On Dealing With Contradictory Signals

Arun Shourie


 

 

    "I shall travel back with him," says Nawaz Sharif one day on taking the bus to Delhi with the Indian Prime Minister. "We will solve half the problems on the way back." Four days have not passed, and Pakistan observes "Solidarity-with-Kashmir Day." All the usual venom is spewed forth again. What is one to make of these signals?

    Look at the same thing from Pakistan's point of view. Bal Thackeray declares that Pakistan's Cricket team will not be allowed to play in India. The RSS Journal, Organiser, counsels the Vajpayee Government to cancel the engagement: we can live without Cricket, it says. Vajpayee sees the series through. "But why go by bus to Pakistan?" thunders a "saint" at the VHP's Dharma Sansad, "Go by a tank... Instead of a match on the Cricket field, there should be a final match with Pakistan on the battlefield..." Should policy makers in Pakistan base their responses on what Vajpayee has been able to see through in this one round? After all, from their eyes, he would seem to be just an individual; true, he happens to be heading a Government at the moment, their analysts will be arguing, but it is a precarious Government. Or should they base their responses on what many there are certain to be arguing, is the more durable "ideological trend" represented by the Shiv Sena, the VHP, the RSS?

    In a word, how should one respond when someone who for fifty years has conceived of himself, as or whom we have conceived as an enemy sends contradictory signals?

    To dismiss the favourable signal can cause one to miss out on a rare opportunity -- an opportunity to reverse hostilities of fifty years. To disregard the symptom that signifies a continuation of old attitudes can expose one to grave danger. Prudence, therefore, consists in heeding both: proceed on the basis of the signal which offers an opening, but remain alert so that, in case it turns out to have been a ruse, or for effect -- in the current case, for instance, if the peace flag is being waved merely for the benefit of Americans -- the country remains safe.

    That yields an operational rule: suspend from our side things which may be construed as hostile; and continue to defeat everything hostile from the other side. To continue with the former -- for instance, rancorous rhetoric -- can become an argument in the hands of those in the other country who are opposed to charting a new course. To allow any hostile activity of the other to succeed on one's soil -- for instance, in the current case, ISI's assistance to insurgents in the Northeast -- can become an equally potent argument for those in the other country who want to persevere on the old course.

    Of course, balancing one's response to the two signals remains the key. That and remaining alert -- not only must the options be kept under constant review, the other side should have reason to see that they are under review all the time. The suspension of retaliatory steps for too long, to take one example, can strengthen those on the other side who argue that the mode of pursuing hostilities they have chosen is costless; equally, it can lead the adversary into believing that deception works -- that all that is required to wave those peace flags every now and then. Either conclusion will cause it to do things which will in the end force the victim of the deception to retaliate. And relations will be worse than they were before the peace overtures began. "See, you can never trust them," those who opposed responding to the overtures will say.

    The second rule is to keep from expecting miracles. They should never be led to believe that there is some magic switch that the leaders are now going to turn, and that this switch will solve everything. Nor that results will be swift in coming. Quite the contrary. Leaders must at every opportunity drill in the opposite -- that there are bound to be many setbacks, that progress cannot but be a step, a tiny step at a time. That the principal leaders on the two sides are committed to the new course is seldom enough -- look at how close Hamas has come so many times to derailing the Mid-east Peace Process.

    Therefore: expect impediments, and convert them into opportunities. Imagine what would have happened had the Government give to Bal Thackerey's threat: all sorts of conspiracy theories would have been floated; and perceptions in Pakistan would have been further embittered. Because the Government stood firm, the threat worked to the opposite effect: it proved that the Indian Government sincerely believes that people-to-people exchanges are the way ahead, that they are good for both countries.

    As set-backs are inevitable, leaders on both sides have to be robust enough, determined enough, and durable enough to resume the process after each reversal. Given the State of affairs in the two countries, two factors that may introduce uncertainties are obvious. First, this in the age of revolving-door governments: initiatives taken by one leader can end with him; even if he is of the same mind as the leader he replaces, the new leader will have other worries to contend with in his first few months, and many things can happen in that period to derail the process. Second, it is also the age of adversary politics: just because one Prime Minister has taken the initiative, his opponents will denounce it -- recall the minatory warnings from fundamentalists that came in the wake of Nawaz Sharif's overture. At the least, they will try to belittle the initiative -- recall the Congress response to the "going-by-bus" idea: it should not be a gimmick, the Party proclaimed, implying that a gimmick is what the Party feared it was, exactly the kind of implication which will be grist to the hawks' mill in Pakistan.

