Just at a time when India and Pakistan should be building upon the remarkable achievements of a peace process that resumed after great difficulty two years ago, their relationship has once again started to display growing acrimony and conflict. At least events as they have unfolded during the first month of 2003 do not seem to augur well for the future of South Asia’s traditional archrivals.
Until mid-January, the two countries clashed over the Line of Control in disputed Kashmir, with each side losing soldiers in the process. Although their directors general of military operations were finally able to manage the crisis through hotline communication by January 17, the limited crisis has had a broader fallout, scuttling the process of expanding trade relations, a liberalized visa regime and enhanced mutual contacts in sports, art and entertainment spheres.
The latest blow to the peace process is the row over Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s recently published critique of Indian secularism, especially how he feels being discriminated in India being a Muslim whose parents migrated from Peshawar to India at the time of Partition.
"I sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India, Shah Ruk wrote in Outlook Turning Points, published jointly by Indian Outlook magazine and the New York Times.
He further wrote: "There have been occasions when I have been accused of bearing allegiance to our neighbouring nation than my own country - this even though I am an Indian whose father fought for the freedom of India. Rallies have been held where leaders have exhorted me to leave my home and return to what they refer to as my original homeland.”
Subsequently, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik requested India to provide security to the actor, who, he said, was a "born Indian and he would like to remain Indian, but I will request the government of India (to) please provide him security. I would like to request all Indian brothers and sisters and all those who are talking in a negative way about Shah Rukh, they should know he is a movie star." Earlier, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba founder Hafiz Saeed, who is accused by India of orchestrating 2008 Mumbai terrorism, had asked the Bollywood actor to move to Pakistan if he feels ‘insecure’ in India, and assured that he will “enjoy all the freedom that he wants in this country.”
Malik’s statement received a barrage of criticism from Indian leaders. Home Secretary RK Singh said, "We are capable of looking at the security of our own citizens. Let him worry about his own." Toeing the same line, spokespersons of Congress, BJP and Shiv Sena warned Pakistani Interior Minister not to meddle in India’s affairs and advised him to first look after the condition of Pakistani Muslims. Indian poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar also castigated Pakistan for not protecting its Shia, Ahmadi and Muhajir minorities.
During the Line of Control crisis, the attitude of Indian political and military leadership was also unusually aggressive towards Pakistan, where the focus remained on domestic political upheaval. This is a major role reversal from past, when Pakistani military and political leaders could be reasonably expected to more belligerent towards India, given the country’s India-centric security paradigm.
India is South Asia’s biggest country, which necessitates that its leaders should be equally large-hearted in their regional approach. Their unnecessary tirade against Pakistan on trivial issues seems to reflect a shallow mindset. This is in contrast to the visible contribution made by India’s educated middle class and business elites to their country’s impressive rise as a regional power in the last over two decades.
Currently, India should be partnering with Pakistan and the region to jointly tackle the threat of religious extremism and terrorism, and to mutually stabilize the ongoing Afghan transition process in line with NATO’s military exit from Afghanistan within the next two years. Instead, its leadership is complicating regional security situation by hurting the peace process with Pakistan through a highly irresponsible conduct with Pakistan. Thus, India is falling into the trap of the very forces long thriving on regional conflict.
By doing so, India and its leaders may, in fact, inadvertently or otherwise recreate the same anarchic regional situation that prevailed after the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan after 1989. Already, in early January, Pakistani Taliban leader Wali Ur Rehman has pledged to send fighters in Kashmir and wage a struggle for implementation of Sharia rule in India.
Pakistan has already paid a deadly price at the hands of the preachers of extremism and perpetrators of terrorism, whose roots essentially lie in the Afghan anarchy of the 90s. Of course, with the sort of tangible commitment that US and its allies, within or outside the UN framework, have so far made towards Afghan stability and security for a decade after 2014, we may not see a repeat of the international abandonment of Afghanistan for a decade post-1989.
Despite this, if there is one lesson that we can learn from what happened on Afghanistan’s battlefront in the 90s, it is that normal relations between India and Pakistan are an absolute necessity for peace in Afghanistan. And, without Afghan peace, even if unstable to some extent, we cannot expect to defeat the forces of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan and the region.
If India and Pakistan are not engaged in the peace process, especially if they are unable to build upon previous successes of political dialogue, then who will stop Pakistani Taliban or their Afghan and other jihadi affiliates to reopen the Kashmir front once again? For, despite the existing international commitments for Afghanistan’s post-2014 political stability and economic viability, the war-torn country’s security challenges are likely to aggravate if the Afghan security forces are unable to fight with Taliban and their allies in the absence of an Afghan political settlement during the current transition process.
More than anything else, what matters are the public aspirations in India and Pakistan, which are pro-peace and anti-conflict—as clear from the frequency of people-to-people interactions between the two countries in the last two years alone. It is in response to rising public demands that a liberal visa regime had recently come in vogue, and traders, at least in Pakistan, were so excited about the prospects of their business growth in South Asia’s biggest market. We need to sustain this promising trend, which requires responsible behavior on the part of ruling elites in both countries.
India has a tradition of secular democracy, which has evolved in a relatively more stable manner as compared to all other South Asian countries since independence. Indian democracy and secularism have, indeed, confronted serious challenges in the past two decades. Corruption haunts democracy, and Hindu nationalism poses a grave danger to secularism—the Muslim massacre in Gujrat riots a decade ago being a reference point.
Shah Ruk Khan’s fears and grievances should be seen from this perspective, and Indian politicians only belittle themselves by bashing Pakistan every now and then. Their fixation with Pakistan is beyond comprehension. India's focus should rather be on the big picture in the region, on resolving lingering conflicts with Pakistan, especially Kashmir—whose continuity provides the justification for extremism and terrorism, the survivability of their respective followers and perpetrators.
This commentary can be accessed at weeklypulse.org