labels: Prem Shankar Jha
Man(mohan) at the helm news
19 March 2009

India's response to the crisis in Pakistan underscores the relative unimportance of the hawkish sentiments so frequently expressed in the Indian media. By  Prem Shankar Jha

 Prem Shankar JhaWhen Prime minister Manmohan Singh chaired his first meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on 12 March, it became apparent within hours that the vacuum in which India had been drifting since he went into hospital for a heart operation two months earlier had been filled.

The meeting was devoted almost entirely to discussing the rapid deterioration in Pakistan. Barely three weeks earlier, on 18 February, Islamabad had signed a humiliating peace agreement with the Taliban in Swat. Two weeks after that Al Qaeda-linked Punjabi terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. And days after that President Zardari precipitated a crisis in Pakistan's struggling democracy by refusing to restore the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhury, and using a questionable Supreme Court judgement of the Musharraf days to bar Nawaz Sharif from fighting elections and remove his brother Shahbaz Sharif from power in Punjab.

This blatantly authoritarian move by a President with a questionable mandate in a country fighting for its very life, seemed to have sucked most of whatever legitimacy had remained from the government . No one was surprised, therefore, when suggestions began to be heard in Islamabad, that the democratic establishment was not capable of pulling Pakistan out of this mess and perhaps what Pakistan needed another touch of 'khaki' rule.

In contrast to earlier years, a return to army rule was anything but welcome to Pakistan's partners in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. For they no longer considered the Pakistan army a reliable ally. Not only had it shown no stomach for fighting the Taliban in the tribal regions, but its involvement in the terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul , and its indirect complicity in the Mumbai attacks had might even welcome a confrontation with India in order to avoid getting more deeply entangled in an Afghan quagmire.

In Dr Singh's absence India's political leaders had taken their queue from the reactions of the west. Thus Mr. Pranab Mukherjee had echoed Holbrooke, Milliband and others when he expressed deep concern over Islamabad's surrender in Swat. He therefore implicitly rejected Islamabad's plea that it involved no more than a return to Swat's traditional mix of Sharia and local customary law, known locally as Rewaj, and was intended to wean away the majority of the Swatis from Mullah Fazlullah's fanatics.

When the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked the Congress party's spokesman , Manish Tiwari, went a step further and called Pakistan the Somalia of South Asia.

The contrast between these knee-jerk reactions and the measured statement to the media by Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee after the CCS meeting could not therefore have been greater. Mr. Mukherjee did not utter a single word of criticism of Pakistan. Nor was there even a tinge of gloating. Instead, in a carefully drafted response to the media he said.

''The recent developments in Pakistan are an internal matter of the country. We never comment on internal matters of any sovereign nation. Pakistan is an important neighbour. I hope that all internal matters will be resolved by its leadership amicably and peacefully, in its best interests. We have always been interested to see strong and stable regimes, more so in our neighbourhood, so that the entire region can grow and develop together, for the common good of its people. This is even more relevant to Pakistan, to enable her to fight against elements in the country that are utilizing the terror infrastructure there and engaging in terrorism within Pakistan and outside.''

The statement contained several elements that had been lacking in earlier references to Pakistan: respect for its sovereignty, a guarantee of non-interference, and an unambiguous declaration of goodwill. But more important than its content was the way it was framed and the occasion on which, it was made. For not only was this a carefully drafted statement, but its timing suggests that it was actually drafted by the cabinet committe on scurity (CCS) during the course of its meeting.

The significance of the CCS' decision to draft a formal response should not be underestimated. The only previous occasion that this writer can recall when the government released such a formal text after a CCS meeting was in 2001 when the Vajpayee rejected the Jammu and Kashmir government's autonomy bill.

The CCS had felt obliged to do so on that occasion because no sooner had the bill been tabled in the J&K assembly than five other state chief ministers had asked for a similar change in their relations with the centre. An alarmed NDA government therefore faced the task of rejecting further changes in centre-state relations in principle, while still reaffirming that Kashmir remained an exception because of the circumstances in which it had joined the Indian union. Its statement was designed to tread this thin line.

It is unlikely that Pakistan's foreign office will have missed the significance of the CCS' statement. One can only hope therefore that once the dust settles in Islamabad, its people and its army will appreciate how Delhi has resisted every temptation to profit from its crisis and stood firmly by its side in its hour of need.

One can also hope that this will make it reassess the relative unimportance of the hawkish sentiments so frequently expressed in the Indian media.

From that it could be a short step to understanding that the salvation of both our countries lies in putting the past behind and working together to safeguard our future.


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Man(mohan) at the helm