Mani Shankar Aiyar
Kudos to Home Minister-Rajnath Singh on having transformed SAARC into the South Asian Association for Regional Confrontation. He had no constructive aims. He only wanted to show naive and impressionable Indian saffronites that he had the chutzpah to tick off the Pakistanis on their own soil. That may have won him some brownie points at home, but no one else was impressed. Certainly, the joint conclusions drafted at the end of the meeting made no mention of the pyrotechnics of either India or Pakistan. While the two principals were going for each other’s throats, the SAARC ministers got no further than reiterating that earlier decisions relating to SAARC cooperation on terrorism needed to be acted on. It was clear that the six other SAARC partners were keen only to not be seen taking sides in the India-Pak tu-tu-mein-mein. They had all heard it before.
What has been little reported or not reported at all in the Indian media is Pakistan Interior Minister, Chaudhury Nisar Ali Khan’s riposte to Rajnath Singh. Dawn, on the other hand, reported our Home Minister’s stinging remarks, “Terrorists should not be glorified as ‘martyrs’. There is no good or bad terrorism. Terrorism is terrorism.” What is really unfortunate for us, however, is that same news item also reported what Nisar Ali Khan had said in response: “violence against freedom fighters in a disputed territory under Indian occupation is state-sponsored”. Did we really want our partners in SAARC to hear such language directed at us? Or while we mutter that “talks and terrorism cannot go together”, do we really want to hear the Pakistani Interior Minister telling SAARC and the whole world that “Pakistan is ready to engage in any dialogue process based on mutual respect and dignity with no strings attached”? Dawn told its readers that Rajnath Singh stormed out of the meeting “after losing a war of words with his Pakistani counterpart”. We may argue till Kingdom Come who won and who lost this “war of words” but certainly no higher diplomatic purpose is served in letting the Pakistanis get away with the last word.
We certainly have not been seen by the United States as coming out the victor. While ritually asking Pakistan to “act against groups targeting neighbours”, while Rajnath Singh demands to know how we can cooperate against terrorism with a state that itself sponsors such terrorism, the US State Department’s deputy spokesman, Mark Toner, availed himself of the opportunity provided by the spat to restore the hyphenated US view of India and Pakistan. Said Toner, “We advocate for closer cooperation, certainly, between India and Pakistan to deal with the terrorist threat in both countries”. If that isn’t one in the eye for India, I would like to know what is. Rajnath’s position has been repudiated and Nisar Ali’s view has been reflected in the US State Department’s reaction to the SAARC Home Ministers’ meeting. Toner went on to make things even more explicit: “Terrorism is obviously a reality in both countries, and in order to effectively confront it, they need to work together.” We say we can’t work with a terrorism-complicit Pakistan government; Pakistan says there is no alternative to India and Pakistan working together to control terrorism; and the US State department, mixing up who is its “Major Defence Partner” in South Asia, not only wants India to follow the Pakistan line, it endorses Nawaz Sharif’s boast, saying, “We believe that Pakistan has taken and is taking steps to counter terrorist violence.” The spokesman then moderates that compliment by adding that these steps are “certainly focusing on those groups that threaten Pakistani or Pakistan’s stability.” He reiterates that $300 million in aid to Pakistan has been put on hold because the US is not satisfied that adequate attention is being paid to action against the Haqqani network, but confirms that no such aid suspension is contemplated for Pakistani non-action against groups “focusing” on India. Does this amount to “US endorses India’s anti-terror stand” as more than one Indian media headline claims?
Pak Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Home Minister Rajnath Singh with delegates after the inauguration of the SAARC Home Ministers’ conference (AFP photo)
While Indian opinion has been inflamed by pictures and stories of Pakistani terrorist leaders holding demonstrations against Rajnath Singh, a report by Imtiaz Ahmed in The Hindustan Times of 6 August gives a startling twist to the tale. It quotes Pakistani officials as saying that “it was the army that discouraged religious and hardline parties from banding together under the banner of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council) and holding countrywide protests.” This, says Imtiaz Ahmed, resulted in protests being largely limited to “Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-dawah and Syed Salahuddin’s Hizbul Mujahideen”. It was apparently ensured that the demonstrations would be held all of ten kilometres distant from the site of the meeting.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh with the Indian delegation attending the first working session of SAARC 2016 Home Ministers’ Conference in Islamabad last week (PTI photo)
Has our war against terrorism been advanced an inch by the Home Minister’s flying visit to Pakistan? Are we any safer than we would have been if India, like Pakistan, had “downplayed” the event? Rajnath Singh did not have anything of substance to say by way of strengthening on the ground the SAARC mechanism for regional action against terrorism. Of course, in the given situation, SAARC has little opening to operationalize measures agreed to in principle on paper. But when that is so, why undertake a futile exercise in high-profile denunciation of the host country?
Ever since Simla 1972, we have rejected any role for the UN in Kashmir. The UN has been only too pleased to wash its hands of the whole affair. So, the Home Minister’s thunder could not have been addressed to the international community. His words were not heard at all in Pakistan. The other SAARC ministers were just not interested and, in any case, could do nothing about it. The US, as shown above, barely backed us. So, what national purpose has been served by Rajnath Singh personally performing to a non-audience in Islamabad?
It was not always like this. When P Chidambaram as Home Minister went to Islamabad in 2010, he was given a ceremonial welcome. His main purpose, publicly stated, was to present definitive evidence on Pakistan’s involvement in the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist outrage. Stone-throwing had resumed in the Valley. Tension was in the air. And yet, there was enough respect for the Indian Home Minister for Chidambaram to receive a welcome fit for a Home Minister. This time insults were exchanged, courtesies were given the go-by, nothing was achieved at either SAARC or bilaterally with Pakistan. Was it for this that Rajnath Singh took his “Plane to Pakistan”?
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
Mani Shankar Aiyar