Richard Verma, the US ambassador to India, has—by raising the issue of freedom of speech in the context of the JNU episode—not only interfered with India’s internal security management but has put his country, perhaps unwittingly, in the crossfire of India’s domestic politics. The young envoy has chosen to tell the largest practising democracy of the world about the virtue of “diversity of thought and speech” missing the point that the frenzied calls for India’s “destruction” and punishment of those behind the “judicial killing” of Afzal Guru—made at a large gathering on the JNU campus—had set off a process under the country’s penal code and that the merit of this action would be decided by India’s reputed judiciary. The nature of culpability of individuals will be determined there. Ambassador Verma’s gratuitous reminder that “college campuses are laboratories of thoughts” overlooks the obvious—that no premises in this country can be used to instigate violence against the democratic state and that autonomy of a university could not bypass national sovereignty. The accused in this case can possibly escape action only if they come off as young men who are not grown up enough to know the consequences of their acts.
What the envoy has missed in all of this is the reality that it is the identity-based internal politics of India that was the substantive reason behind the kind of organised protest we have seen at the JNU event. Richard Verma’s intervention amounts to internationalising the allegations made by the political detractors of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at home that in his watch the state had become intolerant of dissent and put the minorities in jeopardy. The onus is on the ambassador if any of this makes an adverse impact on India-US relations. It is relevant here to recall that there is already an unresolved India-US differential on Pakistan that had become particularly prominent in the decade-long “war on terror”. The US policymakers, guided no doubt by their national interests, chose to look the other way when Pakistan was using militant outfits under the ISI control to launch a proxy war against India, based on faith-based militancy, and exploit the vulnerability of India to communal conflicts, to destabilise this country. Terrorism enmeshed with communal issues is the new threat facing India and what was seen at JNU essentially mirrored this danger.
The Modi regime has been treading the path of caution in dealing with Pakistan and taking care to keep the international community led by the US on its side, on the issue of India-Pak talks. However, the Pak army clearly has not been able to put up with the successful initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reach out to Nawaz Sharif in a bid to restore the peace process and flag terrorism as the prime issue between the two countries. A discomfited Pak army-ISI combine first installed a general as the NSA to keep its control on the developments and then sponsored the audacious attack on the forward airbase of Pathankot to deliver the message that talks could be resumed only on Pak army’s terms. Interactions at the level of NSA have, no doubt, helped to assert the strong legal footing on which the cases of 26/11 and Pathankot are being pursued but the Pak army is interested only in prolonging the stalemate by playing the “deniability” card.
The moot question of who rules Pakistan is what should draw the attention of the US-led West. The asymmetry of India-Pak dialogue remains in place as the civilian leadership of Pakistan cannot go beyond the script of its army. At the end of the “war on terror” after the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the US has been helpful in letting India have the benefit of the testimony of David Headley as an approver in the trial for Mumbai attack before an Indian court. The US perhaps was making up for its earlier action of bailing out Pak army, when it had insisted that the Mumbai attack was the doing of non-state actors. Headley’s deposition, however, seems to have had no impact on Pakistan, primarily because the Pak army has sensed its own importance in the US strategy of dealing with the Pak-Afghan belt in the backdrop of the rise of ISIS and the revival of the Al Qaeda-Taliban axis. The US needs the Pak army to safeguard American interests there, after the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. The US seems to want only a limited role for India in Afghanistan so that its equation with the Pak army is not disturbed. All of this lent encouragement to Pakistan to keep up its hostility towards India.
The India-US differential on our Pak policy remains undiminished in the process. The US ambassador has added to the complication that existed between his country and India in an important area of foreign policy, by questioning the democratic credentials of the present Indian rule itself. Meanwhile, the current upswing of subversion in Kashmir signalled by the raising of pro-Pak and pro-terrorist slogans by people around Pampore where a serious counter-terrorism operation against LeT militants had resulted in the martyrdom of five senior security personnel, is a cause for concern. It seems Pak agencies may use their sleeper cells and agents to queer the pitch for India on the internal security front, by instigating communal discord.
The international community needs to take note of the fact that development and law enforcement, the two secular functions of a democratic order have been put in front by the Modi government. In an incident like the one in Dadri, where an act of violence was committed on account of communal prejudice, the state government—exclusively responsible for law and order—should have gone hammer and tongs against the culprits in the first instance instead of dragging the Centre in a politically motivated blame game. Hate speeches in this country are now severely punished under specially enacted laws that the state governments must strive to enforce.
Identity politics played to the point of defaming India as having become intolerant of minorities will only help an adversary like Pakistan to spread its subversive operations. At a time when India has taken its relations with US to a level of strategic partnership, the remarks of Richard Verma appeared undiplomatic and avoidable.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau.