Think South Asia

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The Indian PM has invited Pakistan’s military ruler to India for talks. Simultaneously, India called off the unilateral ceasefire declared since Nov 2000 in its counter-guerilla campaign against Kashmiri Mujhahideen (Indian nomenclature being militants). Over a 1000 soldiers, policemen, freedom fighters, and innocent civilians, either targetted deliberately or inadvertently caught in the crossfire etc have died in the last six months, did the Indians really cease firing? The hands holding the carrot and stick have simply been switched. Nonetheless, along the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir, a cease fire of sorts between the two regular armies has held, with little or no artillery duels to speak about.

Though recent events were leading in this direction, skeptics in Pakistan tend to believe that this surprise offer for peace talks is a sophisticated Indian PR exercise, specially meant to please the US, and as a sop to a concerned world because of the lack of dialogue. Note the high road taken by the Indian External Affairs and Defence Minister, “India is yet again offering the hand of friendship, reconciliation, cooperation and peace to Pakistan in the expectation that this opportunity shall be positively and purposefully utilized by them”. Pakistan’s Chief Executive has been stating for over a year to anybody who would listen that he was ready for talks with India without pre-condition anywhere anytime. Other than being averse to dialogue with the military regime, India has been insisting that talks could only take place once Islamabad ended its support to cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. While a formal acceptance is expected to be conveyed to Vajpayee, Pervez Musharraf stands vindicated for standing his ground. This major change of gears in India’s policies about pre-conditions, tacitly also recognizes that the military regime in Pakistan, in this form (or in a more civilianized version), is here to stay. Much of the world had been encouraging India to enter into peace-related dialogue with Pakistan and the Mujhahideen for some time. The US immediately welcomed the Indian offer, seeing the talks as “an opportunity for real progress towards the reduction of tension and the resolution of differences through peaceful means”, unquote. While clearly “tilting” towards Pakistan, the Chinese have been quietly advising India and Pakistan to enter into bi-lateral negotiations.

Jaswant Singh evoked the spirit of Simla (1972) and Lahore (1999) in inviting Pakistan, one wonders why, having tried to boycott the military regime in Pakistan for nearly 18 months, not only bilaterally but in world forums, India has now done an 180 degrees and is all honey, if not all sugar? This sea change of heart is in line with the world as it is shaping since the change of guard in the White House.

Continuing the policy initiatives built around the famous May 21, 1965 Memo by US Ambassador to India Chester Bowles, the US sees India as an emerging power in South Asia that must be supported, mainly to contain the Chinese. As it’s influence with India increases, the US feels it may be able to help reduce tensions between India and Pakistan. While there is a distinct “tilt” in US policy towards India at the expense of Pakistan, the US certainly does not seek to abandon old ally Pakistan completely in favour of its “nouveau” friend on the block. On the receiving end of the post-Afghanistan problems, the Pakistanis obviously feel abandoned already, they do not care to see things the way US policy-makers do. With some former Warsaw Pact countries as members of NATO, Cold war perceptions have dramatically changed. The nightmare scenario of a Warsaw Pact armour thrust into Western Europe through the Fulda Gap is now a thing of the past, the strategic threat to US interests, as perceived by the US, now comes from the East. In Bush’s vision of the future world, China is emerging as a “strategic competitor”, sophisticated euphemism for “threat”. While the eastern Pacific Rim is important to the US, the presence of the US Seventh Fleet to support Japan, South Korea and Taiwan contains China’s perceived influence from expanding.

