Aug 10, 2009

Will India, Pakistan stop playing pot and kettle?

When the train didn’t show up for the entire day, the Russian detected a victorious smile on the American’s face. ‘Look here, Yankee,’ he growled. ‘You too have a black problem in your country.’

India and Pakistan are often enough like the pot calling the kettle black. Take the latest story of a bigoted Pakistani cleric called Hafiz Saeed who preaches hatred of Hindus and Jews, Shias, Sunnis, Christians – everyone except Wahhabis and Salafis. India says he masterminded the Mumbai terror attack. There is a good chance that the claim is right. Some of Saeed’s colleagues are being tried for their alleged role in the crime. As the leader of the pack he should logically be seen as culpable in the incident, which has injected litres of bad blood in the India-Pakistan equation.

However, Hafiz Saeed may well have done, if he did what India says he did, on behalf of someone else – perhaps someone who found it objectionable that the national security advisers of India and Pakistan had an excellent meeting in Delhi in October. Remember also that Mumbai was attacked in November, precisely on the day, in fact within hours of, a good meeting between the Pakistan foreign minister and his Indian counterpart in Delhi.

Was the Mumbai attack planned to torpedo improving India-Pakistan ties? It could be one of the reasons, if not the entire explanation. And everyone in India and Pakistan who believes that the two countries should continue to mistrust each other are complying, if not colluding, with the terrorists’ strategic objectives carried out in Mumbai, Kabul, Bangalore, Lahore, Delhi and Karachi among a growing number of places in their cross-hairs. The Lok Sabha TV, an official channel that I find somewhat balanced in contrast to its several private counterparts, asked me if Pakistan lacked the will to prosecute Hafiz Saeed. Former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, G. Parthasarthy, who I see as a hawk on Pakistan (a lethal combination with his army background) was the other discussant. I asked the anchor to try to use the word alleged, as the old-fashioned (and more reliable) journalists would. Parthasarthy disagreed.

He said Hafiz Saeed would not qualify for the cautionary word we were taught to treat as sacred in journalism. For him Saeed was as much a culprit as Ajmal Kasab was in Mumbai’s November nightmare. Why don’t we just abandon the trial and hang everyone we ‘know’ to be guilty?

With this attitude Indians are basically double guessing Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which did not find grounds to keep Hafiz Saeed in captivity any longer. Indians would not normally like others to question their apex court. And if you did something like that in India you could be sent to prison as Arundhati Roy was, for questioning the Supreme Court’s hitherto unquestioned wisdom. So Indians should first canvass to change the colonial-style judiciary and the blind faith in their courts. And then perhaps they would be justified in questioning the integrity of Pakistani judges and to pontificate about their superior judiciary to the rest of the world. Let’s grant to Parthasarthy the possibility that Pakistan’s highest court had acted, like any other court would, on the material evidence placed before it. Perhaps the ISI, or whoever it was that handled the prosecution of Saeed, did not deliberately want to arrest him for whatever compulsions and, therefore, presented a weak case. That’s theoretically possible. In fact this kind of thing happens all the time, not in Pakistan alone. How do we proceed along the commonplace and patently Indian narrative that the Pakistan establishment, which rejoices in the death of a rabid hate-monger like Baitullah Mehsud, is in fact doing everything to set his ideological clone Hafiz Saeed free? I said to the TV anchor that it was possible that Pakistan has unknown compulsions, like the ones India has revealed on several occasions in domestic affairs.

It would be preposterous, for example, to suggest that India had some kind of willingness to free a group of terrorists in a swap deal for the passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines plane in December 1999. But it certainly must have had its compulsions. Whether we agree with that or not is beside the point. In fact I can even see a hint of continuity of that line of thinking even though India has a different government today than the one that freed the Pakistani terrorists.

The faith in the Vajpayee-era policy, in fact its endorsement, is evident in the fact that the foreign ministry official who accompanied the terrorists to Kandahar with his foreign minister to set them free there, happens to be the head of the group that was authorised by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to lead the talks on terrorism with Pakistan after the Havana meeting with President Pervez Musharraf.

One of the fellows thus freed in Kandahar went on to fund the group that slammed hijacked planes into the World Trade Centre in New York. He then proceeded to brutally slit the throat of a fine journalist, partly because he happened to be a Jew. The other fellow released by India is believed to have staged the December 2001 attack on India’s parliament. What were the compulsions for India to free these people?

Some lives were saved, others put to risk. Could there be a similar compulsion for Pakistan to handle Hafiz Saeed with cotton wool? A senior editor from Pakistan, who has some credibility in Delhi, told an Indian TV channel that perhaps Pakistan does not want to have a domestic backlash when it was engaged in a war against the Taliban. Do we accept that argument? Is it possible that the Indian government is aware of the pitfalls that Pakistan faces if it presses too hard against everyone that New Delhi wants to be put behind the bars? Without a degree of trust, at least between the prime ministers of the two countries and not necessarily their foreign ministries, I doubt if they could have clinched the agreement to share ‘real time intelligence’ against future terror threats. I think that was the biggest achievement of Sharm el-Sheikh. Parthasarthy believes the agreement is unworkable.

As far as compulsions go India has had quite a few of its own. There has not been a single conviction in the genocide of the Sikhs in 1984. Does anyone know why? Not one person has been sent to jail for breaking the law (and also the heart) of India in Ayodhya in 1992. The Justice Shrikrishna Commission Report on the pogrom against a minority community by a well-armed group of fanatics in Mumbai, assisted by the police, has been all but thrown into the dustbin. It had named names and given police wireless records of the culprits and their culpability. Nothing happened. When a group of Indians protested against the killing of nine Christians in Pakistan by Muslim extremists I thought there should have been many more angry demonstrations against what happened across the border. There should be demonstrations in both countries against atrocities committed by religious fanatics. The massacre of Christian tribes people and Dalits in Orissa is a case in point where there should have been a collective condemnation of the horrific killings. That’s the way we used to be. If we have a common destiny, then we have a stake in each other’s pain and grief.

However, the focus has already shifted to the looming elections in Maharashtra, a prestigious contest for the ruling Congress and the rightwing opposition. All the attacks on the Indian prime minister’s agreement with his Pakistani counterpart in Sharm el-Sheikh, from within his party and the opposition, are not unrelated to the politics of elections. After all Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra and the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party are looking to exploit the shaken sentiments of the sprawling multi-cultural city.

And so the story of the train to Vladivostok and America’s black problem is not likely to lose its currency anytime soon. The South Asian narrative is a tragic variant of the pot calling the kettle black.

By Jawed Naqvi

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