India and Pakistan: Facing common threats from within

Jihadis in Pakistan. Zealots in India. Ramesh Thakur on how two old enemies can change their narrative.
By: /
January 8, 2015
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Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

Perspective on Pakistan: Rooting out the poison of religious extremism

The slaughter of 132 schoolchildren and nine adults in an army school in Peshawar on Dec. 16 by the Pakistani Taliban marked a new low in terrorist depravity. The massacre of the innocents brings to a head several pathologies that need addressing and to that end could prove a catharsis for Pakistan.

An Indian, even an expatriate Indian, writing on Pakistan is always a tricky issue. Only Pakistanis can change their national narrative. The dominant narrative is that India is Pakistan’s mortal enemy kept in check by a powerful army and lately by nuclear weapons. Jihadists have been nurtured as strategic assets in an asymmetric war with the bigger neighbour.

The Peshawar massacre proves that Pakistan’s existential threat is from jihadism, not India. The latter can help to contain and then defeat the former, not the other way round.

If it is to purge the toxic Koran-Kalashnikov culture and escape the seemingly inexorable descent into the nightmare of a jihadi state, Pakistan must confront three demons: the false distinction between good and bad jihadists; the excessive influence of the military; and the obsession with India as the enemy. The last will require a matching change of mindset in New Delhi.

Pakistan produces more religiously motivated terrorism than can safely be exported. The primary validating argument behind its creation was negative: Muslims of the subcontinent cannot be ruled by a Hindu-majority government. By contrast, an anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan posture is not part of India’s core identity. The only other glue that could bind the new country was Islam. No other country has named its capital after a religion.

Starting with the dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military has harnessed religious hatred to its strategic goals against Afghanistan and India. But as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously said in 2011, if you keep snakes in your backyard trained to bite your neighbours, some day their venom will be aimed at you. Just as externally India might prove to be the main salvation rather than threat, so domestically the anti-jihadists might prove to be Pakistan’s saviours, not traitors.

To rescue the state, Pakistan’s military-intelligence services must be brought under full civilian control and their links to Islamist militants severed. As a common saying has it, in other countries the state has an army but in Pakistan the army has a state. The enmity with India explains the role of the army as an enduring force of Pakistani politics that rules the country even when civilians are in office. The inflated threat from India validates its size, power and influence, dwarfing all other institutions.

The sorry record of double dealing, deceit and denial of Pakistan-based attacks in Afghanistan and India was based on a four degrees of separation — between the government, army, intelligence service (ISI), and terrorists — whose plausibility has faded and it no longer provides a convenient alibi to escape accountability.

The army harnessed Islamism against civilian political parties at home, to maintain control over Afghanistan, and against India. Control over Afghanistan through the Taliban gave Pakistan strategic depth against India. Washington never confronted the core of Pakistani duplicity under General Pervez Musharraf who deposed elected PM Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and controlled both the military and the state until 2008. During his rule the Islamists survived, regrouped, built up their base and launched more frequent raids across the border in Afghanistan but also increasingly deep into the heart of Pakistan itself. Slowly but surely, Pakistan descended into the failed state syndrome.

What kind of Pakistan does India want? One on the brink of state collapse and failure, splintered into multiple centres of power, with large swathes of territory under the control of religious zealots and terrorists? Or a stable, democratic and economically powerful Pakistan minus the influence of the three “Ms”: the military, militants and mullahs?

Fearing for ripple effects on its own many potential separatist movements, India professed to having a vested interest in a united, stable Pakistan. This is no longer so straightforward. For over a decade, as Pakistan has teetered on the brink of collapse and disintegration, India has prospered and emerged as a major player in world affairs.

Yet South and Southwest Asian terrorism are indeed indivisible. Many reminders of the enduring relevance of the India equation to Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan have come from U.S. intelligence confirmations of the links of Pakistan’s ISI to the terrorist attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan.

India has suffered its own blowback in the past. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stoked the embers of Sikh religious extremism as a tool of domestic politics. When she tried to put out the fire once it grew into an out of control monster, she was killed by her Sikh bodyguards in bloody vengeance in 1984. Her son Rajiv was killed in 1991 by Tamil Tiger suicide terrorists who had been nurtured as an instrument of state policy by his government. The formula ‘one country’s terrorist is a neighbour’s freedom fighter’ has passed its use by date. All South Asian countries must recognize that terrorism is a common menace and combine forces to exterminate the scourge from the region.