    The general rule is: deafen yourself to statements. Of fringe groups. Of the opposition. Even of the leader who has reached out. He may have to go on saying several of the old things for domestic consumption -- for the domestic population has to be weaned by degrees from the conditioning of decades. The rule thus is, do not react to statement: instead, see what is happening on the ground. For us the criterion should be, "Is assistance which Pakistan is giving to insurgents in the Northeast waning or swelling?" to this reality we should react, the statement we should ignore.

    Naturally, a Government has to assess not just the intention of the other to sue for peace, but also his ability to wage war. In this one must guard in particular against two sources of information -- the press of the other side, and the intelligence agencies of one's own.

    If one were to assess the prospects of either India or Pakistan solely by reading the press of that country, one is certain to conclude that the country is on the brink of collapse and disintegration. That sort of an impression can lead one to delay one's response to an overture -- just wait a while, many will argue, the place is coming apart, we will soon be rid of the problem forever. But that picture which the press communicates has more to do with the nature of the media, and what it considers news than it has to do with the nature of reality in either country. We newspapermen focus almost exclusively on problems, on what is going wrong. But that is not all that is going on in the country.

    What holds for newspapers, holds even more for specialised agencies, and for activists most of all. An agency like a Human Rights Commission, a group of activists dedicated to protecting the rights of some particular group will, by the very nature of its assignment, be forever looking for atrocities, injustice and the rest: an observer going by the reports of these agencies alone will conclude that the society is coming apart. The Government of the country should take its press and the reports of these agencies seriously -- to see what it has to alleviate; the Government in other country should not form a view of the first one's prospects from that press or those reports.

    The position is the reverse when it comes to intelligence agencies. They are forever doing the opposite -- that is, they are only too ready to conclude that the other country is on the verge of collapse, that all it requires is just one more push. That is how they establish the case for a "bold move," for "one decisive intervention." Pakistan has tried open warfare. That having failed, its agencies and rulers thought they had hit upon the infallible, and low-cost solution: sponsored terrorism. Though over 23,000 have been killed as a result, India has not broken up. The insurrections in Punjab and Kashmir have been rolled back. But the moral which agencies such as the ISI will be drawing from the failure will be that the next time round the outcome is bound to be different: the people have once again become disillusioned with the Governments they elected in Punjab, in Kashmir, ISI analysts will be reporting; the Government at the centre is as good as non-existent, they will be reporting. So one "decisive operation", and we are home...

    When confronted with such advice, the policy-maker should ask some questions of the agencies. Indeed, it would be better to preempt the advice, and order an internal study. How often in the past have the agencies forecast that such and thus operation will cause the other country to disintegrate? For instance, how often did the ISI assure Zia or his successors that the spark it was lighting would become a conflagration, that the people were on the verge of breaking out in rebellion, that all they needed were arms, and a few examples of successor? Did those rebellions break out? And what explanations did the agencies come up with to explain away their forecasts?

    Is the advice they are giving now based on information that is any more reliable than the past, does it rest on fewer uncertainties?

    Furthermore, a Nawaz Sharif should ask, "What do you advise I do if India does not break up, what should I do if it does not give in?" Second, "By continuing to inflict killing, am I going to be fortifying the moderates who are arguing for peace, or am I strengthening the hand of those who are urging that the only way to make us desist is to do the same thing to us?" Third, "What is the scale of the effort which will make India break, or reconcile itself to breaking up? Can we mount, and sustain an effort on that scale? Faced with that level of effort, will India just keep bearing deaths and proceeding calmly to certain break up? Will it not launch a counter-operation?"

    There is an asymmetry between Pakistan and India in this regard: intelligence agencies and the armed forces have never had the clout that they have in Pakistan; it is that much more difficult for a Pakistan Prime Minister to over-ride them. Nor are those agencies the only ones that will present hurdles there: they have spawned a dozen jihadi groups -- they have become monsters in their own right by now. And with the success in Afghanistan, these organizations have acquired great prestige. Nor do they float in the air; they are backed by the network of madrasahs right across Pakistan -- there were just about 140 madrasahs in all of Pakistan in 1947, today there are over 2,500 in Punjab alone with a quarter million "Taliban". For these organizations, as much as for the intelligence agencies and the Army, jihad against India, as Pakistani papers say, is gosht-roti (bread and butter).

