The predictable has happened. The militant attack on the Indian Air Force Base in Pathankot near the Pakistan border last week had an eerie but unmistakable footprint: Whenever India and Pakistan grudgingly take the chance to work on securing peace, the familiar enemy strikes.
As a result, the world’s most testy and testing bilaterals are once again in the throes of a major challenge.
To be sure, as anyone with a bare grasp of Indo-Pak history of talks knows, a certain foreboding always accompanies any hope of getting around a modicum of peace. My own headline in this space a fortnight ago for the mush that followed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pleasantly surprise visit to Pakistan was coined: Lahore once more as India, Pakistan fashion new hope.
Lahore, suddenly, looks distant, like all that was ordained for it was a cameo caper in a villainous script. Now that the common enemy of India and Pakistan has struck, with the haunting trust deficit weighing down heavily, what to do?
The easiest thing to do of course, would be to break up again, undercut the other and continue to be locked in the bitter past — hence, compromising the promise of a shared future. That, it is worth emphasising, would be to foolishly play right into the hands of the fringe elements who have continued to dictate how the nuclear-capable giants would treat their inseparable geography.
It is precisely how it has happened in the past, almost as if woven into the script. But what has emerged from the latest episode is not all doom and gloom, and so thank God for small mercies. The sliver of hope is pivoted on the hugely reassuring resolve of both India and Pakistan to cooperate in getting down to the dénouement of the attack with one side asking — and the other readily showing willingness — to act against those responsible, if there’s enough evidence.
Unlike the past, India has not abruptly cancelled the foreign secretary level talks scheduled next week although there might now be a revised programme if these do go ahead. Meanwhile, the National Security Advisors have already exchanged notes and will probably be in business again in the days to come after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called up his counterpart to condemn the terrorist attack, express sorrow over the loss of lives and promise action if there was evidence of those involved having used Pakistani soil for the attack.
It was followed by the highest level civil and military leadership contact in Islamabad Friday headed by Sharif, which included the Army and ISI chiefs. Later, an official statement unequivocally condemned the terrorist attack, mentioned a review of the intelligence shared by India and a pledge to cooperate with New Delhi to eradicate terrorism in the entire region.
Earlier in the first official reaction, Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Vikas Swaroop, appeared to suggest an unannounced timeline of a week in what pundits in India described as a measured approach, but many in Pakistan saw as a dampener over concerns it may erode the hard-earned trust made possible after much burning of midnight oil by making the fate of the talks hinge on results within a week.
How treacherous the terrain is in terms of ‘conquering’ public opinion across the divide can be gauged from how the two Prime Minister Offices related the crux of the call to their respective domestic audiences.
While the Indian Prime Minister’s Office said in a press statement that “PM Nawaz Sharif assured PM Modi that his government would take prompt and decisive action against the terrorists,” the Pakistan PM House calibrated the exchange thus: “Our government is working on the leads and information provided by the Indian government. We would like to investigate the matter.”
Still, it is heartening that the two governments have exercised restraint and continued to take a relatively rational approach going forward despite the predictable reaction in the Indian media, and a reflex defensive mould evident this side of the Indus. Even though there are no guarantees what will happen tomorrow, the mere willingness to be patient offers a ray of hope.
While India has a genuine grouse over the issue of terrorism, what is often overlooked/ignored in the debate is the fact that Pakistan itself is a victim of multi-hued terrorism so sweeping in its scale and which, it has only more recently managed to fight and contain — in the ongoing military operation — that it needs breathing space to address concerns over what poses present and clear danger to its own integrity.
With the litmus test of patience on the anvil, the predicament is akin to the one captured brilliantly by celebrated 20th century Indian Urdu poet Jigar Muradabadi, who had famously inferred of the trials and tribulations of love thus:
Ye ishq nahi aasan, itna to samajh leejiye
Ek aag ka darya hai, aur doob ke jaana hai
(Just understand that love isn’t easy
It’s a river of fire and you’ve to wade through it)
• The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad.