Sunday, February 01, 2009

Hatred can also become a need

Hatred can also become a need
By M J Akbar

There was no ambiguity in the press release welcoming Pranab Mukherjee to Colombo on January 27. "Minister Mukherjee's visit takes place at a time of repeated success in the security operations to free the civilian population from the terror of the LTTE, is in keeping with the tradition of regular, frank and constructive dialogue between India and Sri Lanka at the highest levels of political leadership, on important matters of mutual interest."

Translated into Bengali, this is what it meant:

- We know you are coming because your ally Karunanidhi has to play to his declining Tamil gallery, but don't expect us to provide any escape route to the LTTE. Delhi is neither Big Brother nor Sugar Daddy. Our knees do not wobble when you clear your throat.

- We used the word "terror" deliberately. It is a word that has appeared often in your recent pronouncements. Don't you wish you had the chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba where we've got Prabhakaran now? He may be hiding behind civilians now, but he will appear within our sights sooner rather than later. If Karunanidhi doesn't like that, tough luck.

- Don't even think of offering Prabhakaran sanctuary. Surely your hunger for power isn't so ravenous that you have forgotten the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi?

- If you want to play games, stick to cricket. That understood, welcome. There is a lot to discuss about saving civilians, offering a political structure to Tamils and rebuilding the war-shattered north.

Mukherjee, foreign minister of a party that had once trained, armed and financed the LTTE, placed India's interest above politics, ignored any potential anger-lament from the DMK, agreed that Prabhakaran was a terrorist, negotiated a commitment on civilians trapped by the war, and went home.

Paradoxically, Colombo has been able to succeed militarily and diplomatically precisely because it has overcome its obsession with India as an enemy. Hatred is also a form of dependence. Enmity becomes the sole definition of your identity. Colombo has reason for continued suspicion of Delhi. The UPA alliance is heavily dependent on the DMK, to begin with. But it has exchanged past bitterness for commonsense, refused to let animosity interfere with trade, benefited from the ensuing economic partnership and created a sustainable and equitable relationship with Delhi.

Contrast this with Pakistan, which continuously uses confrontation with India as the critical tool in the promotion of its self-interest. It sits at a poker table, using proxy war as playing chips and nuclear weapons as collateral. Instead of using the terrorist attack in Mumbai as an opportunity for cooperation, Zardari has formally upped the stakes with an article in the Washington Post. Its blunt message is, force India to surrender on Kashmir or terrorism will continue. India will not be permitted to use the Indus waters as leverage either, since water deprivation will fuel "the fires of discontent that lead to extremism and terrorism".

This is blackmail in correct English, for which Zardari's ghost-writer should be congratulated. Being blackmailed in good grammar causes less confusion. Zardari also linked Kashmir to Palestine, completing the loop thrown by Delhi's favourite foreign dignitary, British foreign minister David Miliband, who made a similar point on Indian soil and was then honoured with exclusive poverty tourism.

The end of the war against the LTTE has to become the beginning of a peace process with the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Delhi can be credible partner in the management of peace, precisely because it has shown the respect for Sri Lanka's territorial integrity and independence that must be the foundation of any relationship. Lifting any siege needs partnership.

Conflict is a man's disease. For six decades men - and one woman who was often called the only man in her Cabinet - have believed that they can redraw frontiers with the nib of a gun. Mrs Indira Gandhi succeeded in 1971, but Bangladesh needed a unique combination of circumstances, including an amazing election and extraordinary stupidity on the part of the enemy. When she attempted a repeat in Sri Lanka with support for Prabhakaran, India, and her son Rajiv, paid a heartbreaking price. An age may be coming to an end with the defeat of Prabhakaran.

The transition to cooperation will be the principal challenge of inter-nation relations in South Asia. No victory can last if it leads to the humiliation of the defeated. The lines of tension overlap so easily; kinship, loyalty and revenge can acquire primeval ferocity. Indian Tamils have a legitimate affinity towards fellow Tamils across the straits, but no bond can become a noose to strangle a neighbour. Confrontation did not work. Peace could.

Nehru's moral code remains the only valid political philosophy. Non-interference in another country's internal affairs was a cardinal principle of panchashila. War needs courage. Peace needs both courage and clarity.

Appeared in Times of India - February 1, 2009

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