Driven by neither hawks nor doves

The truth in India-Pakistan relations is not about golden tomorrows but the ingested bitterness about bloody and betrayed yesterdays, and how we can craft a future of a well-functioning, normal relationship despite this.

January 06, 2016 02:23 am | Updated September 22, 2016 10:25 pm IST

The >terrorist blitz-from-the-ground on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot has brought home to us the fact that there is no brave new world in cross-border relations with Pakistan. Time after time, the same dissonances come back to haunt us. Overtures made, initiatives taken, emotional handshakes seem to vaporise the instant the atavism and distrust-laden DNA in these relations reasserts itself in the wake of such premeditated violence and terrorism.

Nirupama Rao

Negotiating many minefields In the welter of pain felt on the deaths of our personnel in Pathankot, and the doubts that re-awaken about the judiciousness of a policy advocating dialogue with Pakistan, it is important that we are more reflective and introspective in our reactions. First, there is a need to understand that the truth in India-Pakistan relations is not about golden tomorrows but the ingested bitterness about bloody and betrayed yesterdays and how we can craft a future of a well-functioning, normal relationship despite this.

Second, >diplomacy with Pakistan is essentially like seeking a white flag meeting (as a temporary truce for negotiation, not a surrender) while walking a field embedded with mines. That is essentially the terrain we must negotiate and we will be bloodied in the process. Third, hard-nosed rationality demands that we understand the nature of our adversary, and its multi-armed-and-headed character. The deep-seated antagonism that the vast majority of Pakistanis in decision-making capacities evince for India is a given.

Diplomacy with Pakistan is in many ways charting a course without reliable maps. In many ways, that map has a missing segment, much like the map in the latest Star Wars movie, where the search for Luke Skywalker is held up because there is a critical segment missing. Another character in the Star Wars series, Yoda, the most powerful of the Jedi, was perhaps addressing Pakistan when he said: “If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.”

There is a Jedi-like dilemma also for India here: how do we face the truth and choose, and how do we use our Force for knowledge and defence? The truth in India-Pakistan relations is a miasma-ridden mass of mutual recrimination, of issues that raise pollution levels to the level of near hopelessness, of enmities that exist only between blood brothers. Understanding that we carry this heavy burden must entail that we must seek to ease it rather than add to its weight.

Unlearning what we’ve learned And that is where India’s initiatives to seek dialogue with Pakistan show the right way. They display the strength and flexibility that is the sign of a grown-up nation. At the same time, vigilance being the price of liberty, we cannot let down our guard because irrational violence and the threat of terrorism directed against Indian interests (including in Afghanistan) from across the border have not ceased being the default actions of powerfully entrenched interests in Pakistan.

But the problems in India-Pakistan relations must be addressed without the application of mantras and shibboleths. That is where, to paraphrase Yoda again, we must unlearn what we have learned. All the issues that covered the old Composite Dialogue need to be addressed in a graduated manner that still enables focus on the larger picture and the organic whole — which should be the need for a relationship that functions peacefully, is normalising and has the well-being of the people of the two countries at its heart. This should be a relationship that is driven by neither hawks nor doves but by a clear charter of goals and the steady hand of a confident leadership.

Systemic responses, not hysteria In a national agenda defined by the need for development, security and good governance, the factor of security stands out in our external relations and cannot be divorced from the work of diplomacy. The Pathankot experience evokes memories of past attacks and the degrees of national preparedness in terms of intelligence assessments, inter-agency coordination, effective response, and communication strategy. Have we absorbed past experience and the ways to avoid the pitfalls of yesterday? When one witnesses the levels of hysteria and cacophony in some of our media channels, the distinct impression one gets is of a dystopian universe of confusion, blaming and shaming and hyperventilation, > a news cycle replaced by an outrage cycle as one observer recently said.

We are not as a country sensitive to the image we should proactively project, although we are easily outraged by slights to our self-esteem and our perceived sense of India’s place in the world. In times of crises, a war-room approach will help — popularly defined as that bunch of strategists around that big table, with a flow chart and that big board but much more than that. The orchestration of operations concerning security, crisis response, and communication is vital: bringing key experts on deck helps clarify chaotic situations as the experts put it. We need to identify critical gaps, timelines, risks and their mitigation, also the communication process and how the checkpoints regarding media management must be manned. The closure of leaks of information is a critical must. In times of emergency, as we have learnt to do with responses to natural disasters, we must learn to systematise our processes better.

Sticking to the agenda Returning to the agenda with Pakistan, let us not forget that there is a very human desire for peace in both countries. >Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent handshake in Pakistan with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rekindled memories of an event from a long-ago timeline — the Christmas Truce of 1914 between German and Allied soldiers — a momentary truce in a landscape of conflict. “Two nations singing a carol in the middle of a war” was how one observer put it. The next day the hostilities commenced again. But from the two World Wars of the last century, the warring nations involved moved to embrace a situation of coexistence and Europe’s battlefields, while frozen in historical memory, do not exist in the present. For India and Pakistan, there is a lot of learning and unlearning involved.

The emphasis in our relations with >Pakistan must be on keeping the channels of dialogue open together with vigilant intelligence and an astute assessment of Pakistan’s moves. When the two sides meet next, Pathankot will obviously dominate the agenda. It will not be enough for Pakistan to just play the usual signature tune that its state machinery was not involved. India has a legitimate right to question Pakistan’s credibility on this issue. It is a truth universally acknowledged that terror groups targeting India continue to operate with impunity from Pakistani soil. Why is it that Pakistani intelligence and security do not silence them? It is not enough to plead that Pakistan is the worst victim of terrorism today. Much as the world and India felt grief for the lives of innocent children lost in Peshawar, the suffering of innocent Indians at the hands of terrorists with cross-border affiliation on so many past occasions cannot be ignored. This is a peace process, therefore, that has many miles to go.

(Nirupama Rao is Former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador of India to the U.S. and China.Twitter: @NMenonRao)

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