talking about the situation as though we ought to simply get over our painful history because our current shared pain has somehow made it irrelevant. While I’m not in favor of obsessing over past wrongs, it is beyond idiotic to suggest that decades-long suspicion and resentment should or will be swept aside in a moment because “we are all in the same boat”.
Everytime we look at the damn boat, it is a reminder of events past. And you’ll have to forgive us if we like to vent about it when that happens because we’ve been on that stupid boat for a lot longer than our co-passengers these days. And it doesn’t help matters any when we remember how long and how loudly we protested the existence of that boat while the world insisted it was all just our paranoia talking… until it landed on their shores.
I’m certainly not one of those who believe that India has never stepped out of line or its role is purely that of a victim (intelligence agencies are required to be up to no good except that of their home country. That’s why they’re secretive, see? I think the RAW is inept and inefficient but nobody could be that bad. Could they?), but there’s a qualitative difference between the work of the ISI and the militants it so lovingly fostered until they turned rabid, and anything India could hurl at Pakistan. Look at our Hindu terrorists, for example – the first rule of terrorism is to get the other guy yet the dumb clucks went straight to bombing their own country. Even our terrorists are stupid, and they’re supposed to be the ones with all the innovative ideas these days!
So all those talking heads on TV and so-called “experts” on South Asia? You can just shut it because the more you talk about our silly little ways over here in brownie-land, the more we feel inclined to bomb each other out of existence.
2. Breaking off the peace talks, suspending the cricket matches, building up the troops, sabre-rattling… we’re being played like a banjo. if India really wants to up its game, what it needs to do is to embrace the Pakistani government with open arms, take President Zardari up on his no-first strike nuke agreement and do everything to take the peace talks forward.
And then call up the Americans, tell them how we’re all in this boat together and Afghanistan could do with a little Indian help. This would accomplish quite a few things:
One, given the Pakistani government’s position, it’d be interesting to see the Army’s reaction. Two, if al-Qaeda’s motive was to escalate Indo-Pak tensions to divert the attention of Pakistani troops committed to helping the Americans along the Pak-Afghan border, then this would be major egg on their face. Three, it would send out a strong message that India is no longer willing to sit back and play defense. Four, it would tamp down on anti-Pakistan rhetoric inside India because the government will be seen as taking action rather than indulging in more talk. And (perhaps most importantly) five, we really don’t want the Taliban back in Afghanistan, especially now that they’ve got an eye on Pakistan, and we should be out there doing everything we can to stop that from happening.