Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi’s team did not need to work at this one. Sixty-seven years after the Partition, India continues to nurse the inherited insecurity garbed as braggadocio in its relationship with Pakistan. Every government has effectively used it to whip up emotion and, worse, conflate hostility towards our neighbour with patriotism. This has produced a bunch of nationalistic fanatics, irrespective of their political ideology.
What helps them is a fairly large number of the Pakistani elite that gets excited each time they hear the word democracy. It does not matter that the controversy under discussion at the moment is what a sophomore would consider the equivalent of a ‘will the person I ask for a dance at a debutante ball agree?’ Is there fear of rejection? Or is it pugnacity associated with seizing the moment, a term that is used by analysts? “Seize, seize, seize,” the anchor declaims, as the panelists discuss whether Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would and should attend the swearing-in ceremony of Mr. Modi on Monday, May 26. As I write this, there is still breathless anticipation.
This is not an offer for a dialogue, nor is it war. A mature government would deal with it as the casual and courteous gesture it is. The invitation has gone out to all leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries. While Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal may for now be considered ‘safe’, although Indian Mujahideen operatives were in recent times captured while ambling along the Nepal border, there are issues with others.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalaithaa has expressed concern about the invitation to Mahinda Rajapaksa because of the genocide of Tamils. She said in a statement: “…even before the new prime minister and the new government assume office and begin functioning, this unfortunate move of inviting the Sri Lankan President has deeply upset the people of Tamil Nadu and wounded their sentiments all over again. This is tantamount to rubbing salt into the wounds of the already deeply injured Tamil psyche.”
The BJP had earlier also expressed reservations and tough action against what it considers illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and its open welcome to “persecuted Hindus”. There is the perceived Taliban threat from Afghanistan. None of these have come up for debate. Why is Pakistan singled out?
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In what can only be described as a master move, prior to the invitation to Mr. Sharif and on the day Mr. Modi staked his claim to office, a newspaper carried a report with the headline ‘Scared of Narendra Modi, Dawood Ibrahim, gang members go in hiding’: “With Narendra Modi all set to become the prime minister, India’s most-wanted don, Dawood Ibrahim, has relocated himself to an unknown location close to the Af-Pak border, which is under the Taliban. His base has been in Karachi.” An intelligence officer said, “With Modi coming to power, he is mortally afraid.”
Dawood is on the most-wanted list internationally, and during the period he has continued with his operations, yet there have been no sightings of him. He runs a vast empire across the globe, including in India, and it cannot be done with the help of henchmen alone. It need not be emphasised that the underworld has enjoyed political and police patronage.
The ease with which the dons conduct their operations should make it clear that being “mortally afraid” is not in their DNA. It is surprising that the media writes such stories because they are in touch with the underworld members, and aware about how nonchalant they are. Three years ago, a reporter was shot dead due to his contact with Dawood’s rival Chhota Rajan.
This rivalry forms part of how the patriotic ethos is formulated. Both of them were partners. Following the March 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai, Rajan announced that he was leaving the D-Company because as a Hindu it hurt his sentiments. It was said that these blasts were carried out as revenge for the riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in which many Muslims were killed. The term ‘action-reaction’ had not gained political legitimacy then. Rajan became a desh-bhakt (patriot) by default. In 2000, during a shootout in Bangkok, where he had moved to, he was seriously injured. It was not the police that kept tabs on him, but politicians, including the Home Ministry. This was during the NDA regime, the BJP’s coalition government. This report provides a vivid picture: “The following evening, 3,004 km from Bangkok the issue crops up again at a dinner meeting on Friday at Matoshri in Bandra, suburban Mumbai, between Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley.”
The Dawood news now is, therefore, not innocent and cannot be delinked with Indo-Pak dynamics. The Shiv Sena has won by a huge margin in Mumbai during these elections. And, although Arun Jaitley lost in his Amritsar constituency, he is being tipped to be the next Finance Minister.
Raking up the past Home Minister’s media brief to bring Dawood back, India Today does the job of propping up the new man: “PM-elect Narendra Modi had said the issue was not a matter to be discussed openly. ‘Did the US hold a press conference before carrying out the Abbottabad raid?’ he had said referring to the killing of Osama bin Laden by the US forces.”
The media seems to know more than Intel agencies. Osama was in Abbottabad within the line of vision of the Pakistani army, and was assisted by sources within. Some of these sources helped the Navy Seals operation.
If the new PM plans to do an America, it will not be too difficult. The ‘escape’ story is in tandem with the Osama not traceable one. The hunt is ostensibly predatory, but primarily it boosts the ego. The D-Company, known for their love of all things glitzy and debauched, seeking cover in Taliban territory is the stuff that would work well as patriotic parody in the time of fundamentalism.
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Public perception is dictated by the pantomime performed by the leaders. They are still reliving the Partition.
Major General G.D.Bakshi on Times Now channel said that should Nawaz Sharif accept the invitation, it would not go down well with the army and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), who would then organise terrorist strikes in some region of India, other than Delhi.
Such ‘preemptive strikes’ assist in jingoism, and might encourage forces within to create a situation knowing well that a foreign hand would be held responsible. Titillation is dangerous. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been talking about “zero tolerance towards terrorism”. Is this to be the only agenda?
Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi both share a love for capitalists, and nice roads. However, the latter also has some similarities with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan, who believes that the Taliban is crucial to his politics. Modi is beholden, and in many ways answerable, to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extremist organisation that is not answerable to anybody but whose ‘army’ was deployed to assist the BJP in the elections. It is no secret that Modi would not have moved without the RSS go-ahead, which he did get: “The Sangh likened it to Hindu sanskriti wherein even a neighbour with whom one has bad relations is invited to a wedding at home. ‘We might have sour relations with our neighbour but we would still invite them to a wedding at home. This is our culture,’ a BJP source said, adding that it was up to Pakistan whether to honour the invite or not.”
Pakistan for its part has Hafiz Saeed making TV appearances in Pakistan to talk about Indo-Pak relationship. He is supposedly the mastermind behind the 2008 blasts in Mumbai that killed 166 people, and for which Ajmal Kasab was hanged. At the time, Kasab has mentioned how he was brainwashed with images from the Gujarat riots.
Former Pakistan high commissioner to Delhi, Aziz Ahmed Khan, gives a similar reason for the chariness over the invitation: “On the one hand it’s a good gesture that should be taken as a sign of peacemaking by Modi, but at the same time the baggage that he carries makes it very difficult for the government. There is a widespread belief in Pakistan that he was behind the massacres in Gujarat.”
The situation has become so touchy that any Pakistani bringing this up is looked upon with distrust. In a juvenile reaction, some Indian Muslims have taken umbrage over “interference”, while we hold forth on everything from Balochistan to Waziristan. This is precisely what the rightwing wants – pariah patriots who owe fealty simply by pointing out another’s warts.
A hawk policy towards a neighbour you’ve fought four wars with in over six decades is perhaps pragmatic, though to see every gesture as symbolic belies a fear of the unknown. It is not Pakistan, but India that looks unprepared and confused waiting for the ‘enemy’ to legitimise it with his presence.
Peace by any means sounds suspiciously like war by any means.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at Cross Connections