Outlook in India: Hindu zealots are a drag on the country’s great-power destiny

The massacre of Pakistani schoolchildren last month also forced Indians to confront a critical question: what kind of Pakistan do they want for a neighbour? Prime Minister Narendra Modi must answer an even more fundamental question: what kind of India does he want? One that is trapped in the prison of yesterday’s glory, where ancient Hindu texts replace modern science and technology in the classrooms; or one that puts in place policy settings to achieve and maintain greatness today and tomorrow?

The built-in dilemma finds expression in an on-going tussle between the cultural and economic right wings of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The former helped to bring the BJP to power but only the latter can ensure that power is used for the common good. Modi has thus far failed to confront obscurantists in his own party. If India is not to follow the same path to the dead-end of religious extremism, Modi must act decisively against them and reaffirm that India has no future other than as a tolerant, multi-religious, secular polity.

Just as the dead hand of the state held India back under the misguided socialism and perverted secularism of the Congress Party, so the dead hand of Hindutva (the agenda of Hinduism) may hold back India’s march to greatness under the BJP. A prominent BJP leader openly declares India to be a Hindu nation. A BJP lawmaker praises the killer of Mahatma Gandhi as a patriot. The education minister wants German to be replaced with Sanskrit in central government schools. While one minister suggested in the past that Muslims critical of government policy should move to Pakistan (should I have to go back to India if I criticise any Abbott government policy?), another crudely denigrates Christians and Muslims as bastards.

For fanatics, Hindu girls do not marry Muslim men of their own volition but are victims of “love jihad” aimed at converting India into a Muslim nation. The most recent manifestations of Hindu chauvinism have targeted the reconversion of Christians and Muslims as symbols of ghar wapsi (homecoming), on the grounds that in 1,200 years of Muslim (culminating in the Mughal Empire) and Christian (British Empire) rule, state power was used to convert Hindus to these two foreign religions. The campaign aims to ‘purify’ India.

A year ago, analysts of Indian politics could be divided into two camps. The cultural elite in the country (and their spokespersons abroad who were given space in international media commentary that was as faulty in its understanding of India’s political cross-currents as it was unrepresentative of Indian opinion at home or among the diaspora) warned of gloom and doom if the Muslim-bashing Modi was elected PM. The minority, with its ears closer to the political ground zero, reported on the growing disenchantment with the failures of the incumbent Congress Party-led government under PM Manmohan Singh.

No one talked of a sudden surge in Hindu religious sentiment that would carry Modi to power in New Delhi, yet Modi has unwisely allowed Hindu zealots to distract attention and energy from his pressing development and good governance agenda. In an opinion poll for The Times of India, published on New Year’s day, 68 percent said they want the government to focus on jobs and development, only 14 percent picked the Hindutva agenda, and 16 percent said they wanted both. Moreover, 62 percent believe Hindu hotheads are adversely affecting the government’s development agenda. Sentiment could hardly be clearer and the government will ignore it at its political peril.

So far at least three-fourths of respondents believe the Modi government has done a good/very good job and their expectations of it remain high. The challenge for Modi is how to retain the loyalty of the BJP’s nice Hindu support while responding to and rewarding his broader coalition of the new aspirational classes. He cannot forever finesse the choice.

The apprehensions of those who fear the BJP as the Trojan horse of Hindu fascism are fed by the vitriolic hatred aimed at Muslims by many BJP leaders. The hopes of those who believe the party has exhausted the mobilizing potential of Hindu chauvinism and must tack to the centre-right to survive in the rough and tumble marketplace of Indian politics rest on the tradition of Hindu tolerance and the middle ground of politics that imposes the restrictions of respectability and punishes extremism. The genius of India’s greatness lies in a central tenet of Hinduism: sarva dharma sambhava (all dharmas – truths/religions – are equal and in harmony).

By the end of his 10-year tenure, Manmohan Singh was widely ridiculed for being weak and ineffectual in failing to stand up for his beliefs against old-style socialists and interventionists in his party. To escape a similar fate, Modi should send out Bill Clinton’s brilliantly successful campaign slogan to all party members: “It's the economy, stupid.”

And stop his party’s Hindu zealots from subverting a laser-like focus on improving public safety, strengthening the rule of law, building infrastructure, eliminating corruption, minimizing the cost inputs and regulatory burden on business, switching priority from stopping imports to promoting exports, and investing in education and skills development for the 21st century.