The Fundamental Idea
An atmosphere of extreme threat, and of imminent war between India and Pakistan, is currently being built up by a continuous process of competitive posturing at the highest level. Indeed, India’s Army Chief has himself seen fit to publicly state that a ‘limited war’ between the two nations is a proximate possibility, and this declaration alone has far greater weight than the very much larger body of imprudent political rhetoric that is finding expression virtually from day to day. Apart from the questionable wisdom of the Army Chief’s assertion, let me state at the outset that I do not believe the probabilities of an open war between India and Pakistan to be as high as the present projections make them seem. However, an escalation of terrorism and the ongoing covert war, and their extension to new theatres within India, is inevitable.
Nevertheless, even the smallest possibility is too great to be ignored. Complacency would be the most dangerous failing, and every possible avenue for the avoidance of a war should be explored. There is, however, one general principle that must guide our explorations, perspectives, plans and projections: The primary and most effective strategy to avoid war is to prepare for it. It is one of the ironies of the human condition that, if you love peace, you must be ready and willing to fight for it. The weak, the vulnerable, the unprepared and the irresolute will always tempt the world and call misfortune and ruin upon themselves. This is tragic; but it is the inexorable lesson of history. It is strength that secures respect and dignity; conciliation, appeasement, and a desperation to avoid confrontation at all costs – these will only bring contempt and aggression in their dower.
To be willing to fight, however, does not imply resort to the boastful and barren flatulence that characterises our present political discourse. It implies, conversely, the acquisition of a quiet confidence and authority that do not require translation into language. It is obvious that we currently lack these attributes. There are, of course, some who would contest this, pointing (among other things) to our one-billion-plus population, the size of our consumer markets, the strength of our armed forces, the resilience of our democracy, and the antiquity and grandeur of our civilisation. Even if we concede each of these, it would still be necessary to ask ourselves why the sum of our strategies is little more than a chain of reactions to what Pakistan is doing. How is it that a smaller, weaker state, riven with internal strife and political instability, has persistently retained control of the initiative, while we only respond fitfully, defensively and evidently inadequately? If we are to deal effectively with this situation, we must introduce a great deal of intellectual and terminological honesty in our discourse. It is time we stopped using high sounding words to conceal our incompetence and our failures.
There can be no restoration of the national confidence unless we are able to restore the authority and prestige of government in areas within the country. The first priority, consequently, is to defeat the scourge of terrorism. Pakistan’s ability to sustain terrorist movements on our soil ties down our forces, weakens the nation’s economy and government, creates the possibility of deepening internal rifts and of balkanisation, and tempts the enemy to the greater adventurism of an open war.
There are no easy options in the war against terrorism. At a recent meeting, I had the opportunity to hear the ideas of a scholar from Israel on the subject of Islamic fundamentalism, and of his country’s experience in fighting terror. "Terrorism is a war without beginning or end," he remarked, "Fighting terrorism, consequently, is a way of life." This is profoundly significant. While Pakistan dreams of a "war of a thousand years", the timeframes of our strategic responses (really a misnomer, since very few of our reactions have ever exceeded the merely tactical) have simply failed to go beyond the weeks and the months. More importantly, while every Indian sees himself as threatened by this vicious war, he does not see it as a war in which he has any part – it is something that the ‘government’ has to confront, and the actual fighting is the business of the security forces. So why aren’t they doing their jobs? Such an attitude displays enormous and, after all these years, unforgivable ignorance of the character of terrorism, and this is reflected in the resentment and ill-conceived criticism that greets every new security measure or restriction – including simple search procedures in public places. To expect such attitudes to produce people who will actually stand up to terrorism, resist or help apprehend perpetrators, give witness and help prosecute and punish the murderers even of their own children or parents or brothers and sisters, is to expect the impossible.
But terrorism is not going to simply go away on its own. Indeed, it is never going to go away in its entirety, because they will always be a residual risk of some lunatic planting a bomb in a public place. It can, however, be contained within ‘acceptable’ limits (if such a term can ever be applied to an act of terrorism), but only if controlling and resisting it become ‘a way of life’ for each one of us. Only if we, as a nation, realise and accept that a price has to be paid to fight this scourge; that this price, from time to time, may include a sacrifice, not only on the part of nameless and faceless jawans and officers directly confronting the scourge, and from their families, but from us as well; and that this sacrifice may sometimes be as terrible as the lives of our own children.
This said, however, the responsibility of the Government cannot be wished away by any of the regimes over the past decades that have contributed to our collective failure. And if the present regime is to redeem itself, it will have to prove that it is willing and able to shoulder this responsibility.
The first element of such a ‘proof’ is the long overdue definition of a national policy on counter-terrorism. There must be a clear declaration of intent, followed up by consistent action that demonstrates that we will not accept a situation where terrorists and mercenaries can continue to kill our citizens with complete impunity.
The problem with our actions in the past is that we are not taken seriously – and have given no reason for others to take us seriously. Our responses to the hijacking of IC 814 and to terrorism in general are a case in point. Our inability to cope and our mounting panic is visible to all. So is our vacillation. We have been begging the international community to impose sanctions and declare Pakistan a ‘terrorist state’. But what have we done? Have we convicted and hanged a single terrorist in Kashmir? Have we suspended trade, or the Samjhauta Express, or even that ludicrous bus to Lahore? Have we formally declared Pakistan a terrorist state and imposed sanctions? Why should America or Europe do so when we will not? They are at no risk – at least at present.
Then again, in the terminal stages of the Kargil War, we made grand declarations about not shooting a fleeing enemy and permitted the intruders to withdraw at their own leisure and mine the entire area they traversed. Several of our soldiers were then killed or injured trying to clear those mines. Many more will be killed when those intruders return to our soil as terrorists. Why should the world, and our enemy, take us seriously when we cannot even see the proximate consequences of our actions, of our empty rhetoric, and of our pathetic posturing?
Fighting terrorism requires a clear mandate that will allow our forces to do what is necessary to crush – and I use the word advisedly, for there is no gentle way to defeat terrorism – this hydra-headed monster. To create this mandate and to translate it into action on the ground will require radical institutional changes, including legislation, a reform of our senseless judicial and bureaucratic processes and institutions, and of the security forces. I have repeatedly spoken of the constituent elements of such a reform in the past, and will not repeat myself here. I will, however, reiterate that if they are suitably empowered – legally and technologically – there is not a single terrorist movement in India today that the security forces cannot control within six months.
Simultaneously, of course, we must strengthen our conventional defences. Once again, the definition of a clear strategic doctrine is essential. It is, of course, important that we state openly that India will not use force, except to defend itself. It is equally important, however, that we reserve the right of strong retaliatory action in the face of aggression.
We must also create an army that conforms to the needs and demands of the Twenty- First Century. Once again, far-reaching institutional changes are required for this, and it is not possible to enumerate these here. But one element that needs to be brought out clearly is that our decisions on defence purchases – and the demoralising scandals that have surrounded these – must be brought out in the open. The regime of secrecy in these transactions has only helped corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, with no attendant advantages to the nation. The moment a government anywhere in the Third World seeks to make an arms purchase, the international intelligence community is immediately alerted. The technical specifications of every commercially available weapon system are easily available, often in published sources, including the Internet. Complete transparency in these purchases, consequently, would in no way compromise the national interest.
The use, or preparation for the use, of force, however, does not exhaust the range of responses that are needed. These, indeed, would create the grounds for a more abiding resolution of existing problems with Pakistan. They would create the stability in which the right kind of people within that nation would be able to speak up, and defeat the growing power of the most rabid element there.
In the long run, the greatest weapon for peace is the idea. This is the strength and weakness of the Islamic Fundamentalists. Their vision of Islam may be a complete perversion of the teachings of the Prophet, but it gives the ignorant masses something to believe in, to live and die for. Theirs, however, is not the only version of Islam in the world – and all these other visions of a great and revolutionary Faith are equally under threat from the intolerance of the Fundamentalist terror. It is my abiding belief that Islam is nowhere as safe today, as it is in India. If we can communicate to the world – even to our enemies – that India’s pluralistic democracy is the greatest guardian, not only of Islam but of all Faiths, we would create the germ of the ideas that would eventually defeat the Fundamentalists.
If, however, we choose the other ideological path, if we seek to fight their fundamentalism with our fundamentalism, we would destroy not only the Indian nation-state, but just as surely the great and evolving civilisational idea that is India.
(Published in Outlook, March 13, 2000)