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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Why I Applaud Modi’s Decision to Allow a Pakistan Investigating Team on Indian Soil

The Pakistani team with NIA officers at the agency headquarters in Delhi, Monday. (Indian Express Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)
"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."
Winston Churchill 

The Indian government just allowed a Joint Investigative Team (JIT) from Pakistan “unfettered” access to the Pathankot crime scene, a terrorist attack allegedly orchestrated by rogue elements within the Pakistani government (Source: Indian Express article). On the surface this would seem counter-intuitive or as someone on Twitter put it, “it’s like inviting a murderer to investigate the crime scene.” 

I expect this will be the reaction from the vast majority of the Indian media and public, most believing that Modi has made a mistake. The opposition parties have already painted the Prime Minister as spineless (the BJP would have done the same if the roles were reversed) and Modi’s own base has been eerily silent, which means they too are critical and see it as a sign of weakness.

However, I support Modi’s decision and believe it is not only the right thing to do, but also a brilliant tactical manoeuvre for both India and Pakistan’s civilian government.  I think a brief history of Pakistan-India relations is relevant here.

First, anyone familiar with Pakistani politics knows that the elected civilian government and Prime Minister have little control or decision-making power. The army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) control virtually every aspect of Pakistan’s economy and national defense.

Additionally, it is an open secret that there are elements within the ISI who have long been playing a double game (originally with the blessing and help of the CIA), using terrorist groups to maintain their foothold in Afghanistan and to fight a proxy war with India, over Kashmir.

That there is a powerful group within Pakistan who does not want peace is clear, but there are also vested interests on the Indian side who want to maintain the current status quo, because any peace agreement will require a discussion on the future of Kashmir.

So it is not surprising that peace talks get undermined by conveniently timed ‘unacceptable events’ (like the release of Hafiz Saeed from detention) or an attack on Indian soil. All happen around the time talks are scheduled, giving both sides an easy out. On our side the Prime Minister is painted as weak if he tries to engage in talks without ridiculous pre-conditions that any rational person knows no Pakistani civilian government has the authority to grant or agree to.

So here is why I applaud Modi’s decision to permit a joint investigation, for the first time in our history.

First, if Nawaz Sharif is serious about making headway with peace talks, which means shutting down terror groups that operate with impunity inside Pakistan’s borders, his hands are tied in terms of what he can do. This grand gesture by Modi provides Sharif with the external impetus to apply internal pressure, and pursue a public and high profile investigation that must now have teeth or risk facing international embarrassment. I also believe there are others within the army, ISI and government who share Sharif’s views.

The execution of a bodyguard, who murdered Salmaan Taseer, a secular, liberal governor who campaigned to change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, was the first signal to me of a major turning point (Source: NY Times article). The bodyguard had become something of a celebrity in jihadist circles and even has a mosque dedicated to him. So while they will never admit it publicly, I believe the Pakistani establishment now seems serious about taking on the cancer they created. Perhaps, it is out of necessity; they see people growing wary of government inaction against radical Islamist ideology and bombing after bombing that targets innocent women and children.

Secondly, in doing this, Modi has sent a strong and clear signal to the United States and the United Nations that India is willing to co-operate without pre-conditions in a joint terrorism investigation. The ball now falls squarely in Pakistan’s court to prove that they too are serious about rooting out home grown jihadism and joining the world in this fight. If Pakistan fails to deliver after publicly being handed the terrorist’s DNA, family details and unfettered access to the crime scene, then India still comes out on top. This also strengthens India’s hand for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council by showing that they can act responsibly, putting global security ahead of the government’s own narrow political self-interest.

Finally, I have always believed that to resolve conflict and make real progress, somebody needs to take the higher ground and stop posturing. This usually means one party agreeing to do something in good faith, even before the other party has done anything in return. Of course it is also always difficult for the party seen to acquiesce. It therefore takes courage and means ignoring popularity ratings, sentiments of the electorate and even the advice of your own national security advisors, as I am sure Modi did in this case.

Sure, it is a gamble and nothing might come of it, but for all the reasons I have outlined, it is worth doing in order to break the status quo, and to try to make some meaningful progress. There can be no prosperity without peace on our borders.

