Byline by M J Akbar: Little Pakistan’s big India problem
Pakistan’s India policy is nurtured by a fundamental principle: Pakistan is always right. The obverse assumption is, but naturally, that India is always in the wrong, and gets away because of its size. The conflation between size and strength is meaningless and unhistorical, but remarkably effective. Britain was less than the size of a medium-level principality of the Indian subcontinent, and it ruled half the world.
Grievance is a wide canvas, creating elbow room even for the unacceptable. In this Pakistani logic, even cross-border terrorism becomes India’s fault since its “root cause” is Indian injustice towards the Muslims of the Kashmir valley. History becomes the story of lament, and if facts do not suit the lament then facts must be suitably altered. Little mention is made therefore of the fact that it was Pakistan which began the war on Kashmir within six weeks of freedom; this was the first foreign policy decision taken by independent Pakistan, on the assumption that it could seize what it wanted while India remained comatose. The reality is that if there had been no Pak-sponsored invasion in 1947, the status of Kashmir would have been settled through negotiations by 1948, probably through some form of partition. There would have been no Kashmir problem.
There are two starting points to history as written by Islamabad: Kashmir in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971. The first exonerates cross-border terrorism; the second is used to explain Islamabad’s need for “strategic depth”, which, in effect, means Pak control of Kabul without interference from India. Once again, the military defeat of Pakistan and birth of Bangladesh is “big” India’s fault. The sequence of events from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s spectacular victory in the general elections to the massacre of Bengali civilians in East Pakistan and the consequent arrival of millions of refugees into India is excised from public memory. These are not academic issues; they impinge on current objectives creating tensions, as for instance in Afghanistan.
Any nation’s foreign policy must keep space for flexibility, and therefore cannot be bound to a specific pattern, but its contours are always evident. The world’s powers and superpowers cannot be indifferent to India-Pakistan relations, not only because the two neighbours have nuclear weapons, but also because they are involved in a critical battle zone of the next decade. America and Britain would be happy to see peace between India and Pakistan, not because it is a good thing in itself, but also because it is in their interest to release Pakistan from confrontation with India so that it can concentrate on the confrontation with their foes in Af-Pak region. Their need for Pakistan makes them add to their historical ambivalence about a core problem, the terms on which this peace can be arranged. It would suit them to see a more compliant India, even though, on paper, India is closer to Anglo-America’s definition of terrorism than Pakistan’s. Washington and London, therefore, have to negotiate each decision, whether on policy framework or specifics like Headley, through a complex web of immediate necessity, medium-term options and long-term horizon. Contradictions are inevitable.
Russia, aware of its post-Soviet limitations, but determined to pursue its interests in Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan to the extent possible, would prefer a greater convergence of Russia-India objectives on terrorism as well as national priorities in South, Central and West Asia. The revival of a military equation between these two powers is evidence of shared goals. The reasons are not the same, for the world is radically different, but the impulses and intellectual reasoning that brought India close to the Soviet Union are again in play within the India-Russia relationship. Russia would be happy at a resolution in South Asia, but with its tilt towards Delhi.
China is the one regional power that has no interest in Indo-Pak peace, and as long as China remains Pakistan’s all-weather benefactor, a settlement is unlikely. Pakistan’s self-image, painted with the brush of lament, suits China perfectly, because it can outsource a substantive part of its competition/confrontation with India to Pakistan. China and Pakistan offer a vital service to each other, by improving mutual comfort levels. With China by its side, Pakistan can negate, psychologically, India’s “big” factor. China helped build Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal not only as reassurance, but also to stretch the nuclear confrontation from the north to the west. Pakistan is the nuclear hedge that China factors into its war games at a time when India is displaying the promise of economic resurgence and military potential.
Diplomats and their political guardians are used to tiptoeing through minefields, but surely there is no region more explosive than the stretch between North India, Iran and Central Asia. West Asia has dangerous triggers of course, but only one side, Israel, has nuclear arms. (This could change, of course, if Iran goes nuclear, a prospect that keeps the mood wintry in Washington and Tel Aviv.) The sheer danger of an unmanageable explosion should, in theory, make the imperative for an Indo-Pak settlement that much more urgent. In practice, the absence of minimal trust, and the competition of a widening arc of national interests, keeps India and Pakistan frozen in a winter of despair.