Journalist | Writer | Analyst
A conscious ratcheting up of pressure, or more evidence of confusion among policymakers in Delhi?
14 January 2009
Chidambaram, MEA sing different tunes on civil society links with Pakistan
New Delhi: In all briefings the Ministry of External Affairs has conducted since the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 26-29, 2008, senior officials have gone out of their way to emphasise that India was not looking at a repeat of the measures it took in 2001-2002 when it recalled its High Commissioner and snapped air and road links with Pakistan in the aftermath of the December 13, 2001 terrorist strike on Parliament.
Yet, in an interview to The Times of London published on Monday, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has raised the possibility that ending people-to-people and trade contacts with Islamabad is something New Delhi might consider if Pakistan fails to investigate the involvement of its citizens in the Mumbai incident. “There are many, many links between India and Pakistan, and if Pakistan does not cooperate and does not help to bring the perpetrators to heel, those ties will become weaker and weaker and one day snap,” he was quoted as saying.
“Why would we entertain Pakistani business people? Why would we entertain tourists in India? Why would we send tourists there,” he added, though he refused to suggest a timeframe for when such a drastic downgrading of ties might occur.
Mr. Chidambaram’s remarks come at a time when Islamabad is evaluating the dossier handed over to it by India detailing the involvement of “elements from Pakistan” in the Mumbai incident.
As recently as last week, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon told a group of 15 ambassadors to whom he handed over copies of the dossier that India was not looking at ending trade, transport and cultural ties with its neighbour, envoys who were present at the briefing told The Hindu on condition of anonymity. And in off-the-record interactions with editors over the past six weeks, MEA officials have repeatedly stressed the same point. “Stopping Pakistani overflights or the Delhi-Lahore bus or cross-LOC trade may make some people feel good but our reading is that such measures will not bring us closer to our goal of punishing the guys who organised Mumbai,” a senior official told this reporter last month.
Indeed, many officials believe the continuation and even strengthening of civil society and business links provide a possible avenue however remote — for influencing Pakistani behaviour on terrorism given the official stonewalling that has greeted the Indian demands for help over Mumbai.
Officials said the strident demands for military action or the snapping of normal diplomatic, trade and transport links being aired in some sections of the media in the aftermath of Mumbai actually played into the hands of the Pakistani military establishment which was trying to stoke tension and generate a state of siege within Pakistan.
The Indian cricket tour of Pakistan had to be called off as much for reasons of security as for politics, they said, but this did not mean New Delhi favoured an end to all contact between the two countries.
Within Pakistan and India, civil society voices have called on the two governments to ensure that the current diplomatic standoff does not lead to the suspension of cultural and business links between the two peoples and countries. Until now, if the perception in South Block was any indication, the Indian Government did not appear to favour such steps. But Mr. Chidambaram’s statements to The Times have once again raised the spectre of an iron curtain eventually coming down along the international border.
Given this dissonance between South and North Blocks, it is possible that ultra-nationalist troublemakers might seek to take the law into their own hands to impose an unofficial ban on contact on things Pakistani.
Thugs dictating terms
Already, concerns about the safety of Pakistani artistes due to stage a play here led the National School of Drama to suspend an invitation to the well-known Lahore theatre troupe Ajokha. However, that decision was quickly reversed. But in Mumbai, it was the local police which persuaded the landmark Oxford Bookstore to withdraw from its shelves books by Pakistani authors citing threats by politically-motivated goons. “Ten days ago, a policeman from the Marine Drive police station dropped in at our store and told us to be careful,” the store’s manager was quoted by the Times of India as saying. “He advised us to remove books and CDs related to Pakistan, as we may be targeted after the recent terror strikes in Mumbai. He reminded us of Raj Thackeray’s ban on Pakistani artists.”
Though Mr. Chidamabaram was referring to a diplomatic scenario that is still somewhere in the future, the fact that thugs are able to dictate the reading and viewing habits of citizens highlights the complexity of the challenge his Ministry is facing on the internal front in the aftermath of Mumbai.