When was the last time you watched a debate on television and asked yourself — Why are we discussing this again? The other day when I was gently caressing my baby daughter in the wee hours, hoping she would fall into a deep slumber, I asked myself the very same question. Panellists were vociferously debating India’s policy stand on Pakistan. I was visibly disgruntled and my wife rummaged in a bed swamped with baby accessories for the remote. We switched to an Akshay Kumar movie; Bhool Bhulaiyaa, one of my favourites.
I peered at my two month old, Vaanya, wondering what kind of debates she would be subjected to when she is an adult. Eighteen years is a long time one would imagine. I hope she will be exposed to a different discourse. As I observed her closely, her innocence was heart numbing. So much so that I found myself getting increasing anxious. I took my frolicsome dog out for a walk to clear my mind which was encumbered by disparate thoughts.
I could not help but jog my memory back to my childhood. It appears that nothing much has changed in the political realm; and it is disconcerting. Almost eighteen years ago when I was a portly student at Jiddu Krishnamurti’s Rishi Valley, India was grappling with the rise of Pervez Musharraf. I heard about it from my uncle who received me at New Delhi Railway Station when I returned to Delhi from school.
Our connecting train to Dehradun was delayed so we decided to hire a taxi. The ambassador taxis had no air conditioning. My uncle, getting increasingly exasperated at the thought of a six hour drive, began questioning me about the military coup in Islamabad and I admitted my lack of knowledge about the issue. I got an hour long lesson on Indo-Pak history. When I look back it was a valuable lesson, even though I at that time I was desperately waiting to get home.
Vacations were spent well with my family. A few days after I returned to school in December, the Indian Airlines IC 814 hijack unfolded. Pakistan-based terrorists had held Delhi-bound passengers hostage. My father’s former business partner happened to be in the flight with his family. He had visited Kathmandu to celebrate his silver anniversary. It was a hectic time for our family. My intrepid mother campaigned diligently at what was then called 7 Race Course Road, the Prime Minister’s Residence. It was heart wrenching to see beleaguered families demanding justice for their loved ones.
Positive developments took place and the hostages were safe. I was elated. It was a time to celebrate especially with the millennium celebrations. While Delhi, my hometown at the time, drowned in litres of tequila that night, I spent the millennium celebrations on my dormitory roof with a friend. We munched on Bourbon biscuits and hot milk.
Even on that winter night, when the sky was radiating with stars, I could not help but reflect on the events which had gone by. India had emerged victorious in the Kargil War, a coup, a hijack where the perpetrators were from Pakistan. It was a matter of time when the world got to know that Omar Sheikh, a militant, who was released by India in exchange for the hostages, had a direct role in 9/11.
The September 11 attacks are etched in my memory. Hours after the tragedy unfolded a friend of mine, our Principal informed the school that a tragedy had struck America. There was an eerie silence in the auditorium as he narrated the chain of events. We got the first period off to visit the library and peruse through newspapers and the gory details. Imagine a library flooded with students reading the headlines and the defunct worldspace radio playing in the background. Lectures that day revolved around Islam and America. Osama, the perpetrator, as we now know took shelter in Pakistan.
Nine years later I had matured into an individual who thought he had a sounder understanding of global issues; how naïve of me. My passion and indomitable spirit to understand conflict resolution led me to pursue a degree where I learnt a lot about diplomacy. Weeks into my course, the London School of Economics had organized a seminar on Indo-Pak relations. Renowned personalities from both sides were on the panel. When the Q&A session began I found myself getting overwhelmed with questions. I confidently asked for the mike and championed the idea of a people-to-people dialogue. The gentleman from Pakistan, with intimidating whiskers and tobacco-stained teeth, smiled at me and drew my attention to various initiatives which were in place to foster a better understanding of each other’s countries and cultures.
The session was followed by a coffee break. I was then approached by a young counsellor posted at India’s iconic embassy in London on Aldwych. We stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. Our discussion revolved around my question and I was told I was being a little too idealistic. Livid and perturbed, I tried earnestly to suppress my upset disposition.
The Mumbai tragedy unfolded a few weeks later. I was poring over an esoteric foreign policy at the British Library of Political and Economic Science, assiduously working towards an impending deadline, when I received the news. I remember calling my father and telling him that India would retaliate and Pakistan would never be allowed to get away with its nefarious propaganda against India. My father, a wise man who has seen the world go by, smirked. He was right. India’s then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee emphatically spoke about all options being open. I must admit it left a ray of hope that may be some action would be taken to punish the abettors of terror.
Fast forward nine years and India is still grappling with the same thorny issue. It appears that India’s most wanted, the notorious Dawood Ibrahim, is being sheltered by the state. America is close to declaring it a terrorist state. And it is hopefully only a matter of time that the notorious establishment in Pakistan receives a very stern message. Why are we still talking to Pakistan is what I think of at times. So when Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, claimed that Pakistan’s infamous ISI is in cahoots with terrorists, it should have come as no surprise.
As an aspiring power, it is imperative that India prepares a foreign policy blueprint so the world has a better understanding of its ambitions and policy stance on a whole range of issues. There must not be an iota of scepticism about India’s benign ambition and Pakistan’s hawkish rhetoric. How does one get away with decades of spewing venom and bloodshed?
My mother still harbors intense emotions about the hijack and my father is wiser but looks surprisingly younger. May be it is the lack of responsibilities. Eighteen years later, at fifty, I hope I possess a little sagacity and have a different perspective on the issue. Hopefully when we sit with Vaanya and discuss international relations, our debates are not limited to a country which is assuming a back seat in India’s growing economic outlook. By then we should have contained our degenerate neighbour. Then I may have a different story to narrate; a more promising one may be.
The writer is a socio-economic commentator who loves to read, cook and trek around Dehradun. The views expressed are his own.