The unsettling if confounding assault on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot came a day after Pakistan’s powerful military chief, General Raheel Sharif, set 2016 as the year to wipe out terrorism from his country. Such an objective can become music to the ears of Pakistan’s neighbours – Iran, Afghanistan and India. China, of course, will benefit in quantum ways, and the world should heave a sigh of relief.
It is axiomatic that Pakistan cannot hope to eliminate terrorism from its soil and leave Jundullah, Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Haqqani group among regional allergens untouched. With this in view, Saturday’s attack in Pathankot by suspected Jaish-e-Mohammed militants could turn adversity into an opportunity for India and Pakistan to jointly confront trans-border terror. For this, they need to discourage their hawks from derailing a promising diplomatic initiative to come together in peace.
In fact, it could already be the long-term plan of the two national security advisers after they met in Bangkok, paving the way for reassuring diplomacy. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s statement to parliament that war was not an option with Pakistan was a byproduct of several behind-the-scenes meetings at various levels endorsed at the very top. The Pakistan foreign ministry responded to the Pathankot outrage with an unequivocal condemnation. It simultaneously offered to work together with India to find a durable remedy against similar threats in the regional context. It would be a bad surprise if General Sharif’s promise of a terror-free Pakistan is in conflict with the interests of his cross-border neighbours.
India and intelligence
A legitimate question that Indian analysts have raised in this regard stems from their belief that the Jaish-e-Mohammad, though not being controlled by any Pakistan agency anymore, remains robust. In fact, the analysts see the group as working in cahoots with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, which General Sharif’s military is targeting with rare precision. It is a puzzle, therefore, that known antibodies like Maulana Masood Azhar are able to operate across diverse stretches of Pakistan. That’s a question for Pakistan to answer publicly.
India has a greater responsibility in guarding its own interests not just at home but in a regional context too. For this, it needs to curb right-wing hawks that have no interest in peace, for peace will impact on their daily rations of state support. The foiled attack on the Indian consulate in northern Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan on Sunday could be instructive on how both might cooperate in and with Afghanistan, where the Taliban looks set to return sooner than later. The menace of the expanding influence of the militant Islamic State group too should spur closer coordination between the traditional rivals. There’s no time to lose.
In this context, India must figure out what expertise it can bring to the table in combating security problems dogging the region as well as its own troubled states. For a start, the handling of good intelligence has not been its forte. This was revealed in the Kargil war as well as in the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. Hampered intra-agency cooperation showed up discouraging signs of real-time transmission of actionable information.
As intelligence failures go, the latest show put up by the multi-layered and multi-pronged agencies in Pathankot revealed unacceptable tardiness that allowed the terrorists a free run of the region for a good 24 hours before they launched a brazen daybreak strike at the air force base on Saturday. That the air force’s rearguard was able to limit the damage within the besieged complex with the potential of nuclear assets being around is no small relief in an otherwise dismal story.
Finally, no war on terror should become a ruse for short-changing the people of their already depleted rights. The tendency in India for a surly display of misplaced nationalism on occasions such as the Pathankot outrage undermines the objectives of a democratic secular state. That objective was grossly violated by the Congress nationalists in the 1980s, and the alienation of Sikhs it triggered has not abated.
There has been some chatter about local help provided to the Pathankot militants, even if the attackers otherwise came in from across the border. Are we going to watch another horror story erupt in Punjab? Pakistan needs to be engaged to cut down the inherent violence the prospect carries. A healing touch and not knee-jerk military action is the remedy. Is a right-wing state ready to discard its traditionally narrow approaches to deal with alienated men and women?
In which case, how does it consider the alienation of Kashmiris, a cause unfairly usurped by terror groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad? There was a Hindustan Times report quoting one of the victims of the Pathankot gunmen as saying the men were out to seek revenge for the death of Afzal Guru. The Supreme Court had thrown out as spurious the state’s claim that Afzal Guru was a member of any terrorist group, and the Jaish-e-Mohammad militants have sought to harm that image. This is the perception in Kashmir about the fruit vendor whose life was snuffed out in a bizarre secret ceremony by the Congress administration.
In a similar vein, former prime minister Manmohan Singh had bungled by describing alienated tribals of Chhattisgarh as the biggest internal security challenge to India. The Bharatiya Janata Party establishment has responded by incarcerating a wheelchair-bound professor of English literature who is 90% crippled. Terrorism grows with repression. The answer may lie in something like the Irish model of engagement with solemn pledges of securing justice to all sides. Will that be India’s contribution to building the required atmosphere, the only durable way for a regional initiative to arrest the slide of alienation and violence dogging the region – from Afghanistan to Manipur; from Kashmir to Balochistan or beyond?
This article first appeared on Dawn.