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Whatever happens at the border

One step forward, two steps back. That appears to be the norm of the dysfunctional India-Pakistan relationship. You make a little progress, inch by painful inch, dragging yourself up the steep hill that is the Indo-Pak diplomacy, only to be thrown off course by some incident or the other.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself, who has invested his personal prestige in building peace with Pakistan where his roots lie, is said to have described it as an accident-prone journey. You travel some distance and then break down, undoing all the progress and being forced to start from scratch all over again.

So here we are, back to square one again. And given the popular mood in India over the alleged beheading of an Indian soldier by the Pakistani side on the Line of Control (LoC), it may be a while before normalcy returns to these fragile relations.

The army of rabble-rousing television hosts, retired generals and diplomats, the ‘online’ hate brigade and our friends from Shiv Sena have managed to generate an unprecedented wave of jingoistic fervour across the country, demanding swift lessons for Pakistan. The BJP leader Sushma Swaraj talks of bringing ten Pakistani heads for one Indian soldier.

Understandably, a besieged Indian government, which initially responded to the LoC incidents with restraint, has toughened its stand. Dr Singh says that it cannot be ‘business as usual’ with Islamabad after the ‘barbaric act’. “What happened at the LoC is unacceptable,” asserted the prime minister. As The Hindu noted, “The relentless political attacks on his Pakistan policy are taking a toll.”

Singh’s warning follows the Indian Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh’s call asking troops to be “aggressive and offensive in the face of provocation and fire” from Pakistan. Already under fire for its muted and incoherent response to recent public outrage over corruption and the horrific Delhi rape tragedy, the Indian government has been put on the defensive by a hawkish media and Hindutva groups baying for blood. It has taken several swift steps to signal it means business and that when it comes to dealing with Pakistan, it’s not in any way behind the BJP.

Delhi has put the much-awaited liberal visa regime on hold, including visa free travel for senior citizens. Predictably, the first casualty of the confrontation has been the people-to-people equation. While the hawks on both sides sharpen their claws, it’s the ordinary people who are bleeding once again. The bonhomie seen in sporting and cultural arenas in recent times, including the high-octane cricket encounter and Pakistani artistes’ forays into Mumbai film industry is threatened.

Nine Pakistani hockey players taking part in Hockey India’s T20-style league matches have been unceremoniously packed off. And Pakistan’s participation in the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup later this month is unlikely now. Concerts by popular Pakistani artistes like Ali Zafar, Javed Bashir and Meekal Hasan have been called off.

All this is very unfortunate. It seems all the hard work and years of heroic efforts by the political leadership and civil society groups for normalisation of ties between the separated-at-birth twins is down the drain. Zealots and special interests on either side that want the neighbours to remain perpetually locked in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation cannot stop rubbing their hands in glee. The media with its xenophobic rhetoric especially has played a decisive role in fuelling tensions.

You have to watch some of these cross-border exchanges on primetime television to see what I mean. Times Now’s inquisitor-in-chief, Arnab Goswami during a heated ‘debate’ at the height of the current crisis, with his usual fixtures of former diplomats and ‘experts’, got himself entangled in a furious clash with a former Pakistani air chief marshal and other analysts.

While our hero, frothing at the mouth, reminded the other side of the 1971 war and 90,000 Pakistani prisoners, an agitated air chief marshal recalled how he bombed the daylights out of India in the 1965 war with both sides openly threatening to revisit the past. And yes that dreaded ‘N’ word did crop up a couple of times too. I couldn’t believe my ears and eyes at what I heard and saw.

Even Praveen Swamy, who sees Islamic terrorism lurking behind every bush, feels Goswami went too far. But this is what happens on most days on Times Now as he preys on people’s deepest insecurities and basest instincts. Is this how the media conducts itself? Is this what journalists are supposed to do constantly adding fuel to fire? While Goswami may be an extreme example of journalists going berserk, he’s not an exception. Save for some, few from my fraternity have kept their heads.

Hawkish rhetoric by politicians, retired diplomats and men in khaki is understandable. This is what they do. But what in God’s name is wrong with journalists? Do they ever look beyond their stuffy noses and TRPs and circulation figures to wonder where all this war-war rhetoric will eventually end? Do we for God’s sake even realise that we are countries with nuclear arsenals now?

The killings and strong reaction that it generated in India received scant attention in the Pakistani media, which has remained preoccupied with the growing political turmoil and uncertainty at home. Even as the Pakistanis obsessively followed and debated the shenanigans of the mysterious Dr Tahirul Qadri and who really is pulling his strings, the Supreme Court fiat ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Ashraf and 15 others on graft charges blew up in their face. This is a nation in crisis. That is why one wonders if the sudden upsurge in temperatures along the LoC has anything to do with it. After all, the ceasefire between the nuclear neighbours has held since 2003 despite the occasional fireworks. Even the ‘cross-border infiltration’ is almost non-existent.

Some Pakistani analysts have suggested that the beheading and killing of Indian soldiers, if it is true, may have been carried out by the same forces, Tehreek-e-Taliban, who have been responsible for similar killings of Pakistani soldiers in recent times. Whoever did, it’s utterly shameful and goes against the Islamic respect for the dead.

The Hindu, one of India’s most respected voices, has argued that the ceasefire violations are routine and are committed by both sides: “It must be candidly admitted that Pakistan has not had a monopoly of wrong-doing in this case. It’s pointless to ask who cast the first stone. The need now is to strengthen the restraint regime on the LoC. Few spectacles have been as unedifying as the contemptible baying of warmongers these past days – most of it emanating from TV studios located at a safe distance from the nearest bullet.”

Need I add anymore? It’s time India and Pakistan stood back from the brink in the interest of mutual survival, if for nothing else. Pakistan must ensure that a repeat of the incidents last week – whoever was responsible for them – is strictly avoided. For its part India cannot allow its foreign policy to be dictated by television studios and insecure politicians.

Pakistan is negotiating a critical point in its history. For the first time an elected government, for what it is worth, is about to complete its five-year term. Tensions on the border will neither help peace and democracy in Pakistan nor favour India’s long-term interests.

A stable Pakistan is in the interest of India – and vice versa. And in the name of all that is holy, whatever happens at the border, please do not let cultural ties and popular contacts suffer. Our artistes are the only ones that help us retain our sanity. As Ashutosh Varshney puts it, it’s time for India and Pakistan to learn to live with each other. It is time for them to grow up.

The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs. Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "Whatever happens at the border," The News. 2013-01-19.