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Stalled but not overturned

Former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif with Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

A New year's ritual of decluttering mail threw up some old dispatches from New Delhi to Dawn. A November 2004 piece points to the growing distance between relative agreeableness and reason — and the bilious ditch we find ourselves in today. The dispatch spoke of then prime minister Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Jammu and Kashmir. A troop reduction was ordered in the militarily fraught area. Predictably, the move was slammed by the Hindu right, a common feature of domestic compulsions.

The step to improve relations with Pakistan was seen by the international press as a facet of Singh’s sagacity. In today’s India, such an act would face hateful slander. In its essence, pervasive right-wing hate isn’t new. If anything, it is in keeping with its growing worship of Gandhi’s murderers. Among reasons cited for the assassination, was Gandhi’s proposed visit to Pakistan with a message of Hindu-Muslim harmony.

Hindutva fears harmony. Period. It thrives on parochial strife. The communally hateful speeches made in Haridwar recently were not original in this respect, nor did they mark a major shift in communal bias in recent Indian history. A new element is that the government has become more openly engaged in encouraging communal hatred to spread unhindered. The singer Rasoolan Bai was driven from her home in Ahmedabad following anti-Muslim violence in the 1960s. The bias in Gujarat has a history. It is equally true that Atal Bihari Vajpayee tendered an embarrassed apology to the global community as prime minister when Graham Stein and his sons were burnt alive by a Hindutva mob. Contriteness eludes Hindutva’s current crop of leaders.

If Indian democracy is yet to be rescued there’s a recent example to emulate. The peaceful farmers movement has shown the way, not for the first time. It was the farmers who formed the bulwark of the JP movement against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule. Sadly, the RSS wormed its way to become a key part of the movement. The plot showed up in the subsequent early collapse of the opposition government that succeeded Mrs. Gandhi. The recent farmers movement on the other hand not only ensured victory for its economic causes, its social impact helped the coming together of Hindu and Muslim farmers in western Uttar Pradesh to the chagrin of Hindutva.

Read Also: As India continues to humiliate Muslims, I write an elegy for my dead patriotism

It goes to Singh’s credit that he studiously avoided the temptations of political hamming in his two-term tenure. He didn’t sit on a swing to the sway of folk music, for example, with visiting leaders. Nor did he show up uninvited at a party across the border. The protocol ensured there was no emotional backlash when things went wrong. Life with neighbours, more so with difficult neighbours, as he had seen from close quarters, was not black and white. He stayed his course for mutually handy peace with Pakistan. When he went into a civil nuclear deal with the US, he dexterously left largely unruffled the fragile trust with Beijing.

Singh didn’t blink even when the Mumbai horror came visiting four years down the road from the Kashmir bonhomie. He overrode calls from his own party men for military action against Pakistan. The foreign minister of Pakistan was visiting New Delhi when the terror attack happened. The Zardari government was in denial about the Pakistani identity of the lone attacker captured alive. Pakistani journalists stepped in to correct the narrative by identifying the family of the gunman. Dawn led the team, which may not be unrelated to other reasons that upright journalism is facing the heat from the Pakistani establishment today.

Stern words to the neighbour and a change in the home portfolio saw Singh cruising back to a second innings within seven months of the dastardly carnage. He annoyed his right-wing opponents further when he followed his instincts with a controversial post-Mumbai nightmare peace bid with Pakistan in Sharm el Sheikh. His overall trajectory showed that Singh was only building on his predecessor’s steps to keep Pakistan crucially engaged in peace talks.

Moreover, Singh was not going to repeat the mistakes of the Vajpayee administration, which mobilised the army for what was projected to be a ‘decisive war’ with Pakistan following the December 2001 attack on parliament. Mercifully, the war never came although some 1,800 Indian soldiers were killed in accidents with mines and fuses. As the author of the letter to president Clinton, which the US made public, Vajpayee claimed the nuclear tests he ordered in 1998 had China in the cross hairs. In other words, peace with Pakistan was a way for his strategists to avert the nightmare of two simultaneously hostile borders should relations with Beijing sour.

I cross-checked the facts of Singh’s Kashmir visit with The Guardian’s narrative of the event. It spoke of “guerrillas” launching an attack on an Indian army camp ahead of the troop reduction. This was baffling. Only those who didn’t want Indian troops to be reduced in the militarily saturated region would do something so damning. The same question arose with the subsequent terror attack in Pulwama. Did the perpetrators not know that they were shoring up Prime Minister Modi’s sagging election campaign?

Another telling story that surfaced in the old emails was about the Agra summit of July 2001. The summit was a disappointment for Gen Musharraf and Vajpayee. But the failure was handled with grace. “The caravan of peace has stalled, ladies and gentlemen of the press. It has not overturned.” Foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s words helped Vajpayee ride out the ensuing tensions and go to the 2003 Saarc summit in Islamabad. “Jang mein qatl sipahi hongey, surkh ru zilley ilahi hongey.” (In a war, soldiers will needlessly die/ So their majesties can hold their heads high!) Jaswant Singh grimly heard the couplet recited at his packed news conference following the parliament attack outrage. The lines from the mailbox are just as relevant today.