The year we learnt to hit pause before reacting

The year we learnt to hit pause before reacting
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Sat, Dec 27 2008. 12 30 AM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Mon, Dec 29 2008. 06 52 PM IST
One of the things that the Western media seem most surprised by is the relative calm with which India has handled the 26/11 attacks. Many Western countries had worried that our immediate response to the terror strikes would be to bomb Pakistan. And certainly, much of the commentary in the foreign press in the days after the attacks concentrated on the imminent war in the region. The predictions of an attack on Pakistan came because of the way other states have reacted to terrorism—and the US’ responses in particular. American presidents have regularly sent missiles and bombers to destroy sites in sovereign countries that they believe are being used for terrorist activities. Ronald Reagan bombed Libya. Bill Clinton bombed Afghanistan. And of course, George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 was the invasion of Afghanistan.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
If we went by American precedents, India would have no difficulty in offering a moral justification for an invasion of Pakistan. Consider the post 9/11 response. America asked the Afghan government to hand over Osama bin Laden. When the Afghans refused, the US invaded and instituted “regime change”.
So, when Pakistan refused to hand over terror suspects, we could have used the same justification for launching our own invasion.
So, why didn’t we do that? Why has the mood in India been so introspective rather than aggressive? We almost seem angrier with ourselves—and with our politicians and intelligence services—than we do with the terrorists. Why don’t people who want us to carpet bomb Pakistan receive a more enthusiastic response?
I’m wary of making grand judgements but it seems to me that 2008 might go down in history as the year when Indians became coolly realistic about what it means to live next door to Pakistan.
The Indian response to Pakistan has always been complex. In the north, memories of the horrors of Partition have largely faded but a new generation of Punjabis remains fascinated by Pakistan and Pakistanis. It is fashionable to caricature the Punjabi attitude to Pakistan in terms of old buffers lighting candles at the Wagah border, dreaming of the by-lanes of Lahore and inviting professional peaceniks from across the border to seminars at the India International Centre.
But that generation is dying out. And though its descendants do not share in the nostalgia, they still respond to that old cliché: “We are the same people, really”. When I edited the Hindustan Times, I was forever being told by market research agencies that readers in Punjabi Delhi (even younger ones) wanted more news from Pakistan.
Outside of the north though, Pakistan is not seen as being worthy of special attention or affection. Go out on the streets of Chennai or Bangalore and ask people how they feel about Pakistan and though you may get a variety of answers (they hate it; they don’t care; they worry about terrorism, etc.), the responses will be dispassionate and disinterested.
The problem is that much of the media and a large chunk of the political elite are Delhi- focused. And so the Indian attitude to Pakistan has never really been as cold and clinical as it needs to be. Worse still, many politicians make the mistake of identifying Indian Muslims with Pakistan. At the last general election, L.K. Advani predicted that the BJP would get Muslim votes because it had improved relations with Pakistan. Indian Muslims protested vociferously: Was Advani suggesting that they put Pakistan’s interests before India’s?
And so, our responses to Pakistan are always driven by north Indian agendas and the demands of political expediency. We have lurched from angry hysteria to mindless euphoria to passionate anger. After the hijacking of IC-814 and other terrorist incidents, the BJP government refused to talk to Pakistan. Then it invited General Pervez Musharraf to Agra and unleashed a mood of mindless optimism. After the Parliament attacks, it launched Operation Parakram, posting thousands of soldiers on the border and very nearly going to war.
There’s also the nonsensical advice offered by our columnists. We are constantly fed the line that a democratic Pakistan is in India’s interests. Thus, we must avoid destabilizing Asif Ali Zardari. We were supposed to have longed for Benazir Bhutto’s comeback. We were expected to cheer Nawaz Sharif as he fought Musharraf.
The basis for all this was the claim that a democratic Pakistan has never worked against India or gone to war with us. This is utter nonsense. The infiltration of terrorists into Kashmir began in 1989 when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister. The Taliban was also created in her reign. And the Kargil war took place when Sharif was PM.
Given this complex background, I wondered how we would react in the aftermath of 26/11. But the cool-headedness of our response suggests that we are finally getting over our emotionally driven Pakistan policy and are treating it as just another small, largely hostile neighbour.
By now experience seems to have taught us several things. One, individual Pakistanis are not necessarily anti-Indian. Many are warm and friendly. So individual relationships are not a problem. Two, Pakistan is run by the army which derives its importance from protecting Pakistan from the “Indian threat”. So it makes no sense for the army to say there is no “Indian threat”. And three, no matter who is in charge, civilian or military, the policy of the Pakistani state will be anti-Indian.
Now that we’ve learnt to live with these realities, we are wasting much less time on hysteria or anger. Yes, we want to be friends with the Pakistani people. But we no longer make the mistake of confusing their goodwill with the policy of the Pakistani state.
So, we don’t act betrayed. We display no surprise at the latest attack. And we don’t rush into knee-jerk reactions. We worry instead about how prepared we are to face their hostility. And we react with coolness and calm.
That, to me, is a major achievement—and 2008 is the year it happened.
Vir Sanghvi is a Mint Lounge columnist and the advisory editorial director of Hindustan Times.
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Sat, Dec 27 2008. 12 30 AM IST