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India matters too much to Pakistan

The language was unusual.

Speaking to an Arab news channel, Shehbaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan said, “Pakistan has learnt its lesson. We had three wars with India and the consequences of those wars were more miseries, more unemployment and poverty. Millions were demoted from their level of satisfaction to a low level of satisfaction.”


The intriguing aspect of the statement was that Sharif was speaking the language of an aggressor who has seen the error of his ways. An Indian Prime Minister who was seeking peace with Pakistan would not use this tone or such language.


   Our stand has always been that we have never attacked Pakistan or provoked a war. We have only defended ourselves against Pakistani aggression. So there are no lessons for us to learn; we have been attacked and left with no choice but to defend ourselves.


   No victim of aggression ever says, “I have learned my lesson, I will not fight to defend myself.” Only an aggressor says that he has learned this lesson. His policy of provoking war has only drawn his people into more poverty.


   Sharif’s statement evoked many responses. Within Pakistan, the military-governmental complex responded with the usual stuff about Kashmir. And in India, our hawks said: he is not sincere. He is just trying to appeal to the world community. Do not take him seriously.


   Others made the obvious point. Pakistan is in deep trouble today. Its economy is in a state of collapse. There is widespread dissatisfaction and a growing realisation that something has gone very wrong.


   Hence, Sharif’s conciliatory rhetoric.


   Fair enough. But imagine now, that the roles were reversed. Imagine that it was India that faced an economic crisis of this magnitude. Would any Indian leader respond to the crisis by talking about Pakistan or the futility of war? We did come a little close to a Pakistan-type crisis in 1990. But even then, though we had to beg the IMF for help and mortgage our gold, Pakistan was the furthest from our thoughts. It never occurred to us to link our economic problems to conflict with Pakistan.


   So, sincere or not, Sharif’s statement tells us two things. One: Pakistan does not see itself as a victim of Indian aggression. It sees itself as an aggressor which has learnt its lesson. And two, India is never far from the thoughts of Pakistan’s leaders. Even when their economy is sinking they link the crisis to war with India.


   As intriguing (or revealing) as Sharif’s statement is, I was equally intrigued by the Indian responses. Apart from the odd news channel seeking to whip up a little anti-Pakistan sentiment, most of the Indian media covered the Prime Minister’s interview but did not treat it as the big news story of the day.


"But what worried me was this: is Pakistan so important to us that we should waste so much time debating Pakistan-related issues?"

   Would it have been the same if it was Narendra Modi who had given an interview like Sharif’s. Suppose the Indian Prime Minister had declared that India had learnt its lesson and wanted to avoid further conflict with Pakistan because it had made our people poor? It would have been the news story of the year in Pakistan.


   In a way, the muted nature of the Indian response came as a relief. There have been times when India has been concerned about Pakistan: during the Bangladesh genocide, for instance and in the aftermath of terror strikes. But most of the time, even if we do not feel especially warmly towards Pakistan, it hardly dominates our thoughts. Nor, for that matter, does China, a more formidable adversary.


   We are aware of the hostility on both our borders but it does not dominate our thinking. There’s a lot going on in India — much of it positive and encouraging — and we are much busier thinking about that, than about our neighbours.


   A few years ago, I began to worry that this was changing. Suddenly social media and TV channels seemed obsessed with Pakistan. There would be endless debates about the Pakistani threat. Anyone with any sort of connection to Pakistan (even a frequent visitor) was viewed with suspicion and ‘go to Pakistan’ became an abuse levelled by the Hindu right at anybody who adopted a moderate position on Hindu-Muslim issues.


   It didn’t worry me if some semi-literate troll in a social media control room asked me to go to Pakistan (I have never been there and frankly, have no desire to go) but I imagine that the many Muslims against whom this abuse was directed regarded it as an implied slur on their patriotism.


   And perhaps it was intended that way. Many of the so-called debates on Pakistan and the mortal threat it poses to the soul of India were no more than proxy Muslim-bashing, a way of stirring up communal sentiment and othering the minority.


   Communal prejudice in any form is revolting and is always the last resort of the stupid and the inadequate. But what worried me was this: is Pakistan so important to us that we should waste so much time debating Pakistan-related issues? Sometimes I feared we were in danger of becoming a mirror-image of Pakistan: a country dangerously obsessed with its neighbour.


   Fortunately that phase has passed. Even Hindutva trolls have ceased to act as unpaid publicists for the Pakistan Tourism Board and have stopped urging people to go to Pakistan. There is still irrelevant nonsense being debated on TV every night but much less of it is about Pakistan. Normal service has been resumed. Our priorities are back in order.


   Because frankly, it is silly for a country of the size and importance of India to be obsessed with Pakistan, a country with a population that is only slightly larger than UP, a troubled economy, and an unstable polity which collapses each time the army decides to intervene.


   It is in that context that we should view Sharif’s remarks about wanting peace with India and having learnt a lesson. Yes, India matters too much to Pakistan. Partly this is because the army has played up the threat from India to secure its elevated position in the Pakistan system. And partly it is because Pakistani politicians have spent decades working up sentiment against India in the pursuit of votes.


   But for us to become like Pakistan, obsessed with our neighbour, acting as though we are now in deadly danger from a medium-sized country that has difficulty feeding its people and has never won a war, is to belittle India, its size, its successes and its strength.



Posted On: 18 Jan 2023 11:45 PM
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