The newly-installed Bush Administration has raised the stakes in trying to stop China from becoming an hindrance to US universal dominance, made more necessary by the concept of “Nuclear Missile Defence” (NMD) that the US wants to put into place. Brushing aside increasing resistance by Russia and China, the US has been vociferously supported by India, a potent symbol of the growing US-India nexus. In all fairness, there does seem to be a double-think in the Indian Camp on this. Geographical locations may be important in the regional context, the impact is quite different in the strategic sense. India’s increasing economic strength, particularly its spectacular growth in the high-tech field, makes it a competitor-in-place for the Chinese, India’s obsession vis-a-vis Pakistan is an unnecessary “distraction” that does not fit into the US scheme of things. The resolution of the Kashmir dispute assumes high priority, made more urgent by the possibility of a regional nuclear war between the two belligerents, planned or unplanned.

Cognizant of its growing importance to the US as a “strategic partner”, recognizing that it must have a very exclusive trade status with the US to become an economic powerhouse itself, and quite aware that its ambitions to become a world player on the military stage relies upon the US lifting instructions on the required technology and data thereof, India has to respond to the US (or at least show it is sincere) initiatives towards possible India-Pakistan amity. The offer for talks with Pakistan is a very loaded public “concession” to retain the continued flow of US goodwill, whether it is sincere only time will tell. Pakistan’s contention is that Kashmir is the core to all bi-lateral problems, without Kashmir there can be no long-term rapprochement with India. India has been unequivocal in stating that it has no intention of letting any part of Kashmir go, whatever it takes. This makes the situation rather ludicrous, what is there to talk about?

There must be a dimensional change in the approach to our problems, while resolution of grievances can be bi-lateral between India and Pakistan, within the South Asia context it must be multi-lateral. The good of all the peoples of South Asia must come first, some sacrifices are obligatory on the majority populations. Thinking in South Asian terms, rather than either country becoming an instrument of someone else’s policy in the game of nations, a solution to our problems is possible. Surrounded by a number of diverse smaller countries on its periphery, India says it is secular, yet it is a Hindu Kingdom as much as Nepal. Pakistan and Bangladesh are predominantly Muslim as are the Maldives. Sri Lanka is Buddhist as is Bhutan. A substantial population of religions and ethnicities live in countries other than where they have a majority, more imperative, to learn to live with each other. Very diverse culturally, South Asia’s economy is more homogenous than the European Common Market or ASEAN. Commonalities number more than diversities. Not having any problems with each other, why do each of the SAARC countries have problems with India? Before tarring and feathering India, why not try to understand “big brother’s” point of view? Being more equal than others, India has a recurring fear that the smaller countries on its periphery, led by Pakistan, are ganging up against India. Contiguous borders with nearly all the other countries make it a tailor-made situation for regular incidents to take place, land has always exceptional emotional value. The smaller countries may be justified in fearing possible Indian hegemony, conversely they also need to allay possible Indian fears, howsoever misplaced they may be.

Solving the Kashmir dispute between the two major nations is a must, not because of any Superpower requirement, but for the sake of peace in South Asia. The aim of “think South Asia” should be to ameliorate the economic sufferings of the people, to alleviate their hunger by force-multiplying our agricultural resources, to give better access to adequate utilities and safer drinking water, to cater for their education and health, to strive jointly to enhance the quality of life for all our people, and refrain from being selfish and hogging the economic cake for any one race or religion. Without genuine amity, we shall always remain adrift behind the rest of the developed world, mired in poverty and misery, excluded from the technological mainstream, and as the economic cake becomes smaller, with more and more reason to quarrel. As hatred intensifies, anarchy will surely set in, crises will force-multiply. Either solve the major problem of Kashmir or gird our loins for a fight to the finish which will come sooner or later. In a nuclear holocaust, even a regional one, there will be no one to celebrate victory and no one to mourn the loss, there will be no combatants and non-combatants, there will be no participants and observers, only the dead and the dying to lament what could have been and was not. For the sake of our children (and their children), the two great countries of the sub-continent must harness the tremendous genius of our peoples for good, not take them pell mell down the road to apocalypse. Do our leaders have it in them to rise above the petty and the mundane to “think South Asia”?

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan). He was Chairman APSAA for the year 2000, now acting in adhoc capacity pending elections for the year 2001.

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