Don’t politicise fight against terror

The endeavour requires national unity and using it to garner votes is not going to strengthen the country

Sudheendra Kulkarni

History rejects what human nature abhors. Good triumphs over evil. Truth wins over untruth. Love overcomes hatred. This is eternally valid, because evil, untruth and hatred are abhorrent to human nature. Whatever is inimical to the essential nature of humanity may gain an upper hand for some time, and its temporary dominance may shake human beings’ faith in their own destiny, but history ultimately applies the correction.

In recent history, terrorism is one of those anti-human phenomena that have made its perpetrators – also some of its opponents – believe that it cannot be defeated. There was a time just a few years ago, when it seemed that the Islamic State or ISIS would establish its rule in a large part of West Asia. Earlier, Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden appeared invincible. But look where they are now. They committed every conceivable crime against humanity. But slowly but surely, they are in retreat now. Not so much because of America’s mis-called ‘War on Terror’, which has perpetrated many crimes of its own. Rather, the real reason is that Islamist terrorism was a ‘War on Islam’; it was an attack against a religion, whose real nature and real message is peace.

Pakistan’s Frankenstein Monster

Our own country has been a victim of terrorism for close to four decades now. The source of this terrorism lies across the border – in Pakistan. The rulers in Pakistan mistakenly believed that they could defeat India by sponsoring terrorism, an objective they could not achieve through conventional wars. But their sponsorship of terrorism, and their support to religious extremism (which was necessary to misguide and motivate terrorists), has suffered two kinds of defeats. First, it has bled but not beaten India – and it never will. Second, it has suffered defeat on home ground.

After this Frankenstein Monster of terrorism received overt and covert official patronage in Pakistan, it trained its guns on its own sponsors and the soil that sheltered it. Pakistan’s military had to wage its own fierce ‘War on Terror’ (Zarb-e-Azb, which was followed by Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad). As its Prime Minister Imran Khan has recently revealed, terrorism has claimed the lives of as many as 70,000 Pakistanis. The people, and a growing section of the ruling establishment of Pakistan (both civilian and military), are now realising that an alliance with evil can be very costly.

This realisation is further driven home to them by the chain of events that followed the barbaric terror attack at Pulwama in Kashmir on February 14, in which 40 CRPF jawans were martyred. Jaish-e-Mohammed, a dreaded and UN-proscribed terrorist organisation which operates from Pakistani soil, claimed responsibility for the attack. In the beginning, neither Pakistan’s establishment nor its media understood the depth of anguish and anger in India. But things started changing once India stood firm, made it clear that the evil act would not go unpunished, and mobilised international opinion urging Pakistan to make necessary amends.

Rahul Gandhi’s prompt and principled stand

Here it must be mentioned that, even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to the opposition, Congress president Rahul Gandhi was the first leader to immediately announce, through a press conference, that his party was fully behind the Indian Armed Forces and also the Indian Government in the hour of adversity. In Lucknow, the party’s newly appointed general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi, similarly called off all her political programmes in condemnation of the terror attack and in solidarity with the nation’s resolve to give a befitting reply to the act of terror. The Congress party acted with great maturity and alacrity, and its response was widely appreciated.

In my comments on TV and in the social media at the time, I said that this was once again a ‘Mahabharat’ moment in Indian politics. There is a highly instructive motto (in Sanskrit) in the Mahabharata epic − “Vayam Panchadhikam Shatam”. It means: “We are not five or hundred, but 105”. As is well known, the epic narrates the dispute in the Kuru family between five Pandava brothers and their 100 Kaurava cousins. However, when there is an aggression by an external enemy, who is about to vanquish the Kauravas, Yudhishthir (also called Dharmaraj), the wise leader of Pandavas exhorts his younger brothers: “When we are fighting amongst ourselves, we are five Pandavas versus 100 Kauravas. But when an external enemy attacks us, we must become a united force of 105 to defeat the common foe.”

In other words, Rahul Gandhi demonstrated that he is a true follower of the sagacious leader of the Pandavas.

Sadly, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has not shown the same sagacity. The entire nation stood behind the Prime Minister, but he chose to be partisan. Parliamentary elections being round the corner, he once again jettisoned ‘Raj Dharma’ (ethical canons that rule the ruler) for narrow political gains. Since the Pulwama attack took place, he has not even once reached out to the opposition – either directly or through his numerous, and increasingly shrill, speeches – in an appeal for national unity in the face of adversity. He did not chair the all-party meeting that unanimously condemned the Pulwama attack, even though it is both customary and mandatory for the prime minister to do so under such circumstances. The all-party resolution read: “The entire nation speaks in one voice to express its determination to fight these challenges… [and] stand[s] united in solidarity with our security forces in fighting terrorism.” Sadly, the prime minister was speaking his own voice that was in dissonance with the letter and spirit of the all-party resolution.

