Needed: A hawk who can sing

Needed: A hawk who can sing

By M.J. Akbar | 23 January, 2011
Pakistan foreign secretary Salman Bashir shakes hands with his Indian counterpart Nirupama Rao on a visit to India last year (Reuters)

Salman Bashir, Pakistan's foreign secretary, became fleetingly famous in Delhi when, after the last round of talks with his counterpart Nirupama Rao, he curled a lip and dismissed India's carefully prepared case against the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, mentor of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, as "mere literature". Press reports indicate that he will be the next Pak high commissioner in India. Is that good news or bad?

Normally, hawks are not the best occupants of an embassy designed to either sow or cultivate that elusive and sometimes hallucinatory crop called peace. But since abnormality is the normal state of relations between India and Pakistan it makes sense to take a less obvious look at this appointment.

There are some indications that there could soon be a mild thaw on the Indo-Pak iceberg as both nations realise the futility of behaving like schoolchildren who have lost their marbles. At the moment of writing former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri is on an aggressive rapprochement mission in Delhi, in the fertile company of his friend and peace-activist Mani Shankar Aiyar. Kasuri has been repeating his claim that if the lawyers movement had not derailed Pervez Musharraf in March 2007, he would have invited Dr Manmohan Singh over to Islamabad for a long chat and a grand finale marked by a settlement on Kashmir, with an option for a review of the treaty after 15 years.

Foreign ministers tend to be far more optimistic after they leave office, but we should not discount such a confident assertion. A little buzz has risen that the next round of talks at Thimpu might produce the opening for larger initiatives. India's Home Secretary G.K. Pillai told an audience in Delhi last week that paramilitary forces should be reduced by 25% in the Kashmir valley. It is true that within 24 hours he was hopping on his other leg, claiming that Pakistan had not done anything to bring the perpetrators of terrorism to justice, and was in fact indulging Hafiz Saeed and his like. But this sort of dance is familiar in the subcontinent's rhetoric: one leg moves deliberately to a different beat from the other.

Pakistan has changed since the high noon of Kasuri's political career. Its extremists have shifted the discourse, most notably and recently through the assassination of Salman Taseer. 

One reason for Khurshid Kasuri's confidence is the fact that he was foreign minister of an Army regime. It is axiomatic that the Army will be guardian of hawks, so if the Musharraf-Kasuri Kashmir plan had the approval of General Headquarters, then there is a chance that, at least in theory, it might walk. Alas, time is the enemy of theory. Pakistan has changed since the high noon of Kasuri's political career. Its extremists have shifted the discourse, most notably and recently through the assassination of Salman Taseer. It is unnecessary to name names, but Pakistan's liberals are in obvious retreat, because the state's security structure can no longer be guaranteed to protect. This is not all. There is widespread popular support for crucial, if not all, aspects of the kind of Islamism propagated by the Jamaat-e-Islami. Some sane commentators are articulating the thought that the fringe has morphed into the majority. There may be some exaggeration in this assessment, but the base of the fringe has visibly broadened. This is evident not only in the hero-worship of a murderer, but on television talk shows where the middle class sits in the audience.Image 2nd

Will the merchants of peace be able to persuade this decisively influential segment of Pakistan's political class that the "Jihad" in Kashmir should be abandoned before that "final victory" when their fantasy of a Pakistani flag over Srinagar comes true? India-Pakistan relations cannot be structured through a blindfold, and even a marginal glimpse will reveal the interventionist power of this lobby. Governments cannot negotiate peace if their political class is not ready for it.

Any Indian or Pakistani envoy posted in Delhi or Islamabad must have the qualities of Janus, the Greek god whose two faces could look in different directions. He must have the capacity to calm tensions with his host, and the credibility to convince his own nation that he is not selling his people short. There is always the possibility of a slip betwixt cup and lip in such appointments, but if Salman Bashir does reach Delhi, he would be perfectly suited to do the more important of his two responsibilities: reassure his audience back home that Pakistan's interests are in capable hands. If there is going to be talk of peace, then Bashir needs a stronger shield protecting his back than the one protecting his front. This is an era in the India-Pak dialogue when we need that unusual bird, a hawk who can sing.

We know that Bashir can be a hawk when he wants to fly up. We will find out in Delhi whether he can sing as well.


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