War on terror & India’s stake

By Kuldip Nayar

THE burning of Islamabad’s Marriott hotel that Indian channels showed at length is still etched in the memory of horrified people. They are worried about Pakistan. Even the hawks do not conceal their anxiety.

The intelligentsia’s concern is that the nascent democratic government in Islamabad might not be able to cope with the likes of the Al Qaeda and Taliban and might have to depend on the military which would want its price.

People do not know how far the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine has penetrated Pakistan. But the belief is that the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and, to a large extent, the NWFP province, is under the control of the Taliban. Were they to ‘capture’ more territory, what would be its effect on India is the greatest worry. President Asif Ali Zardari’s remark that “the Taliban have an upper hand” is all the more unnerving. America agrees with him.

A Pakistani television commentator has challenged Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to travel from Kohat to Bannu. The commentator’s contention is that the Pakistan government had already “withdrawn” from this area. If this is true, there is some truth in the repeated allegation that former President Pervez Musharraf, even while in uniform, was never serious about curbing Al Qaeda and the Taliban. He found it an effective way to milch America. That he connived at the intervention of the US troops on Pakistani soil is an open secret.

In contrast, Zardari’s statement or that of army chief Gen Kayani that Pakistan’s sovereignty would not be allowed to be trifled with has come as a welcome surprise. Islamabad is defending its territory and there are signs of it when its guns drove away American helicopters the other day. Pakistan is careful not to engage the superpower but whatever Islamabad is doing to keep its dignity intact needs to be commended.

I do not think that the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine is seeking territory in Pakistan. They want the northern areas which would help them to recapture Afghanistan which was under their rule until they were pushed out by nationalist Afghan forces with the help of America.

In fact, the US is responsible for the birth of the Taliban. During the Cold War when Washington wanted to bleed Moscow to death, America trained and armed fundamentalists to oust the irreligious Soviet Union from Afghanistan. America won the Cold War when the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of what happened to it in Afghanistan. Those fundamentalists are today’s Taliban and they have the weapons which were liberally provided by America.

Indian civil society does realise that Al Qaeda’s progress in Pakistan is a danger. Already the presence of Al Qaeda has been reported in Kerala, India’s southern-most state, and in Kashmir, the northern-most part. An intelligence agency has linked the recent bomb blasts in the country to the outfit.

What is not probably appreciated amply is that Pakistan’s war against the Taliban is India’s war too. If ever Pakistan goes under, India’s first line of defence would collapse. The Taliban would have secured the launching pad to attack India’s values of democracy and liberalism which do not fit into their scheme of things. These are the same Taliban who destroyed the Buddha statues at Bamiyan despite the appeal of the entire civilised world.

Terrorism is the means, and a ‘Talibanistan’ is the end. New Delhi and Islamabad should jointly fight against the menace. The two had decided at one time to set up a joint mechanism to fight terror. There is still nothing on the ground. Some joint action should have been visible after the blasts in Delhi and Islamabad. Mutual suspicions are so strong that they cannot override them even when the enemy is at work from within. One hopes that the New York meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Zardari will change the scenario as both are keen on normalising relations.

Making peace with the militants or having a ceasefire, as proposed by certain influential quarters in Pakistan, may stall the Taliban but not defeat them. Terrorism is a cancer as Zardari has diagnosed correctly, and it must be eliminated. The villain of the piece is Musharraf who said he was fighting against the Taliban when he was conniving at their penetration. He should be put on the mat for having aggravated the situation. His plan to have them in Afghanistan to gain ‘strategic depth’ for Pakistan started the whole thing.

There is a lesson for New Delhi which is a sad picture of inaction and ineptness when assessed in terms of action taken against communal forces. Law and order has always been a state subject. Still the centre’s response has been lukewarm. It sent to Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala a piece of advice on the lines of Article 355 which enjoins upon the Union to protect states against external aggression and internal disturbance. Had New Delhi’s order gone under Article 355 itself, the Bajrang Dal, a SIMI among Hindus, would not have openly butchered Christians and burnt churches. Surprisingly, there is no ban on the Bajrang Dal. New Delhi has done well to reject the demand of the Bharatiya Janata Party for bringing back the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act which authorised the state to detain people for months without trial. It was used against the Naxalites and Muslims mercilessly. In this atmosphere, the Muslims would have been the target.

Terrorism, no doubt, leaves death and destruction in its wake. But the most fearsome fallout is that the confidence of the people is shaken. Governments can see, after every event, the gaps in their intelligence and other apparatus and promise to do better. But the impact of the incidents may well be irreparable because certain communities feel alienated.

This is what has happened after the encounter at Zakir Bagh in Delhi where two terrorists and one police inspector were killed. The debate over the veracity of the ‘encounter’ is still raging. The locality believes it was stage-managed. Why such a feeling arises is because of the credibility gap between the people and the authorities.

The matter is much more serious: Muslims and Christians have lost faith in the fairness of the state. This will be hard to restore if the secular forces do not assert themselves and retrieve Muslims, Christians and, more so, the Hindus from the bias and prejudice in which many are stuck.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by a television network in four big cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai — has shown that 67 per cent of the people feel insecure. They are haunted by the fear that they do not know what would happen to them if they were to step out of their homes. This is, indeed, a sad reflection on the central and state governments.

The writer is a leading journalist based in Delhi. (Dawn)