Darkness at high noon

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LARGE sections of the population in both India and Pakistan are somewhat relieved that their governments are not treating the Agra summit as a failure and are, instead, insisting that disagreement on one point does not cancel out the agreement reached on many other points. While this is good as far as it goes and keeps hopes of the subcontinent’s return to sanity alive, it is difficult to conceal the disappointment caused to the peace-loving majority in South Asia and the world at large. This disappointment provides a measure of the expectations the masses in the two countries had and which the authorities on both sides must not ignore during the months ahead.

It would be wrong to attribute public expectations of the summit entirely to the media hype or the atmosphere created by the barrage of chatter unleashed by the TV channels during and around the talks between Prime Minister Vajpayee and General Musharraf. There were numerous factors that had persuaded ordinary citizens as well as many opinion-makers to attach unprecedented importance to the latest India-Pakistan encounter. Whatever way one interprets the Agra summit these factors still command attention.

One of these factors is a very widespread realisation of the prohibitive cost the two peoples have paid for five decades of hostility. Millions of people on both sides have been denied the fruits of independence as their aspirations for release from poverty and for equality of opportunity remain unrealised. The state of suspended hostility between the two neighbours has claimed resources that should have been used to alleviate the sufferings of the underprivileged. It has also adversely affected the people’s right to genuine democracy and rule by laws that could approach contemporary concepts of justice. Further, it has strengthened the forces of religious bigotry and intolerance in both societies. The mood of the common people is – enough is enough.

Second, there is a clearer realisation in both Indian and Pakistani societies that the failure of their states to develop a normal and cooperative relationship has obstructed South Asia’s progress towards regional understanding, and has condemned the region to backwardness and wastage of resources. The interest of all South Asian states in general and of India and Pakistan in particular has made a change of course imperative.

Third, the need to adjust to the challenges visible on the horizon has become increasingly manifest. The new global economic order is making demands on both India and Pakistan that cannot be met without extracting huge sacrifices from their already emaciated civil societies.

Their leaders are not presumed to be so blind as not to see the possibilities of reducing the hazards through bilateral and regional cooperation. A new cold war seems to have begun with its epicentre close to South Asia. A lack of understanding between two of its largest states could make the people pawns in another great rivalry between two camps and which will cause them unimaginable hardships.

Finally, many people believe that an unfriendly fate has placed the affairs of India and Pakistan in the hands of parties that have been traditionally blamed as the strongest advocates of confrontation. Consequently, if they feel impelled to bury the hatchet they should meet with feebler opposition than might have been the case had some other parties attempted this mission.

Thus, the possibility of India-Pakistan understanding offered by the Vajpayee-Musharraf parleys awakened a remarkably strong desire for peace across the borders. The summit idea received overwhelming public support in both countries although it was not possible to ignore the potential of dissidents to derail the goodwill train.

However, it seems the decision-makers on either side could not arrive at the people’s wavelength. Each side probably convinced itself that the other party was speaking from such a position of weakness that it might be prepared to yield more ground than ever before. Some of the grounds for such thinking are evident.

The Pakistan establishment believed that India’s failure to pacify the political opinion in its part of Jammu and Kashmir, the operations of the militant groups in that area and the advice of the Indian military command to seek a political means to control the situation were factors strong enough to compel New Delhi to seek a settlement with Pakistan. Perhaps it was also felt that the gains India expected from normalising its relations with Pakistan, including enhancement of Vajpayee’s stature as a peace-maker, would persuade it to offer Pakistan greater accommodation than before.

The Indian side thought it could extract concessions from Musharraf by offering him possibilities of easing his legitimacy and economic crises. It also perhaps believed that by focusing on terrorism it could place Pakistan at a disadvantage at the bar of international opinion.

Each side thus apparently approached the summit with hopes of securing maximum gains to itself. The attempts made by Vajpayee and Musharraf to seek broad support at home on the eve of the summit were premised on their adherence to their traditional stands. While both sides concentrated on maximum gains they sought due attention was not paid to what either side
could offer on its part. Both sides obviously misinterpreted the central issue, at least what it was in the minds of the people.

It is a pity that the aides to the summiteers did not realise that when Musharraf insisted on Kashmir being the central issue and Vajpayee focused on cross-border militancy (terrorism in his language and fight for freedom in Musharraf’s vocabulary) they were talking about the same matter though from different perspectives and indeed missing the central issue.

The central issue is the need to establish peace and good relations between India and Pakistan so that they can begin a new era of cooperation and mutual good. The real flaw in the positions adopted at the summit was the inability to perceive that it was possible to force the parties to a settlement on Kashmir and put an end to cross-border militancy and yet fail to establish peace.

What happened at the summit did not surprise many. Vajpayee and Musharraf were both riding their horses with heavy handicaps; both had in their camps powerful elements that agreed to the summit only if it advanced their exclusive agendas. Each became extra-sensitive to any suggestion that it was yielding more than what was permitted by its hawks. Some indiscretion by Sushma Swaraj and some inappropriate rhetoric by Pervez Musharraf at a breakfast meeting with Indian editors made each side apprehensive of losing the game to the other side. What should have been a sincere search for a common meeting ground degenerated into a duel for higher ground. Nobody should be deceived by stories of disagreement over the wording of a joint declaration. The sentiment that had made the summit possible had been superceded by the interlocutors’ considerations of their political vulnerability.

The success of damage control/salvage rhetoric now being offered depends on both sides correcting their sights. The advice being given to decision-makers to structure their future talks and resume them with due preparation should not be misinterpreted. What is being suggested is not merely that each side should equip itself with a proper brief but that each brief should recognise certain fundamental realities. The objective of normalisation should be defined in terms of the peoples’ clearly articulated demand for durable peace. Kashmir needs to be addressed not because India and Pakistan have been fighting and haggling over it but because the people of Jammu and Kashmir have fundamental rights which neither India nor Pakistan can curtail to suit their interests. Both sides must eschew a military option. The killing of innocent Kashmiris is a crime against humanity whether the weapon of death is wielded by an Indian soldier or by a so-called ‘jihadi’. The people of Kashmir need peace to be able to express their will and to throw up representatives who can speak for them with due regard to their secular and pluralist interests.

Further, each side should realise that all the demons are not on the other side; that the more dangerous species have been allowed to fatten themselves on both sides. The way to a settlement cannot be paved until these enemies of peace are effectively dealt with by depriving them of their self-assumed monopoly of national or some other holy interest.

The high road to peace should not be seen as an autobahn that bypasses human settlements. It has to be a path not only visible to the people but also accessible to them because the people alone can give their masters the courage and the strength to shed their unbearable baggage and to rise above themselves. Peace between India and Pakistan does not depend on either side securing victory over the other; it depends on both sides’ willingness to sacrifice. Forty years ago the sacrifice needed was smaller than today’s bill. A year hence the bill may become too high to be met by anyone.

I. A. Rehman


Nepal: where to from here?

AFTER their country disappeared from the international news radar, following extensive coverage of the Royal carnage of 1 June 2001, the Nepalis were left to confront the same long-standing problems they have faced for some years, away from the glare of the foreign media. The problems were bad enough before 1 June. They have only gotten worse since then.

The Maoist movement has become extremely powerful. After King Birendra’s death, Maoist leaders Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai made public several articles and statements in which they portrayed the late King as a patriot and added, ‘On some national questions we and King Birendra had similar thoughts.’ On some matters, they claimed that they and King Birendra ‘had been making an undeclared working unity.’ The Maoists had hoped that these statements would add strategic confusion in a society reeling with the shock of the death of the King and several members of his family. This confusion, in their view, would help engender widespread public protests to somehow make Nepal leapfrog into a post-monarchical state.

The demonstrations on the streets of Kathmandu in early June, although repeatedly described by the Indian media as ‘riots’, remained contained. The Maoist hope of riding the wave of general protests never quite materialized. So they went back to doing what they had been doing for the last five plus years. Platoons of the Maoist militia carried out armed attacks against police posts in several parts of the country in late June and July, killing dozens of policemen and kidnapping many more. Their cadres also created an atmosphere of terror in Kathmandu and other urban locations through the planting of homemade bombs. Simultaneously, they stepped up their extortion activities, demanding ‘donations’ of both cash and kind (weapons, food) from all and sundry.

The mainstream political parties have not shown any determination to tackle the Maoist movement even during its sixth year. The Nepali Congress (NC), the party in power and the Nepal Communist Party (United Marxist Leninist – UML), the main opposition in the Lower House of Parliament, are both beset with intra-party factional feuds. Not even the spectre of the complete collapse of the state has prompted them to rise above their usual infatuation with petty intra- and inter-party affairs. Across the board incompetence of these politicians has been apparent for some years. In the wake of the Royal killings, the fact that they could not demand and ensure even a fair and thorough investigation further discredited them in the eyes of the people. This crisis of governance has been felt in all sectors of society.

The unexpected transition in the person of the monarch and popular perception that is understandably not so generous towards the new King Gyanendra, have significantly reduced whatever faith people had in the institution of monarchy as a bastion of hope for Nepal. The perfunctory and shoddy ‘investigation’ of the royal murders has not helped the situation, keeping all kinds of possibilities of conspiratorial vintage alive in people’s minds. The palace seems weak and this perception has additionally contributed to a sense of hopelessness in Nepal.

Given this scenario, how can hope be regenerated in the democratic process in Nepal?

The view that if small illegalities are allowed to flourish in a society they eventually become so big that the entire society is paralyzed, finds resonance in the Nepali experience since 1990. When movement-oriented political groups of the panchayat era turned themselves into political parties, they failed to build their institutions in a way where the small illegalities of party leaders, ideologues and members could be disciplined through transparent, credible but decisive sets of intra-party rules and procedures. Small political misdemeanours were allowed with impunity in each of the big parties (NC, UML) whereby personal aggrandizement, often in the name of helping the party, was overlooked. Although opposition parties often indulged in moral posturing, they too could not come up with specific and decisive laws to tame the excesses of the ruling party. UML – which has led the opposition most of the time – was unable to create a social environment in which laws that would govern party finances (said to be the single-most important source of political corruption in Nepal) could be passed for reasons that need not be repeated here.

On this count even King Birendra could be faulted. Although described as a perfect constitutional monarch, he was unable to curb the personal excesses of certain members of the royal family and thus discipline the institutional paraphernalia of monarchy. In addition, his studied ambiguity regarding the location of the army in post-1990 Nepal helped the Maoists. As one who held the title of supreme commander of the Nepal Army, the king failed to make clear that he was only its symbolic head, as intended by the spirit of the Constitution of Nepal, 1990. In effect, elected governments have so far felt that the army was not really under their command. Given this ambiguity, the Maoists had only to overcome poorly armed and paid, not-trained-for-combat police personnel of the home ministry. This they have done with a thoroughness that is staggering. These weaknesses of politicians and the former monarch – evident in the compromises made by the NC, left forces and the monarch in the making of the present Constitution – have come to haunt the Nepalis.

In what ways would the political mess in Nepal be of interest to her neighbouring countries? Let us first take the case of China. Some commentators, especially those located outside Nepal, have painted the Nepali Maoists as ‘pro-Beijing’! What that means, however, remains unclear. It is true that after the first split of the Communist Party of Nepal in the early 1960s, the Nepali communists formed two groups, one pro-Moscow and the other pro-Beijing. The pro-Moscow group made a truce with King Mahendra and was incorporated within the so-called partyless panchayat system. The other group, the mainstream communist party in Nepal, underwent several divisions through the 1960s. Since the origins of the current Maoists can be traced to the pro-Beijing faction of the early 1960s, commentators perhaps believe that the Nepali Maoists are pro-China. This despite the fact that the ideology mouthed by the Maoists has little in common with post-Deng China, which is primarily interested in strengthening its trade interests in the region. If anything, the only interest the Chinese have in Nepal’s political mess is to ensure that their trade interests in South Asia – however limited compared to South East Asia and other parts of the world – are not hampered by events in Nepal.

