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An Absence of War | Irfan Husain

An Absence of War | Irfan Husain

OF late, senior Indian and Pakistani politicians have been trading threats and accusations like Federer and Nadal exchanging ground-strokes from the baselines.

Although lacking the tennis champs’ elegance and athleticism, our leaders are still slugging it out in the media as they have been for decades. The only comic relief in this dull scenario was provided by a pigeon, now cooped up in an Indian jail on suspicion of spying for Pakistan.

This hilarious episode serves to underline how old animosities are now hard-wired into the relationship. ‘Kashmir’ and ‘terrorism’ are the two key words that figure in speeches and press releases wafting from Islamabad and New Delhi like some noxious miasma.

Over the many years I have been writing for this and other publications, I doubt if I have written on any other topic as often as I have about the need for normal relations between the two neighbours. But increasingly, I have come to see this won’t happen in my lifetime.

There was a time when I blamed Pakistan more than India for dragging its feet over the normalisation process. But now I see Indian policies and posturing as the bigger hurdle. Ever since Musharraf’s out-of-the-box proposal to settle the Kashmir problem away from the old UN formula was rejected by India, there has been nothing new to break the stalemate.

Indian public opinion against Pakistan has hardened.

Except that India has now fastened on terrorism as an excuse to obfuscate: its demand that Pakistan must curb the terrorist groups on its soil as a precondition for talks hardly helps matters. Granted, the 27/11 Mumbai attacks were traumatic for millions of Indians. But it cannot have escaped the notice of policymakers and the media that Pakistan is (finally) engaged in a life-and-death struggle to eliminate terrorism.

Basically, India is quite comfortable with the status quo, and the only downside for New Delhi is the relatively minor inconvenience of not being able to trade overland with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan has made it clear that its borders will be opened to Indian trucks only after a comprehensive settlement of outstanding disputes.

And while bilateral trade between India and Pakistan would be good for both economies, and make life a little better for millions of their citizens, such considerations have never mattered much to our ruling elites. Travel between the neighbours remains as difficult as ever; in fact the two countries are now further apart than ever.

There was a time when the Pakistan military establishment needed the threat from India to justify its huge budget. But with jihadi groups supplanting India as our enemy number one, there is no longer any need for raising the Indian bogey. India, too, has China to justify its vast military spending. So on this count, at least, Islamabad and New Delhi could think of normalising ties.

But the mindset developed over decades of enmity dies hard. Talking to a serving general a few years ago, I said it was difficult to imagine an unprovoked Indian attack. He replied that the military looked at a potential adversary’s capabilities, not his intentions. I can imagine an Indian general saying something similar about China.

One thing that has changed is the hardening of Indian public opinion against Pakistan. Mostly, this has been fuelled by hyper-nationalistic Indian TV channels with their mind-numbing chat shows. In this, the two countries have much in common.

For a reality check of how much the mutual hatred balance has altered over recent years, take Pakistan’s 2013 elections as an example. Here, Nawaz Sharif was able to mention normalisation of ties with India as one of his electoral promises. Such a stance in an Indian election today would be a sure vote-loser.

Recently, an Indian participant at a conference in Islamabad wrote about being overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity she came across in Pakistan as soon as people discovered she had come from across the border. She concluded her article with the sad observation that Pakistani visitors to India would never encounter the same warmth and hospitality.

Had this been the extent of the problem, it would not matter much, especially to younger Pakistanis and Indians who are largely indifferent to our shared history and culture. But given the vast arsenals and armed forces on both sides, there is every reason to worry. Indeed, the introduction of nuclear capability into the equation is a cause for concern across the world.

The fact that Pakistan has recently inducted short-range nuclear-capable missiles is an indication of a suicidal strategy. Such weapons might check an invading Indian column, but would cause heavy civilian casualties as well. And the soil would be contaminated for decades.

So, yes, peace between India and Pakistan remains a goal worth pursuing. Sadly, the constituency for peace is rapidly shrinking. Given the poison being spread by an irresponsible media and immature politicians, the best we can hope for is an absence of war.

An Absence of War | Irfan Husain


Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2015

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