The world is a more dangerous place today because most governments talk the talk, but rarely take actions that will make them unpopular with their electorates or make their leadership look ‘weak’ – even if they know it is the right thing to do. For this reason, we should all applaud our Prime Minister’s decision on this matter.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Open Letter to Anupam Kher: I Come in Peace

Anupam Kher at the Tata Literature Fest (Image: Huffington Post)

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” 
George Orwell 

Dear Mr. Kher,

Like many of my peers I grew up seeing you grace our screens, playing everyone from a closed-minded father to an incorruptible cop and a lovable scoundrel. So I write to you as someone who genuinely admired your on screen characters and also looked up to your generation of actors.

Incidentally, I also agree with you that India needs Modi at this moment, to champion development, cut through red tape and reduce corruption in order to usher in phase two of the liberalization that the brilliant Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh birthed, championed and shepherded. I too want Modi to succeed so that India can succeed; it is in this context that I would like to better understand the motivations behind your recent off-screen antics.

Granted India is a free country and nothing stops a person from speaking his mind, however mindlessly he may choose to do it. But there is good reason why we are not aware of the political or religious beliefs of most public figures. Unless you are an activist, self-proclaimed Godman or a politician, sharing these views has no bearing on your profession; one could argue that public figures who use their fame, beyond raising social issues, are taking advantage of the goodwill we have given them.

To be clear I have no problem with your speaking out, even though I find your interpretation of free speech nauseatingly narrow and your defense of the current government glaringly one-sided.

What offends me is the fact that you are making the world believe India is a weak and cowardly nation. A nation filled with wimps who are offended at the drop of a hat, and led by such a weak Prime Minster that he needs an actor to defend him. Beyond this, I confess I am also truly confounded by your goals for the following reasons. 

First, I am sure we can agree that the level of national pride China (or North Korea) touts its citizens have for their country is unquestioned. But we all know that it is forced nationalism, driven by brainwashing and fear. Here is the startling proof of China’s nationalist lie: by one estimate more than $1 trillion in capital left China in 2015 – a foreign education for a child can serve as a first step towards capital flight, foreign investment, and even eventual emigration.” (Source: Economist article). Similarly, if we continue down this path, the pseudo-nationalism you are now touting in India will cause the brightest and best to flee. We see the same in Pakistan, Iran, Russia and every other ‘deeply’ nationalistic nation.

Don’t you think that India has suffered enough over the last few decades of brain drain? Now under Modi we have a real chance to make progress by bringing back the brightest and best minds – do you really want to become the catalyst and poster child for another exodus?

Second, I have no doubt that you were offended by the words of a few students at JNU, as you claim. For me here is the bottom line - it does not matter what the purpose of the student gathering was or what slogans were chanted; even if it was convened to question the death penalty of a terrorist or if they called him a martyr, I am willing to allow it and here is why.

I agree that it is heinous to glorify a convicted terrorist, but mere words cannot shake my belief in the strength of India. More importantly, it is only through debate and dialogue that we can challenge and change views we disagree with. I prefer to know what people think and feel, rather than forcibly stifle their voices, only to have them bottle it up and then vent it in more dangerous ways. 

Granted, my line of thinking requires having the courage to hear what we find most offensive, and also requires a deep belief in the fundamentals of our democracy, the power of our nation and our current leadership’s ability. So I can only surmise that you do not share the same faith in the power or fabric of our nation, the deep roots of our democracy or in our current Prime Minister’s 56 inch chest (Source: NDTV article).

The point is that irrespective of how you or I felt about what transpired at JNU, do you honestly believe the solution is to jail our young minds, misguided as they might be, using a law our British rulers created to silence our dissent?

All I ask is that you show some faith in our nation, and our Prime Minster. Give him time to do his job, and stop making it harder for him by causing unnecessary division and strife. Most of all please stop making us Indians look like wimps who are offended at the drop of a hat.

Because if we continue to choose to take offense to words, if we choose to stifle anger and forcibly suppress dissent – we will fuel the anger and find we are responsible for turning once harmless words into much more dangerous actions. 


A Fellow Indian

p.s. On a more personal note, you seem to be a rather sensitive chap. One who gets offended quite easily and regularly. Instead of wasting taxpayer money on public defenders, lengthy trials and diverting precious few police resources from fighting crime, you might want to consider hiring a psychologist. I am sure you can afford the best shrink in India and if these sessions help you grow a slightly thicker skin, you will also have the gratitude of the small minority of citizens who pay all the taxes in India.