The year we learnt to hit pause before reacting
One of the things that the Western media seem most surprised by is the relative calm with which India has handled the 26/11 attacks. Many Western countries had worried that our immediate response to the terror strikes would be to bomb Pakistan. And certainly, much of the commentary in the foreign press in the days after the attacks concentrated on the imminent war in the region. The predictions of an attack on Pakistan came because of the way other states have reacted to terrorism—and the US’ responses in particular.
American presidents have regularly sent missiles and bombers to destroy sites in sovereign countries that they believe are being used for terrorist activities. Ronald Reagan bombed Libya. Bill Clinton bombed Afghanistan. And of course, George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 was the invasion of Afghanistan.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
If we went by American precedents, India would have no difficulty in offering a moral justification for an invasion of Pakistan. Consider the post 9/11 response. America asked the Afghan government to hand over Osama bin Laden. When the Afghans refused, the US invaded and instituted “regime change”.
So, when Pakistan refused to hand over terror suspects, we could have used the same justification for launching our own invasion.
So, why didn’t we do that? Why has the mood in India been so introspective rather than aggressive? We almost seem angrier with ourselves—and with our politicians and intelligence services—than we do with the terrorists. Why don’t people who want us to carpet bomb Pakistan receive a more enthusiastic response?
I’m wary of making grand judgements but it seems to me that 2008 might go down in history as the year when Indians became coolly realistic about what it means to live next door to Pakistan.
The Indian response to Pakistan has always been complex. In the north, memories of the horrors of Partition have largely faded but a new generation of Punjabis remains fascinated by Pakistan and Pakistanis. It is fashionable to caricature the Punjabi attitude to Pakistan in terms of old buffers lighting candles at the Wagah border, dreaming of the by-lanes of Lahore and inviting professional peaceniks from across the border to seminars at the India International Centre.
But that generation is dying out. And though its descendants do not share in the nostalgia, they still respond to that old cliché: “We are the same people, really”. When I edited the Hindustan Times, I was forever being told by market research agencies that readers in Punjabi Delhi (even younger ones) wanted more news from Pakistan.