A lethal cocktail

20 Mar 2008


Prem Shankar JhaThe 30-day stay on the execution granted to Sarabjit Singh has given India and Pakistan a breathing space. If they are to avert tragedy on an unimaginable scale they need to understand why General Musharraf's decision to set a date for his hanging at precisely the moment when there is a political vacuum in Pakistan.

The answer is to be found in the lethal cocktail that is being brewed by media commercialisation and self promotion - a cocktail that is as much responsible for the devastation of Iraq as it is likely to be for that of India and Pakistan.

It began with Kashmir Singh's claim as soon as he landed on Indian soil that he had been a spy for India in Pakistan. This came as a monumental embarrassment for Musharraf's caretaker government at home, all the more so because Kashmir Singh had been located and released on the personal initiative of the Pakistan Human rights minister, Ansar Burney.

The second nail was hammered in by the coincidental death of a Pakistani who had, allegedly, come to India to watch a cricket match and the handing over of his corpse to the Pakistani authorities five days later.

When the coffin was opened reports leaked into the media there that he had been tortured. This allowed a section of the media and its backers to conclude that he was arrested on the suspicion of being a spy and died under police interrogation. The review of Sarabjit's mercy petition apparently landed on Musharraf's table at just that time.

The reprieve for Sarabjit will allow passions to subside in Pakistan but the earlier decision nonetheless marked the end of Musharraf's four-year attempt to reach an accommodation with India on bilateral issues, including, of course, Kashmir.

This is not the occasion to discuss who is responsible for the failure of an initiative that was started by the NDA, and carried on by the UPA, and therefore had the full backing of all the political parties in the country, or to apportion blame between New Delhi and Islamabad for its failure. The need today is to take stock of what is likely to happen if Pakistan does go through with the hanging of Sarabjit.

The first consequence will be a demand from Indian hawks that New Delhi retaliate by hanging Afzal Guru. The UPA government did not have the courage to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment when the tide was running in its favour. It will be even less able to do so once the tide of anger begins to rise in India. It will inevitably, procrastinate, but that will serve no purpose either, for if Sarabjit Singh's hanging forecloses options for the UPA, it will do so even more completely for the NDA. The NDA has been demanding Afzal Guru's death vociferously ever since the Supreme Court rejected his last appeal.

One does not have to be a soothsayer to discern what will happen next. The hanging of Maqbool Butt, the founder of the JKLF, on 11 February 1984 was the spark that turned a till-then marginal secessionist movement in Jammu and Kashmir into a major force, and sent hundreds of boys across the line of control in search of weapons and training in their use. The rest is history. The hanging of Afzal Guru will have even more dire consequences.

First, it will destroy every last shred of moderation and compromise left in the Kashmiriyat forces represented by Hurriyat - Shabbir Shah and Yasin Malik. The latter two, after all, became militants only because of Butt's hanging. If the Mirwaiz, and Professor Abdul Ghani Butt try to stem the tide they will simply be swept away.

Second, it will immensely reinforce the alienation of Kashmiris of the valley and silence groups like the Gujjars and Paharis who do not share their yearning for independence. The result will be a repeat of what happened after February 1984: the supply of information from the public to the police will dry up, and political groups that want Kashmir to remain within the Indian union will be forced to retreat into their shells. This was exactly what happened after Maqbool Butt's hanging, but rather than blame itself, Mrs Indira Gandhi's government chose to pin the blame on Farouq Abdullah and pull him down from power. The rest too is history.
What will be different this time around will be the consequences of the hanging. In 1984 there was no Al Qaeda, not international Jihad, and hardly a Kashmiri who knew how to load a pistol.

Today, there are an estimated 100,000 battle-hardened, perfervid Islamist Jihadis in Pakistan who are successfully undermining the state itself. The hanging of Guru will draw hordes of them to Kashmir like flies to a honey pot. It will simultaneously ensure that they receive sanctuary if not exactly a welcome. The resulting lack of intelligence will make the task of the security forces in Kashmir well nigh impossible. They will then be left with no option but to resort to the random crackdowns and extended, blind, interrogations that characterised the first years of the insurgency in the early '90s. This will turn the Jihadis into heroes and undo everything that has been achieved through patient restraint, and the restoration of democracy, in the past decade.

Musharraf has given Sarabjit a reprieve, but in his weakened state he will not be able to commute his sentence without some active assistance from New Delhi. By far the best way to give it to him will be to commute Afzal Guru's sentence to life imprisonment. The Indian government is full of people who will see this not as an act of mercy but one of appeasement. Dr. Singh and Mrs Patil would do well to distinguish between the two and not be intimidated.

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