I am writing this within minutes of watching NDTV’s coverage of Wing Commander Abhinandan’s safe return to India from Pakistan, where he was detained after he had ejected onto Pakistani soil from his Indian Air Force plane. His return seems to signal at least a temporary de-escalation in the dangerous tensions between India and Pakistan, both possessing nuclear weapons.
The picture beyond the immediate short term is however not encouraging. While Pakistanis have lost thousands of their own to terrorism, their land remains hospitable to a climate that supports ‘good’ terrorism, i.e., one directed against the governments of India or Afghanistan. And while Prime Minister Imran Khan has made impressive utterances in a difficult time, the Pakistani military, which retains the final say, seems to count ‘good’ terrorists as assets.
As for India, thanks in fair part to super-patriots on its TV channels, the nation has become increasingly hospitable to a climate that (a) promotes ill-will against its Muslims (and Christians), (b) treats the state of Jammu & Kashmir as owned property and that state’s Muslim majority as a hostile population, and (c) resents the existence of Pakistan and Pakistanis. Perceived as advantageous at election time, such a climate will not disappear when elections are over.
No matter how rare or weak, positive signs too should be acknowledged -- they are precious for our spirits. One is External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s remarkable statement today (1 March) at the OIC conference in Abu Dhabi, which includes these sentences:
‘The fight against terrorism is not a confrontation against any religion. Just as Islam literally means peace, none of the 99 names of Allah mean violence. Similarly, every religion in the world stands for peace, compassion and brotherhood.
‘It is a verse in the Holy Koran which says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”
‘Communities must build bridges, not erect walls. The youth must shape the future, not destroy lives. We will work with you to counter the language of hate with the message of harmony.’
When, after the lethal suicide attack in Pulwama, Kashmiri Muslims across India were targeted by angry mobs, Sikh volunteer groups took the lead in protecting the Kashmiris and providing them with shelter and food. In return, social media in the Kashmir Valley was flooded with offers of free hotel stays for Sikh tourists, free medical check-ups and discounts on medicine for Sikh patients, free admission to educational institutes, English-speaking courses for Sikh children, and offers of blood and even kidneys.
Difficult questions that should be asked include the following: What can India, or ordinary Indian citizens, do to strengthen the hands of those in Pakistan (and there are many) who want to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism in that land?
Also, what can Pakistan or its citizens do to strengthen the hands of those in India (and these too are many) who are horrified by India’s anti-Muslim climate and want to expel it?
Sushma Swaraj’s call for ‘communities to build bridges, not walls’ has a meaning beyond Abu Dhabi and beyond the OIC. I am glad it was made there, but it should have been made months earlier in different parts of India.
Mrs. Swaraj cannot be proud that in five years BJP rule in India has strengthened walls, sharpened barbed wires, and frightened minorities. Or that her party is energetically employing an electoral strategy of dislike toward neighbouring communities and nations.
But her yearning to ‘counter the language of hate with the message of harmony’ is surely shared by a great majority in both India and Pakistan.