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'USS Clueless' sailing to nowhere

The war against terrorism, it is now increasingly acknowledged, is going to be a long haul. This is, in part, because of the very nature of terrorism, the complex patterns of sponsorship, the dependencies of various state and political entities on their links with subversive groups, the elaborate global networks of terrorist organisations and cells that have already been established, and the degree to which legitimate systems of government, finance, non-governmental groups and organisations and various other structures in democratic societies have been penetrated and are exploited by the extremists. The problem has been allowed to fester and grow for decades in the benign shadow of much of the world’s tolerant gaze, and often active encouragement, as many of the nations that believed themselves immune to the disease adopted attitudes of moral ambivalence, sometimes of cold cynicism, that strengthened terrorist movements in geographically distant locations.

While there is now a greater understanding and moral consensus on many aspects of this modern scourge, and unfortunately for its hapless victims, the war against terrorism will be protracted even further by the confusion that continues to characterise the responses of the political leadership in much of the free world. This was underlined rather strongly by a number of events in recent weeks, including some unseemly controversies surrounding US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the sub-continent.

For some of these, at least, Powell was himself responsible, and a few of his remarks suggested that ‘USS Clueless’ had embarked on another voyage into an unfamiliar world, and as has been the case with so many American interventions in the past, this would also have disastrous consequences on its ports of call. Indeed, and amazingly, his observations – and others emanating from various leaders in the US – reflected a curious identity of perspectives on some major issues with those of Osama bin Landen. Both the US and bin Laden now seem to claim that the ‘central issues’ of terrorism are connected with the resolution of the conflicts over Kashmir and Palestine, and once these are resolved – evidently to the satisfaction of the sponsors of terrorism –, the ‘root causes’ of terrorism would substantially have been addressed. The only surviving disagreement here is in the position over the US military presence in the ‘Holy Land’ of Saudi Arabia. It is evident that September 11 has still not convinced many that the terrorists and their sponsors cannot be allowed to set the world’s agenda.

The US position on Kashmir is dictated as much by abiding, obstinate and self-serving ignorance, as by its current and uneasy alliance with one of the chief sponsors of terrorism – Pakistan – who the Americans are presently trying to seduce and bribe back into the fold of the righteous. Given the circumstances of the war against Afghanistan it is certainly expedient to take Pakistan along for the time being, and the US has been fairly firm in its pronouncements that terrorism in all theatres will eventually be addressed with the same severity. Significant problems, however, are created by the gratuitous, poorly informed and ambiguous pronouncements on the nature of the Kashmir conflict, especially within a context of the heightened tensions in the entire regions. I would, of course, not read any Machiavellian calculations into these postures. They are, by and large, the unfortunate consequence of American insularity, insensitivity and inability to comprehend the nuances of cultures and contexts other than their own.

The absurdity of the American position is reflected in its eagerness to push India and Pakistan into a "peace process" – given the record of US sponsored "peace processes" the phrase itself sends shivers of apprehension down the spine – and to force an immediate resumption of an Indo-Pak dialogue. This is interesting. The American president has, since September 11, repeatedly articulated an uncompromising policy that makes "no distinction between terrorists and those who harbour them"; bin Laden, the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are wanted "dead or alive"; they are to be "smoked out" and "brought to justice, or justice will be brought to them." At the same time, India is told that it must initiate a dialogue with the chief sponsor of terrorism in the region; it must "negotiate a solution" to the problem of Kashmir with terrorist groups and with Musharraf, who controls, harbours, trains, arms and funds them. It is high time someone in the Indian leadership told the Americans that India will seek a negotiated solution on Kashmir with Pakistan and with Pak-sponsored terrorists the day the US President begins negotiations with bin Laden and with Mullah Omar to "resolve" the many supposed "issues" they have raised, and at least some of which find echoes of sympathy among certain sections of Muslims.

Regrettably, India has not covered itself with glory at this time. The sheer desperation of expectations, the desire to secure an endorsement of its position on Kashmir from the US, has led, not only to some unfortunate and ill-timed adventurism along the LoC, but also to a rather comprehensive loss of dignity that stems largely from the persistent illusion that America is somehow going to come and "solve" our problems for us in Kashmir. This is not only – to borrow a charmingly blunt expression used by Powell in another context – "nonsense", it is dangerous nonsense. Given the disastrous record of US interventions across the world, the last thing that India could wish upon itself, and upon the region at large, is any kind of US initiative to help "resolve" our problems.

The difficulty is that the Indian leadership still does not appear to have come to terms with the fact that we have to fight out own battles. The best we can expect from the rest of the world is that it should not extend its indulgences and protection to the sponsors of terrorism; co-operating nations can help destroy the support structures, on their soil, of terrorist organisations active in India; and they can help streamline matters relating to the extradition of terrorists. Beyond that, the problem is our own, and will have to be sorted out on the ground.

Within this dismal scenario, there are at least some positive indications. The first and most obvious of these is the proclamation of the much delayed and obstructed counter-terrorism Ordinance. This is a substantially revised and diluted version of the draft bill that was circulated by the Law Commission towards the end of 1999, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Far more significant and far-reaching in its impact, however, has been the sobriety of the responses of Indian Muslims at large, to the provocation, not only of Osama bin Laden’s calls to jehad, but equally to the ugly and suddenly escalating campaign launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal to revive tensions over the Babri Masjid – Ram Janmbhoomi controversy. Apart from a handful of lunatic voices – the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid the most prominent among these – the Muslim leadership’s reactions have been most responsible, have recognised the gravity of the present situation, and have spoken out unambiguously against those who claim Islam as a justification for their acts and campaigns of terror. Indeed, intimidated and terrorised from more than one direction, never before has the moderate Muslim spoken out as firmly against terrorism in the name of Islam has he as now. It is saddening, indeed tragic, that the Indian state has failed so completely to internalise the values of secularism, and despite their long services and great sacrifices in past wars and present and continuing conflicts – including those against Pakistan – India’s Muslims are asked, again and again, to stand up and be counted whenever Pakistan provokes or initiates violence against India.

(Published in The Pioneer, October 20, 2001)





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