Another issue of concern to the Chinese is that they do not want a politically insecure Nepal to become the launching pad of revolutionary or ‘Free Tibet’ movements into Tibet. One could conceivably argue that were the Maoists to come to power in Nepal, they might attempt to ‘export’ their revolution to the adjoining areas to the north and south. Equally, the West supported Free Tibet activists could get greater elbow room in a less stable Nepal (the Nepali state has taken a harsh stand against such activists in recent times). However, given the huge geographical constraints, exporting revolution or Free Tibet activities from Nepal to China is no easy task. And the Chinese are aware of this. In addition, the Royal family in Nepal has expressed consistent sympathy towards the Chinese. It is, therefore, unlikely that the Nepali Maoists will find any support from the Chinese, now or in the future.

But what about Pakistan? If one’s views about Pakistan’s interests in Nepal are informed just by the Indian media, then one can be excused for thinking that Nepal is infested with Pakistani diplomats and ISI agents. But the reality is quite different. It is entirely believable that Pakistani ISI agents are active in Nepal and use its territory to plan and operate some of its activities in India. However, the number of such agents is a small fraction of Indian RAW agents working in Nepal. Knowledgeable insiders in the Indian bureaucracy and the military privately acknowledge that there are more ISI agents working in any big Indian city than the whole of Nepal. No matter what is being said in India, Nepal does not support ISI activities of any kind on its territory. It is more a victim of Indo-Pak rivalry.

The Pakistanis may wish to somehow reduce Indian influence in Nepal but they realize that this is just wishful thinking for several reasons. The Nepali Hindu establishment is anti-Muslim to its core. The Pakistanis can do little to change this psychological and social fact. The official diplomatic strength of the Pakistani mission in Kathmandu remains small. There is hardly any trade between Nepal and Pakistan, and almost no people-to-people contact. Given such a scenario, political chaos in Nepal probably does not attract much useful attention in Pakistan.

That leaves us with India. We need not rehearse long-standing Indian interests in Nepal. The ISI bogey that India raises with respect to Nepal must be understood more as a frustration of the Indian ruling establishment with its inability to find a lasting solution to the problem of Kashmir. Instead of working with Pakistan, the Indian bureaucracy finds it easier to blame Nepal for ‘allowing’ ISI to operate from its territories. The psychology behind this blaming game is easy to understand.

Whatever the hype about India’s IT success and southern India’s dominance in the IT imagination, its political psyche is still dominated by the politics of the so-called cow belt. It is this psyche that governs the response to the severe levels of violence, from Kashmir to the Indian North East. Further political instability in Nepal would mean that the region north of the central cow belt could potentially export Maoist inspired violence into the adjoining Indian territories. There could even be close working relations between Nepali and Indian Maoists operating in North India. This presumably is the major source of worry for Delhi as it makes an effort to understand Nepali Maoists who categorically describe India as an expansionist country. This would explain the more stringent policing of an otherwise ‘open’ Indo-Nepal border in recent times.

The army in Nepal has recently been asked to carry out ‘integrated security and development packages’ in those areas of the country most affected by the Maoist movement. In addition, in mid-July a small contingent of the army was asked by the government to secure the release of more than 70 policemen held hostage by the Maoists in the district of Rolpa. At the time of writing, the standoff between the military and the Maoists continues. Whatever the outcome of this single mobilization, we would do well to remember that activating the army alone will not solve the current political mess in Nepal. This move was perhaps necessary to counter the Maoists and their extortion-based livelihood, but much else will have to be done if Nepali democracy is to be recharged.

For a start, the objectives of involving the army must be clarified. To check further violence on the part of the Maoist militia and de-arm them must be the primary goals of army mobilization. De-arming would also involve dialogue between the Maoists and the government. This means activating all possible channels of dialogue. A political solution to the Maoist problem has to be the goal of dialogue.

Elsewhere, regenerating hope in Nepali democracy demands action to reduce both small and big illegalities within the machinery of political parties. The UML and other left parties will have to form new alliances to challenge the Maoists ideologically. The government must also do everything possible to enhance the working freedom of print and electronic media, non-governmental organizations and other civil society solidarities. Without such initiatives, a weapons-based ‘solution’ to the current Nepali situation is bound to fail.

Pratyoush Onta