A tragic mistakenews
02 September 2006

Prem Shankar JhaThe decision to authorise the attack that took the lives of Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti, his grandsons, and other notables of the Bugti tribe could turn out to be the most serious mistake that President Musharraf has made in his otherwise exceptional seven years in office. One can think of mitigating circumstances: it is possible, as the Pakistan army has claimed, that the cave-in that killed him was caused by an explosion set off inside the caves by the fierce fire fight that ensued when the army tried to enter them. Indian security forces operating in Kashmir have had similar experiences on many occasions.

But in politics it is not the intentions of the actors but their effects that are remembered. And on the impact of Sardar Bugti's death there can be no doubt. To quote Pakistan's Dawn "It is difficult to predict what shape things will take in Balochistan, which evidently has been given a martyr of its own by the military government. The late Bugti chieftain was a controversial figure. …However, with his killing, (he) has acquired an image he never enjoyed in real life. In the light of the resort to brute force by the government, even the moderates who disagreed with his style of politics will now probably find it difficult to resist the temptation to switch over to a more hawkish and militant line".

The impact on the public is already apparent: virtually the whole of Balochistan is up in arms. A general strike on Tuesday closed down every city and town in the province. There has been rioting, arson, murder and attacks on government installations all over the province. The disturbance has also spread to Sindh.

In Balochistan Bugti's death has made the four squabbling nationalist groups join forces. This unity may not last after tempers cool down. But they must cool down first. That will depend on how Gen. Musharraf deals with the dissidents and the rioting public in the next few weeks. And nothing that the Pakistan army has done so far gives one reason to feel reassured. The truth is that Pakistan's stability, and perhaps its future, now hangs on a slender thread.

New Delhi could scarcely be unaware of this. So what precise purpose did the ministry of External Affairs think a homily to Pakistan extolling the slain leader, and advising it against relying on military force to solve political problems would serve? Did it think that President Musharraf and his advisers really do not know this? And if they do not, did it think that its message would make them come to their senses? One has only to put these conjectures down on paper to recognise their stupidity.

India's actions too need to be judged not by its intentions but by their effects. This is not the first time that the spokesman has made a purely gratuitous comment on Pakistan's internal problems in Balochistan. In fact there has been more than one statement since last December. All that these have done is to lend credibility to the excuse that the Pakistan army has been putting forward to explain its failure to quell the insurgency in Balochistan - that India is supporting and sustaining it. It will also reinforce the suspicion that India is working to dismember Pakistan even while General Musharraf naively talks peace.

The impact of a statement does not depend upon its content but its timing. Had Sardar Bugti not been killed Gen. Musharraf would have been able to shrug the MEA statement away. But after Bugti's death Musharraf will be forced to react. That reaction could easily be to give a formal burial to the peace process that the Vajpayee government had so courageously begun.

Is that what the MEA really wants? Unfortunately the possibility cannot be ruled out because the timing of its statement could not have been more unfortunate. Only two days earlier the prime minister had called the Pakistan High commissioner and expressed his desire (or willingness) to meet President Musharraf on the sidelines of the Havana non-aligned conference. The high commissioner was in Islamabad making the arrangements when the MEA missive landed on his deputy's desk.

This is only one, albeit the worst, of the gratuitous pinpricks that the MEA has administered to Pakistan in recent days. Last week it refused visas to several Pakistani journalists and other public figures to attend a three-day conference on Indian federalism, held in Srinagar.

One of those who were kept out was the noted columnist Ayaz Amir, who has since lost no time in telling his legions of readers how India treated him. A few days later the MEA informed the Pakistan high commission that its request that its diplomats be allowed to visit NOIDA and Gurgaon without having to take prior permission was denied. The contrast between this and the freedom Pakistan has given to Indian diplomats to visit not only Rawalpindi (15 km from Islamabad) but also the hill station of Murree, 40 kilometres away, could not be greater.

President Musharraf may still go ahead with the meeting in Havana, but in the prevailing atmosphere there is little that it will achieve. The MEA's sudden tilt towards hawkishness may therefore have completed the sabotage of the peace process that was launched by the security and foreign service establishments of this country in the wake of the death of the former National Security Adviser, J N Dixit.

Do you, dear reader, think I am being paranoid? Well let me end with a small story. During the last round of the composite dialogue between the Pakistani and Indian defence secretaries in New Delhi, the Pakistani delegation expressed a desire to pay a courtesy call on India's home minister. Guess what picture was hanging on the wall of the room in which Mr. Patil met them? It was a photograph of Gen Jagjit Arora accepting the surrender of Gen. Niazi in Dhaka in December 1971.

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

(The author's articles can be read at www.premshankarjha.com)

also see : Other articles by Prem Shankar Jha

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A tragic mistake