What's the real 'core issue' between India and Pakistan?

February, 2005

One of the beauties of language is that if used properly, it can throw up solutions to problems or at least highlight the reasons as to why a solution cannot be found. Take India's most intractable problem: the seemingly impossible task of talking constructively with Pakistan. What's holding back the two countries?

Let's first analyse what's currently happening: when speaking of a solution on Kashmir or any other subject, the first thing that everyone says is, "The leaders of both countries need to sit down and talk. Dialogue between the leadership of India and Pakistan is the only way forward." It sounds a reasonable enough request.

So if India doesn't talk for whatever reason, the world community tells us we should. Pakistan insists it is willing to talk anytime, anyplace. If we do talk and the talks fail, we always say, "There's no problem between the people of India and Pakistan. It's the leadership of both sides that's to blame."

As Indians, we find it quite easy to deride our leaders as self-serving and ineffectual, political animals that they are. Yes, terrorism is a problem and yes, Pakistani leaders can't be trusted - remember Kargil? But despite this, surely India's leadership can do a better job of talking? General Musharraf appears positively suave and sophisticated compared to our TV-unfriendly topi-wearing netas.

But the truth is that we - and the world community - are being too harsh on India's leaders. In continually asking our leaders to talk to Pakistan's leaders, we are completely and totally missing the real problem. This is where language can help us pinpoint the 'core issue', to use General Musharraf's own terms.

When talking of a 'leader', who do we mean? In a democratic context, when we use the word 'leader', it is always implicit that the person is elected. A huge democratic framework, independent institutions and mindset form an intricate foundation that supports the simple word "elected". And before becoming a leader in a democratic country, a person has to jump through several hoops - right from getting a ticket from a party, debating issues, talking to the people, standing for elections and so on. You need a complex set of skills and mental make-up to do all this. The game is played according to certain rules and everyone has to play by these rules. Most importantly, elected leaders respect the military but have power over the military. For the most part, the system in India works.

Now let's take the dictatorial context. When talking of a leader, who do we mean? An individual who usurps power through any means, usually military force. If a person wants leadership of a country, he steps up, points a big gun at the incumbent's head and appoints himself as leader. End of story. No debate, no discussion, no election, no politics, no nothing. Compromise? Never heard of the word. Discussion? Not necessary - I talk, you listen. Legal system? I am it. You have a different point of view? No problem, as long as it's my view. Rules? The only rules around here are the ones I make - violate them and you get a bullet. Most importantly, the military is all-powerful. Military-men have nothing but contempt for elected civilian leaders.

Let's now revisit the statement that "The leaders of the two countries must talk". In the case of India and Pakistan, what should we really be saying instead? We should be more accurately saying, "The elected civilian leader of India and the unelected military dictator [who overthrew his elected civilian leader] of Pakistan must talk". Read that long-winded sentence again: "The elected civilian leader of India and the unelected military dictator [who overthrew his elected civilian leader] of Pakistan must talk". And again: "The elected civilian leader of India and the unelected military dictator [who overthrew his elected civilian leader] of Pakistan must talk". Read it until it's burned into your brain.

You can see why people don't like using long-winded sentences. Far easier to say, "The leaders must talk". But use the sentence that you've just burned into your brain, and do you expect talks to succeed? No way. Because it's like asking if we expect animals from different species to talk sensibly to each other. Dictators know only the language of force and don't need to know how to talk. In contrast, leaders in democratic countries have to talk all the time. Worst of all, the dictator has only barely disguised contempt for the civilian leader he sees across the table. In contrast, the civilian leader is going crazy trying to talk to an unelected military man unschooled in the business of talking. The talks get off to a bad start in the first moments itself.

The United States understands this dynamic extremely well. It only talks to dictators in the language of force: "Do this, or else you know what will happen". Although American Presidents superficially 'talk' to dictators, they're usually telling the dictators what to do. General Musharraf understands the language of force only too well, and dare I say, is happy that he's been spoken to in his language. Things are very clear-cut, unlike the messy and long-winded negotiations that otherwise have to take place.

So the core issue is not terrorism or Kashmir or Musharraf himself or the ineptitude of our netas. The core issue is that Pakistan is not, and has never been, a real democracy. An aggressive military has been either on the throne or the power behind the throne. Unfortunately, until that changes, nothing will fundamentally change the relationship between India and Pakistan.

- Chetan Dhruve from Bangalore

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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