August 17, 2009

What separates India, Pak? A mental block

Mahir Ali,-pak-a-mental-block.aspx

Augest.16 : THE probable decapitation of a leading faction of the Pakistani Taliban could be considered an auspicious augury around Pakistan's Independence Day (August 14), although the delay in obtaining confirmation of Baitullah Mehsud's demise also serves as a reminder that, notwithstanding their nomenclature, the tribal areas are not in any meaningful sense federally administered.

At the time of writing, mystery also continued to surround the fate of rival claimants to Baitullah's blood-soaked mantle. These dramatic incidents were preceded by confusion over Islamabad's South Waziristan strategy, with a concerted military push in the Swat vein postponed.

It is unlikely that Baitullah Mehsud's removal from the scene and the consequent battle for succession will obviate the need for a military operation. Nor do the means of his dispatch invalidate the argument that the "collateral damage" produced by Predator attacks is both morally repugnant and tactically self-defeating. Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the Baitullah affair is the insinuation that the Taliban have been receiving assistance from India.

This allegation was deployed to sow disaffection against Baitullah among his followers by appealing to their instinctive hostility towards Pakistan's eastern neighbour. But there are indications that it may not have been merely a cynical piece of disinformation: there is at least a chance that those who concocted this canard have persuaded themselves to take it seriously. It surfaced, for instance, in a briefing given by the suddenly PR-savvy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate to the Guardian's correspondent Declan Walsh, who was also told that "Indian officials had orchestrated last November's Mumbai attacks (in order to) cover up an investigation into Hindu extremism".

The absurdity of such claims — particularly when they are made by an organisation that must know better — may seem mind-boggling, but the mindset behind them ought to be familiar to all Pakistanis. They are, after all, the product of a nationhood that has for more than six decades defined itself negatively.

Pakistan, from the outset, was the un-India. In the eyes of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a Muslim-majority state did not necessarily entail a departure from essentially secular ideals, but the Objectives Resolution, passed just months after his demise in September 1948, effectively put paid to his vision.

It could certainly be argued that the pre-eminence of faith in Pakistan was a more or less the inevitable consequence of the Partition of India along confessional lines. Then again, the inadequacy of religion as a glue was established beyond reasonable doubt as soon as Pakistan dared, for the first time, to conduct a general election. At the same time, it is obviously gratifying that India and Pakistan have avoided hostilities on a mass scale since 1971. The spectre of war has not, however, been banished for good: in the past decade alone, it has hovered over the neighbours on at least three occasions.

It surfaced most recently in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai late last year — and it is quite likely that sparking a fourth Indo-Pakistan war was one of the primary aims of the perpetrators.

In the immediate aftermath of the atrocities, many broadly reasonable Indians were driven to the conclusion that nothing short of military action would suffice as a response. It was widely rumoured at the time that India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh threatened to resign in case the Cabinet overruled his insistence on giving diplomacy a chance.

Fortunately for the subcontinent, his gamble paid off. However, the level of tension, not to mention the flak that has unfairly been directed at Dr Singh following his reasonably innocuous joint statement at Sharm el-Sheikh with his Pakistani counterpart, serves as a reminder of ingrained mutual hostilities — although there can be little doubt that on the Indian side they have periodically been heightened by the perverse activities of groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba; and briefings such as the one by the ISI cited earlier can only serve to enhance the suspicion that such groups are proxy actors for the state.

Historically, state agencies on both sides have indeed been involved in subversive activities, often undeterred by thaws at the diplomatic level: the Pakistan Army's Kargil misadventure obviously takes the cake in this category, but it wasn't the only instance of its kind. This partly explains why ostensibly hopeful signs at the official level have paid relatively few concrete dividends over the past decade or so.

But arguably the main deterrent to harmonious, mutually beneficial relations has been a mental block that ought to have withered away by now. Its persistence bears testimony in part to the strength of forces that have a vested interest in demonising the historical foe.

The animosity cannot be wished away by the odd conciliatory statement at the official level. It calls for a veritable re-education campaign, with government efforts generously supplemented by private endeavours.

The likeliest alternative is a pair of nations drifting into senescence while clinging to traits more commonly associated with juvenile delinquency.

In the event, Pakistan would be the bigger loser — although both nations are encumbered by a plethora of problems, from religious fanaticism to endemic poverty, that would be considerably easier to tackle in a less acrimonious atmosphere.


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