Borderline case


Democracy politik

A superficial view of the recently held community of democracies conference is that it is another opportunity for India to use its standing as the world’s largest democracy to earn points with the world community. The Warsaw declaration issued by the 100 plus countries who attended, calls on signatories “to discourage and resist the threat to democracy posed by the overthrow of constitutionally elected governments”. It also takes aim at other threats to democracies like state sponsored and cross border terrorism. All of this helps India place military ruled Pakistan in a negative light. It also gives India’s image a shine that China cannot acquire. Further, legitimacy is also gained for a tough line against Fiji — a former democracy whose invitation to Warsaw was withdrawn at the last minute.

It is only sensible for India to extract as much political and diplomatic mileage as it can from the greatest accomplishment of its independent existence. If anything, it is long overdue. New Delhi declined to play the democracy card during the Cold War. After all, it was an ally of a dictatorial Soviet Union and sought to lead a nonaligned bloc comprising a large number of extremely illiberal regimes.

The post-Cold War era has seen a sea change in global attitudes about democracy. It is not merely because Western liberalism has gone from strength to strength while its nondemocratic rivals have been falling along the wayside. The days when democracy was seen as merely ethically superior to other forms of politics are over. It is now recognized a nation’s security and prosperity are inextricably linked to its domestic political freedom. The Soviet Union was a military superpower but a democratic dwarf. The contradiction proved fatal. A similar correlation exists between democracy and prosperity — almost all rich countries are liberal democracies. With knowledge based industries establishing themselves as the foremost engines of economic growth, the link has become stronger. Democracy is not a luxury but a necessity.

Much of the intellectual backup to this thesis has been provided by the Indian economist, Mr Amartya Sen. He has called democracy’s rise the preeminent accomplishment of the 20th century. And Mr Sen has been a strong advocate of the view democracy is essential to a nation’s economic development. “A country,” he has written, “does not have to be judged to be fit for democracy, rather it has to become fit through democracy.” This is the theme of the latest United Nations human development report.

All this points to India looking beyond the mere propaganda value of being the world’s largest democracy. The Indian elite has tended to be suspicious of its democratic credentials, seeing it as a burden rather than a blessing. It should not. The lesson of the Soviet experience is that if India has survived as a unified state it is because of the flexibility it derives from the hurlyburly of its political system. If India has not prospered it is because it long rejected the other half of the liberal paradigm: the freedom of economic choice.

The liberal internationalism dominant in Western foreign policy today argues that what is good for a country is also good for a world order. Namely, the more democracies there are, the safer and more prosperous the world becomes. This underlies the present Western hostility to military coups and rigged elections. India is prone to moral hectoring. It needs to ask if it should not embrace democratic enlargement and promotion as a policy goal in a more proactive manner. It needs to ask if this would not make both the region and the world a safer place for India and its interests. In other words, embracing democracy as a foreign policy instrument should be more than a way to curry favour with Washington at Pakistan’s expense. New Delhi should find out if democratic enlargement can be part and parcel of a grand strategy that serves the long term requirements of India’s economic and security interests.    

Curious how Pakistan continues to delude itself with a monotonous regularity. It deluded itself over the years regarding an assumed military might, a political strength that was imagined to exist, an international and regional position that suggested Islamabad was irreplaceable for the world, and a state, society and an economy that could be sustained no matter what the extent of abuse of policies and politics.

It is in fact an over-indulgence in politics that drives Pakistan to assume for itself a position, a posture and a set of policies that defy international codes of conduct. And result only in a further perpetuation of that delusion, and a continued ignorance of the rule of law, and procedures.

This delusion, ignorance of law and procedures all coalesced in the recent Atlantique case before the international court of justice at The Hague. And for what? A case that Pakistan hadn’t a hope of getting a ruling on, and even if it did, hadn’t a hope of winning. But more of that later. The costs of delusion and lack of knowledge are many. And it does not pay having to keep coughing up wages of ignorance.

Which is precisely what Islamabad has had to do over the Atlantique case. Some Indian commentators have called it a legal and diplomatic victory for New Delhi, which again is an example of ignorance. It is nothing of the sort, simply a case of India following the procedures to the last page, and Pakistan remaining oblivious to what could be followed. Good homework and shoddy preparation differentiate the approaches of the two states. The cycle of diligence and ignorance sets the two neighbours apart.