    The agencies as well as the jihad groups and madrasahs have become a boomerang for Pakistan, no doubt; by the 18th century syllabus, the Dars-i-Nizami, the graduates of the madrasahs, for instance, are rendered totally unfit for normal, modern occupations; they are the ones who have been swelling the ranks of sectarian organizations, and executing heretics of other sects. Successive Governments have announced several measures to curb and regulate the activities of the organizations and "centres of learning". But none has been able to carry through even one of those steps.

    Moves for conciliation with India will, therefore, turn on the extent to which Pakistani society feels the cost of these organizations to such an extent that, for its own safety and tranquility, it curbs them.

    The agencies and organizations reinforce and broadcast further a murderous ideology, of course, but they are themselves products of that ideology. Till that ideology is turned inside out, the moves for conciliation will be overturned sooner rather than later. That is the real difficulty: for fifty years Pakistanis have been fed an "ideology" of a kind that we just cannot imagine; the ruler who proposes peace with India has to now proclaim that ideology to have been poison.

    For fifty years Pakistanis have been taught that their mission, their Allah-ordanied mission is to break India, that patriotism consists in firing up the youth for that task, that he who sacrifices his life in that cause will have attained shahadat, that he will find Allah waiting for him with the most delectable pleasures in Paradise. If an operation seems to have gone well, the agencies argue, "But how can you ask us to stop when we are winning?" If it has floundered, and hundreds of their own men have been killed, they argue, "But how can we abandon it now? Are all these young men to have died in vain? This temporary setback is just a trial that Allah has put in our way to test our faith..."

    On this also there is asymmetry between the two countries. Because Pakistan has been conceived of in terms of an exclusivist ideology, even when the fundamentalist groups do not get many votes, they set the agenda, they set the norms of fidelity. Here, because the world-view of the overwhelming majority is pluralist and because we have remained a plural society, every individual or group which has adopted an extreme position has been quickly isolated.

    To paraphrase what F C Ikle set out in his excellent study, Every War Must End (Columbia University Press, 1991), a Nawaz Sharif will have to convince the people there, or their own experience would have had to convince people that their mission is not to "avenge" past deaths -- deaths which were completely self-inflicted in that they resulted from pursuing a "cause" which was wrong in the first place -- but to prevent further deaths. That devotion to the country consists not in wearing Pakistan down in the attempt to break India, but in saving it from the consequences of pursuing that objective. That courage does not consist in sending youth -- other people's sons -- to slaughter, but in speaking out that the goal for which they are being sent to death has been wrong. The Pakistani ruler will have to, in a sense, "betray" the very groups which Pakistani Governments have themselves spawned.

    It is a formidable task. Not impossible by any means -- others have reversed course exactly in this way: General de Gaulle was carried to power by Frenchmen and Algerians who expected him to fight to retain Algeria as a colony; once in power, he led France in freeing Algeria; the Algerians who has stood by France were smothered in the sequel, the Frenchmen felt so deeply betrayed that they attempted many times to assassinate the General. But he preserved, and thereby liberated not just Algeria, he liberated France.

    In a world, it is going to be a long haul. The outcome will primarily turn on internal developments within Pakistan.

    For us the lesson is: respond to every gesture -- with a gesture. Never respond to a gesture with a substantive concession in the illusion that doing so will "strengthen the moderate elements in Pakistan." Quite the contrary: once a people have been fed poison, it has to work itself out of the system. It is only when, by long and painful experience, the Pakistani people have themselves come to see that the goal they have been pursuing -- by war yesterday, by terrorism today -- is not going to be attained, when they come to see that the goal itself is wrong, that the organizations and agencies which have been set up to accomplish that goal have become a deadly boomerang, only then will peace finally break out.

    That realisation will come mainly from costs which Pakistani society comes to bear within Pakistan. We have little role to play in that consummation. Save one: by defeating every effort they launch on our side of the border, we will hasten the realisation.

    Thus, respond to every gesture with a gesture, to every substantive step with a substantive step. And in the meantime watch the following:

    • Is Pakistani assistance to violent groups in India lessening?

    • To what extent is Pakistan prepared to move on issues other than securing what it has been saying is "the solution to the Kashmir problem?"

    • What is happening to the standing of fundamentalist and extremist groups within Pakistan?

    • What is happening there to the current staple, the anti-India indoctrination and propaganda -- for instance, what is happening to the content of broadcasts on Pakistan TV, and of the textbooks in their schools?

    These will be the surer guides to what the future holds.


    Daily Excelsior
    February 14, 1999