Questioning Amit Shah’s baseless claims is not questioning the Indian Air Force

The dissonance became louder and sharper after the Indian Air Force carried out an attack on targets inside Pakistan on February 26. Congress president’s first reaction, in a tweet, was brief but eloquent: "I salute the pilots of the IAF.” In contrast, the reactions of the leaders of the ruling party were consistently of a kind that aimed at gaining political mileage from IAF’s action. In any high-risk military action of this kind – yes, it must be said here that the government’s description of this being a “non-military” action is untenable – there are bound to be some hits and misses. Therefore, when legitimate questions started being asked about the number of JeM terrorists killed in the IAF attack, the BJP unleashed a tornado of verbal counter-attacks on people asking such questions, alleging that they were insulting India’s Armed Forces and were closet supporters of Pakistan.

As is now well known, the debate on the fatalities in the IAF action was not begun by the BJP’s rivals, much less was it initiated by anything stated by IAF itself. Rather, it is the ruling party and its loudspeakers in the media – vividly called the ‘godi media’, which translates into purchased media – which began proclaiming that nearly “300 terrorists” had been killed in the Air Force attack on a JeM terror camp in Balakot. None other than BJP chief Amit Shah, speaking at an event in Ahmedabad, claimed that “more than 250 terrorists” were killed in the airstrike in Balakot. This claim flew in the face of a categorical statement by Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa that IAF does not count casualties, only targets. Even though IAF’s strike has forced Pakistan to start taking some action – how sustained, how effective and how irreversible is yet to be seen – the fact remains that even many credible international media outlets have also cast a question on the number of terrorists killed in the attack.

In a democracy, asking reasonable questions is not irresponsible; it is an exercise of one’s right. But when asked to substantiate its claims, the ruling party resorted to a clever ruse: Prime Minister Modi himself slammed opposition leaders questioning the government and the ruling party on this matter as “poster boys of Pakistan”. As has now become their pet and petty retort, several senior BJP leaders asked those seeking proof of fatalities “to go to Pakistan”. It took a brave and independent TV anchor like Rahul Kanwal of India Today, whose patriotism was questioned by Piyush Goyal, a senior minister in Modi’s government, to tell him bluntly: ‘I don’t need any lesson in patriotism and nationalism from you.’ Kanwal was certainly speaking for millions of patriotic and democracy-loving Indians.

Here I must mention that some Congress leaders often score self-goals. A senior and experienced leader like Digvijay Singh should not have called the attack at Pulwama a “durghatana” (accident). It was an act of terrorism, plain and simple.

India needs a comprehensive strategy on terrorism and Kashmir

The moot question is this: Why are the Modi government and the ruling party trying to spin a straightforward question about BJP leaders’ claims as denigration of the nation and its armed forces? Why did they make the big, baseless and bombastic claims in the first place? The answer is simple. The BJP is politicising “Surgical Strike 2.0” for electoral gains. It wants to prove that all the previous governments – especially Congress governments and, inadvertently, even Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government – were too weak and unwilling to counter terrorism, whereas Modi alone has the will and valour to “enter the enemy’s home and strike him”. (“Dushman ke ghar mein ghusna aur maarna.”)

In short, the BJP sees Pulwama as a vote-catching opportunity. Its leaders like B.S. Yeddyurappa have already let the cat out of the bag. Therefore, it wants to make national security the overriding issue in the coming Lok Sabha elections. It is doing so because, before the Pulwama attack happened, it was unsure of winning a renewed mandate – or at least a mandate as decisive as in 2014. The Modi government’s five-year track record certainly has some pluses, but these are overshadowed by its failures to fulfil its own tall promises and people’s high expectations. It also does not want anyone to ask perfectly legitimate questions about its handling of the situation in Kashmir, where resentment and alienation are running very high. Hence it is trying to polarise the election discourse along “patriots” (those who support Modi) and “pro-Pakistani anti-nationals” (those who oppose him).

But this is a devious game, and the price for the BJP’s polarising politics will be paid by the nation and its democracy. Issues of national security and unity, and especially the conduct of Armed Forces, must always remain above partisan politics. No single party can effectively address them, as is very clear from the strife in Kashmir and the hostility between India and Pakistan. Both the internal and external dimensions of the challenge in Kashmir have eluded a lasting solution for the past seven decades. Export of terrorism from Pakistan, for which Pakistan itself has paid a very high cost in blood, is related to this basic problem.

Only an approach of national consensus, and unwavering all-party cooperation, can help India find a permanent solution to these twin issues: terrorism and Kashmir. Pre-election politics of polarisation may bring some votes, but will certainly push a possible solution farther. It is high time India evolved a comprehensive strategy on both terrorism and Kashmir, which does not rest on enmity with Pakistan and does not rely mainly on military means.

Yes, it is time to recast Indian politics on the eternal principles of “No to evil”, “No to untruth” and “No to hatred”. To these one should also add: “No to polarisation.”

(The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO. He has recently founded ‘Forum for a New South Asia’, which seeks to promote India-Pakistan-China cooperation. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.)

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Published: 7 Mar 2019, 5:15 PM