When Gordon Brown made his farewell phone call to Barack Obama shortly before resigning as prime minister of the United Kingdom in May 2010, he had a plea to the president of the United States of America. He urged Obama to do more for resolving the Kashmir dispute and to make peace between India and Pakistan enduring, according to those who have seen the contents of that phone conversation.
Preparations for Obama’s visit to India were beginning to fall into place then and Brown felt that the US could be more effective as a regional peacemaker in South Asia if the White House paid more attention to what Bill Clinton had described exactly a decade earlier as “the most dangerous place on earth”, in a reference to the line of control in Kashmir.
The Labour prime minister’s reasons for the plea may have been more than altruistic. His party has a strong Kashmiri — and for that matter, a large pro-Pakistani lobby — and Brown was pandering to that lobby as he prepared to be a backbencher in the House of Commons representing his Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency.
As the LoC flares up once again, it is instructive to recall Obama’s response to the British prime minister’s unexpected plea. No one is doing more for peace between India and Pakistan than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the US president pointed out to Brown and went on to enumerate in some detail his belief that Singh is totally committed to peace with his westerly neighbour. He then threw the ball back at Brown by asking what more could anyone else do than what Singh was attempting in order to create peace. The occupant of 10 Downing Street had no answer.
This sideshow to the Anglo-American farewell summitry via cross-Atlantic telephone line deserves to be recalled because relations between India and Pakistan have nosedived even as Singh is preparing to travel to the White House in September in what many people who count in Washington believe may be the prime minister’s farewell meeting with the US president. It is important for New Delhi to urgently choreograph and manage the debate about events within Jammu and Kashmir and along the LoC if Singh’s visit is not to be hijacked by the distasteful hyphen of America equating India with Pakistan all over again.
Recent books by retired South Block diplomats have served the potentially useful purpose of recalling the nightmare scenarios in the 1990s when successive Indian prime ministers were torn between a desire to be received in the White House, and at the same time, dreading the prospect of being lectured to on various formulations of the later Clinton theme that South Asia is “the most dangerous place on earth”.
Unlike now, India was blamed more often than not in Washington in those days for the tensions with Pakistan. Every prime minister who was to meet a US president worried about being pressured on this score, these authoritative writings have confirmed. The drama at the United Nations human rights commission in Geneva during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s leadership of government, when it was feared that Pakistan may just about manage to get away with introducing Kashmir into the commission’s agenda, was particularly worrisome then.
It is tempting to crucify the soft-spoken A.K. Antony, who has no secret agenda, over his handling of a string of recent incidents along the LoC. But if there is a diplomatic regress to the 1990s on the international stage over relations with Pakistan because political parties, both big and small, are desperately chasing votes in an election season, it may take longer, if at all, to get out of that syndrome from the past and restore the status quo.
In the politically rewarding rush to pillory Antony, it is worrisome that the real culprits responsible for mishandling the aftermath of last week’s fatal ambush in the Poonch sector have got away scot-free. So far. These culprits are the same people who were responsible for creating a diplomatic minefield over Balochistan at a meeting between Singh and Pakistan’s then prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, in Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2009.
According to information available to this columnist, before Antony went to Parliament accusing “approximately 20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniform” of killing five Indian soldiers and wounding another, the defence secretary, R.K. Mathur, ran a different, more strongly-worded draft with the prime minister’s office. In the PMO, at least one senior official who was responsible for courting disaster in Sharm el-Sheikh demanded proof from Mathur that the Pakistan army had any responsibility for the ambush as implied in that draft statement.
Mathur developed cold feet and a fresh, watered down draft was put up before the defence minister to be read out in Parliament. Because emotions were running high among Opposition benches on account of the watered down statement which appeared to exonerate the Pakistan army, aberrations in Antony’s statement that should have been obvious were overlooked.
The defence minister said, for instance, that “infiltration attempts have doubled this year”. He further said there has been an 80 per cent rise in ceasefire violations so far in 2013 compared to the previous year. These assertions, which were retained in the reworked statement, are clearly not tantamount to letting the Pakistan army off the hook.
As Antony said in the Lok Sabha two days later, “We all know that nothing happens from (the) Pakistan side of the Line of Control without support, assistance, facilitation and often, direct involvement of the Pakistan Army.” This was what he would have conveyed to Parliament in the first place, had the PMO not gutted the defence secretary’s first draft. Moreover, Antony said in his first statement that the army had foiled 17 infiltration attempts this year. It is obvious that attempts of such frequency cannot be freelance operations by some ragtag jihadis. The inevitable inference is that they had to be backed by the infrastructure of a professional army.
Most significant of all, the defence minister told Parliament on the day after the fatal ambush that “the Indian Army successfully eliminated 19 hardcore terrorists... along the Line of Control and in the hinterland” off the LoC in the previous six weeks. Antony did not go into details, but this columnist has learnt that in view of the 100 per cent increase in attempts to infiltrate terrorists from across the LoC, the security forces have launched tactical operations to eliminate local support that provides the spadework for such infiltration.
At least four Pakistanis residing along the LoC were killed two weeks ago in one such operation. However, information about such tactical successes has been suppressed and the needle of suspicion for the silence is pointing towards the PMO, which has been anxious to create good atmospherics for a meeting between Singh and Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York in September.
Because of such bad judgment, just as in Sharm el-Sheikh four years ago, what could have been a good augury in Indo-Pakistan relations, with potentially historic changes in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, is in a shambles. It is now doubtful if Singh can reap any benefit from an initiative which saw his special envoy, Satinder K. Lambah, reaching out to Sharif in Lahore even before he was sworn into office and the new prime minister reciprocating the gesture by sending to New Delhi an equally veteran diplomat with remarkable sensitivity to India, Shahryar Khan.