Islamabad is of course taking solace in its position that the verdict was of a “technical nature”, and therefore not really a victory for India. So said Aziz Munshi, Pakistan’s attorney general who also doubles as the law minister for the military government. So be it, but the fact of the matter is that India succeeded in what it set out to achieve, and Pakistan failed in its attempt.

Islamabad’s case was that India had shot down an unarmed Pakistan navy Atlantique aircraft on its side of the international boundary on August 10, 1999. Pakistani politicians (civilian at that time), policymakers and commentators went to town declaring that the matter must be brought before the United Nations international court of justice, and India made to pay for its act. India took the position that the international court had no jurisdiction in the matter since it involved two states of the Commonwealth bound by bilateral agreements to solve matters of dispute peacefully.

And what did the international court do? It upheld India’s position, and New Delhi succeeded while, despite all the hype that it had created, Islamabad failed. Pakistan finds consolation in the fact that “India had to take shelter behind procedural grounds is by itself evidence that it opposes an impartial determination of the issue on the basis of law and justice”. But that is no compensation for its failure.

Even if, hypothetically speaking, there was adjudication by the international court there is enough evidence to suggest that Pakistan’s case would have come a cropper. There is an agreement between India and Pakistan that prohibits military aircraft of all types from flying within 10 kilometres of the international boundary.

So even if the Pakistani contention that the wreckage of the aircraft was found two kilometres within its border is taken to be correct, as against India’s declaration that the major portion of the debris was lying between 500-600 metres from the boundary, Islamabad would still be found in violation of an agreement.

If that was not enough, the question would then arise as to what the Atlantique was doing in the area in the first place? A French made aircraft, the Atlantique is used for surveillance of the seas, as well as signal interception and intelligence. In peace times the former task of surveillance of the seas is not of as considerable importance as is the latter role.

Through signal interception, which then enhances signals intelligence, a country is able to break the transmission codes and check the responses of its neighbour, an enemy, or even a potentially hostile country. An Australian navy P3C Orion did more than the same to an Indian navy destroyer a couple of years back even though New Delhi and Canberra do not put each other under any one of the three categories mentioned above. But then Australia is, well, different.

So on that August day, the Atlantique began its ill-fated, and what Islamabad likes to call, training mission. There is of course no flying training conducted on an Atlantique, the only training being surveillance and interception. Which is what it was doing on that day, as it had done numerous times earlier. Maintaining radio silence, as all surveillance aircraft do, the Atlantique had ignored repeated warnings on previous violations of the agreement and the international boundary.

On this last occasion as well the Atlantique ignored the warnings. That is, until its cockpit registered a missile lock-on signal, and it suddenly veered north from its east-west flight path. Before the aircraft reached the international boundary, a missile from an Indian air force MiG-21 bis had already struck one of its engines. Had the MiG-21 fired another missile the Atlantique would have dropped within Indian territory, for then both its engines would have been destroyed.

There was only one missile, and the laws of physics just about took the aircraft across the border. The same laws that took two Indian MiGs across the line of control in the early days of the Kargil conflict. And as it went down across on its side of the border, the Atlantique dropped substantial amounts of its wreckage on the Indian side as well. Thus both countries were able to display evidence to counter each other.

The evidence that was not displayed, however, from the Indian side was the type that would have in any case clinched the case for New Delhi had there been any adjudication. There is enough evidence through what could be labelled as “national technical means” that would back New Delhi’s claims that the Pakistan navy Atlantique had violated an international agreement, then Indian airspace, and that is where it was shot at. National technical means is much like radio silence that surveillance aircraft follow as a matter of principle, for opening up means to expose your capabilities, to awe or to derision.

This is an unwritten charter of duties, violated only in the most extreme of cases. India’s release of tapes of conversations between Pakistan’s army chief and chief of general staff during the Kargil war last year is one of the rare instances when this rule was waived.

But then it was also on account of the Kargil war that the Atlantique was brought down despite having violated Indian airspace on some earlier occasions. Kargil only made India more aware and alert to Pakistan’s penchant for violating agreements, principles and procedures.

So nobody buys the line when Aziz Munshi declares, “I am not totally disappointed with the decision...this is in fact a step forward. This means that all disputes, including the Kashmir dispute, must be settled through peaceful means.” How is that for a sense of humour, or delusion, or even ignorance about agreements, principles and procedures? India need only rest its arguments in that case.    


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