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REWARDS OF LOOSENING UP
- A friendlier approach to Pakistan may be fruitful

“I would request you to stop talking any decision on this crucial issue on 15 December,” wrote the chief minister of Gujarat to the prime minister of India on December 12. The prime minister obeyed him, after issuing a testy rejoinder the same day. It said that it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who first started talking to Pakistan on Sir Creek in 1998; Manmohan Singh, who succeeded Vajpayee, had only continued talking. The prime minister also suspected ulterior motives behind Modi’s “personal” letter, released to the media even before it reached the PM; after all, Modi could have just asked him or someone else in the Central government and got the information without giving the letter to the press. He said that the government was not about to give Sir Creek to Pakistan, and that the edifice of fears constructed by Modi — for instance, that the Central government was about to hand over the sea of oil and gas underneath the Sir Creek, and endanger fishermen, refineries, ports and naval facilities in the area — was based on fiction.

While the two Indians quarrelled, Rehman Malik came from Islamabad, signed a new, more liberal visa regime with India, and went back. While in Delhi, he pointed out that the attack on Bombay on November 26, 2008 was orchestrated by David Headley, a Pakistani-American, a major who had deserted the Pakistani army, Ilyas Kashmiri who was “an enemy of Pakistan”, and three Indians. None of the six belonged to the government of Pakistan, which was therefore innocent of the crime. If anyone was to be blamed, it was the Indian intelligence agencies, which did not pick up the scent of such a spectacular plot. (One of the three Indians is Abu Jundal, who is alleged to have been the handler of the three who unleashed the reign of terror on Bombay on 26/11; he is a Maharashtrian from Beed district. Indian intelligence is that the leader of the operation in Pakistan was a Major Sameer Ali; Malik says he investigated a Major Farooq who, he says, left the army and joined Lashkar-e-Toiba.)

Rehman Malik apparently said all this in a speech he gave to the Observer Research Foundation. Given the sensitivity of the subject, I would have expected the ORF to issue a full, official copy of the speech to the press immediately after it was made. It did not; it would seem from press reports that a summary was issued. It did not conform to what Malik wanted to communicate; so next day, he appeared on NDTV and said that he had not compared the pulling down of Babri Masjid to 9/11 or 26/11. He had arrested Hafeez Saeed, who, according to India, masterminded the 26/11 attacks, but the Lahore high court had released him for lack of evidence; he was prepared to rearrest him, but wanted India to give him stronger evidence. He said that he was unfamiliar with the case of Major Saurabh Kalia, whose corpse, received after the Kargil war, suggested that he was tortured to death by the Pakistani army after it captured him; Malik said that Kalia could have died from bad weather, but that he would go back and make enquiries. Pakistan was prepared to cooperate with India in investigating 26/11 and punishing those responsible, and more generally in advancing India’s interests, but could do so only if there was far more “interaction” at all levels between the two governments. The context is Manmohan Singh’s repeated statements that he will not visit Pakistan unless it punishes those guilty of 26/11. Rehman Malik was suggesting that India should treat the government of Pakistan as a normal government, interested in the rule of law, punishment of terrorists and good relations with India.

This summarizes what I have learnt of the Manmohan-Modi exchange and the Rehman averments from the press. I had formed a certain impression of both as they happened; it changed when I read more carefully. What strikes me is, how the press edits news before reporting them. Initially, I had thought that the story of Modi accusing Manmohan Singh of an intention to give away Sir Creek was absurd; all is fair in love and war, but making such an accusation would reflect more on Modi’s credulity than on Manmohan Singh’s treason. But then, I discovered Modi’s letter, signed by himself; it removed all doubt.

Rehman was portrayed as a diehard Pakistani; for him, Pakistan was right every time. He may well be that; but what he came and did in India does not prove it. What he said in the speech he came to give is still not known; all we know is that some uneducated interpreter made an inaccurate summary and handed it out. It fitted Indian preconceptions, and if we are to go by Rehman’s reaction, it misrepresented him. What he said was that no part of the Pakistani government was behind the attack on Bombay. He said that his government was prepared to punish the perpetrators of the Bombay attack in Pakistan, but wanted the government of India to give him proof that Pakistani courts would accept. We in India are convinced that Hafeez Saeed was the mastermind; he said he had arrested him, but Lahore high court did not find the proof sent by India sufficient.

It is possible to react to this in a natural Indian way, and to say that Malik is a clever pretender: that he means to do nothing, and will always find a sophistic argument for inaction. A more sophisticated response would be that maybe he is serious, maybe he is genuine, but that the Pakistanis are so instinctively anti-Indian that he would never get far in his attempts to reach a détente. This would be the correct response from a cautious Indian policymaker; for him, not cooperating with Pakistan is a zero-risk policy.

But is that policy the best that we can do? We have little power to punish our enemies in Pakistan. The United States of America is far more resourceful than we are; it stole into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden. Its drones keep killing a few dozen people who have incurred its hostility every year. That cannot weaken its enemies in Pakistan significantly. India can do even less; more accurately, what we can do to harm our enemies is close to zero.

So there is no loss, and there may be some profit in making a few friends. We could pick up a few billion dollars in trade. Pakistan is short of holiday destinations; we could easily get a few hundred thousand tourists. We could save millions in transport costs on what we send to Afghanistan through Iran. So, there is a point in making some friends in Pakistan. The visa relaxations Malik came to sign are trivial; only idiotic governments would have thought of them. Our government should make a list of harmless Pakistani businessmen, teachers, doctors etc, and tell them they are free to visit India whenever they want. Let us get to know some Pakistanis; they may turn out to be quite nice. If they are not, we can always resume sullenness.