Headley: Metaphor for faulty Pak policy

David Headley’s deposition before an Indian court has caused something of a storm in the Indian media. Surprisingly, the so-called sensational disclosures made by Headley contain neither any new revelation nor any new information about the conspiracy and planning behind the 26/11 attacks, the organic links that tie Pakistani state actors with ‘non-state actors’, the duplicity of and deception by the Pakistani state to use law not as a tool to punish but as a shield to protect terrorists. Everything Headley has said before the Mumbai court had been said by him earlier, during his trial in an American court and during his questioning by a team of NIA. And yet, the Headley deposition is important not just in the context of some cases related to 26/11, but also because, in its own way, it is a scathing indictment of India’s failed, even non-existent, policy towards Pakistan.

IF whatever Headley has said in court is sounding like a stunning new revelation, it is because the memory of the Indian society is similar to that of a goldfish, which keeps circulating in a bowl of water because no sooner than it completes one round, it forgets having done the round. Like the goldfish, India has a poor historical memory, which is also why history has a nasty habit of repeating itself in this country.

If whatever Headley has said in court is sounding like a stunning new revelation, it is because the memory of the Indian State and society is similar to that of a goldfish, which keeps circulating in a bowl of water because no sooner than it completes one round, it forgets having done the round. Like the goldfish, India has a poor historical memory, which is also why history has a nasty habit of repeating itself in this country. To the extent that Headley’s deposition has refreshed memories of Indians about all that happened in the 26/11 attacks, it will help in keeping the eyes fixed on the ball of terrorism emanating from Pakistan. But this goldfish memory is precisely what the Pakistanis exploit when they ask India to forget the past and move on. The problem is every time India moves on, the past repeats itself. The Headley deposition, therefore, isn’t just a metaphor for the national malady of memory loss, but worse, it stands testimony to a national failure to understand the nature of the threat and enemy that India faces. The result is that the same old mistakes are repeated because the same old theories and propositions that have failed in the past continue to guide policy formulation in the future.

Take for instance how easily someone like Headley could enter India legally (and that too from Pakistan!), roam about freely, set up a business in Mumbai and do the recce for his terrorist partners. This is one of the glaring side-effects of the fiction of people-to-people relations that many in India keep peddling. In theory, the idea is that if Pakistanis visit India, they will see that the reality of India is very different from the lies they have been fed by the Pakistani establishment. Once their perception of India changes, there will be people in Pakistan to challenge the false narrative of their government. In practise, however, there is not a shred of evidence to prove the correctness of this theory, much less it’s efficacy in the real world. Quite to the contrary, the Pakistanis have used the liberal visa policy to set up their terrorist sleeper cells, spy networks, and reconnaissance agents in all parts of India. The visa policy is a clear failure as it exists, with almost nothing to show for it.

Then there is the entire issue of nurturing peace constituencies in Pakistan and/or engaging the Pakistan army. Both are based on wishful thinking. The Americans, for example, have been very close to the Pakistan army, and a fat lot of good it did to the American troops who were killed in their thousands with the active complicity and connivance of the Pakistan army. If Pakistan army could stab the Americans in the back, what makes them think that ‘Kautilyas’ and ‘Kissingers’  won’t do the same to India? As for cultivating ‘peace constituencies’, these have neither been clearly identified, nor is there any clarity on the worth and weight of these constituencies in helping India achieve its objectives. Simply because some of the people from these ‘constituencies’ form Pakistan’s interface with Indians, there is a tendency to jump to the conclusion that most people desire friendly relations with India. But there is no empirical study on the basis of which such an assertion can be made. In other words, India forms its Pakistan policy on the basis of anecdotal evidence gathered from a very limited interaction with ‘people-like-us’, which needless to say is an infinitesimally small and utterly irrelevant minority. In the process the vast majority of people who do not harbour very nice feelings for India are ignored. Any surprise then that all policy initiatives taken by India come crashing down?

Headley has given a list of potential targets he was asked to recce. These included a nuclear establishment, religious places, academic centres and public places. An attack on any one of the places he reconnoitred could have resulted in mass casualties, even a catastrophe (if a nuclear establishment was attacked). Interestingly, Headley’s missions to prepare for mass murder in India took place at a time when hosannas were being sung over the excellent state of relations between the two countries! Years after Headley’s arrest, Pakistan’s basic objective to commit mass murder and provoke a war and/or unrest inside India hasn’t changed. If the Gurdaspur and Pathankot attacks had gone according to plan, they would have resulted in mass casualties. This means that even though Pakistan’s advocates in India keep peddling the line that Pakistan has changed and is seriously combating terrorism, the reality is completely the opposite. And yet, if we want to continue to believe the lies we are told, then the problem isn’t with Pakistan, it is with us.

Many in India think that reaching out to and making grand gestures will help to changes Pakistan’s unremitting inimicalness towards India. But after seven decades and many grand gestures, nothing has changed. The reason is that India makes the mistake of being ready to compromise on both principle as well as its position (often under the influence of the Pakistani lobby) because it is advised that since Pakistan will remain rigid, India should show flexibility. What is worse, congenitally the Indian mind is unable to process the simple fact that there are some issues that have no solutions. As a result, there is always an inexorable quest to find ‘a way forward’ or ‘a way out’ of the logjam. But the moment India shows keenness towards a search for a solution, Pakistan is emboldened and incentivised to stick to its uncompromising line.

India really needs to seriously break the shibboleths that have informed its desultory policy framework on Pakistan. What India needs is a hard-nosed policy devoid of any sort of silly sentimentalism or nostalgia, ruthless in protecting its interests and integrity and relentless in the pursuit of well-defined strategic and security objectives. The policy, by definition, must be a national policy which will not change with every government. And the policy must cover all aspects of national power and should be pursued for as long as it takes to attain its objectives. Neither the inevitable roadblocks and setbacks, nor the pressure of unreliable friends and allies, should detract India from the policy. And if as a country, India isn’t prepared to do what it needs to do, then it should be prepared for what Headley is telling us that the Pakistanis will continue to do.

The author is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation.

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