Exactly what should not have happened has happened. Even worse than jingoism is stooping to the level of a pesky criminal and emulating his actions. That’s exactly what seems to have happened when a Pakistani prisoner was attacked in a Jammu jail yesterday – clearly in retaliation against the fate meted out by Pakistani prisoners to Sarabjit recently. This kind of barbaric retaliation doesn’t do any good for India’s image; besides, it goes against the very definition of Gandhi’s India – one of forbearance against retaliation.
Suddenly the shoe is on the other foot. Suddenly all the shrill questions we were asking the Pakistanis will now be asked of us. Suddenly the word “lawless” will apply to India as much as it does to Pakistan. Unfortunately, we have gone down to the level of our wayward neighbor; surrendered our moral high-ground. This post is not written to schmooze or defend Pakistan. That country remains our perennial enemy and must be dealt with in a variety of ways to contain it. This post is written from an Indian point of view – from a sense of anguish that India will again be bracketed with the likes of its neighbors.
So lets see what questions we asked Pakistan over the last few days. These same questions the Pakistanis will now pose to us: How did Sanaullah’s fellow prisoner have weapons on him? Surely that indicates a Indian conspiracy of retaliation? What were the jail authorities doing when all this happened? Why did they not heed the advice given by the Indian government that such an attack could take place against Pakistani prisoners? The Pakistani government will demand that India return the prisoner to it. Or takes him to a third country for treatment, hinting that our medical facilities are sub-Saharan (and hurting our pride of being a preferred destination for medical tourism). They will demand that we first suspend and then punish prison authorities who allowed all this to happen “right under their noses”.
We deserve none of this. In global politics, India stands out as being an island of justice and fair play, surrounded by belligerent, don’t-care-for-human-rights regimes whether it is Sri Lanka or Pakistan or China. Even in American TV shows, India is shown as a fast growing economic miracle while Pakistan is shown as a terrorist hub. Watch Homeland and you will realize how a CIA boss is shown married to an Indian woman (a driven professional, one who sacrifices her personal life to chase her goals) and a Mumbai based call center is featured. In contrast, an Arab is put under suspicion merely because of his frequent travels to Karachi. This kind of portrayal is not limited to this one show. It’s a stereotype that has developed since 9/11. India’s own foreign policy (which right wingers – most notably the BJP – will never understand) of “de-hyphenating” itself from Pakistan was implemented flawlessly in the last decade. The US embraced India, welcoming it to the nuclear club; in fact, pushing its candidacy through very difficult and obdurate Europeans. When Pakistan demanded the same status, it was show the middle finger.
India forced the US leaders not to mix their India trips with hop overs in Pakistan. The PMs and Presidents of all the 5 nuclear nations – US, UK, France, China and Russia – came visiting India last year to build their relationships with India. None visited Pakistan. This attack – this behaving like them – has made India look like we are no different from them. The only difference is that we have a democracy and they have a military-backed or military-controlled government (read Dilip Padgaonkar’s editorial in TOI today – Dealing with a cussed Pakistan).
So I am not being a Pakistani apologist here. I don’t think that this Pakistani prisoner deserved any sympathy from us. I don’t think he was innocent like Sarabjit was. I don’t think the Pakistanis are anything but cruel and inhuman. But the prisoner deserved safety in our jail. It unnecessarily forces India to surrender its moral high-ground. It unnecessarily equates India with Pakistan. And it unnecessarily re-hyphenates India with Pakistan.
In any case, media frenzy around events is starting to drive the Government’s response these days. Salman Khursheed is reportedly canceling his trip to China, as if that will solve the problem. He is clearly catering to the BJP’s demand that he do so. Will the Indian government’s response to this prisoner attack be a weak one or will it be exemplary? In the past, the Government has been seen as being fair even to the worst criminals – Kasab was given full legal representation and access to the Indian justice system, and not rushed into execution. In the developed world, that earned us accolades, even though many right-wingers in India saw it as a sign of the Congress’s “softness”. I am worried that a harried Indian government, in an election year, will be forced to take a hardline stance that lowers our standing, when it should be doing the exact opposite.
I can also imagine a hardline BJP giving a silly “This is bound to happen” kind of statement, like it gave after pulling down the Babri Masjid (remember the “it was a popular movement” line?). I can also imagine hardliners like Modi making it a campaign point. An eye for an eye should be India’s approach, Gandhi be damned, is what he will say. I can imagine a lot of people – with right-wing leanings no doubt – speaking in defence of what an ex-Army man did to the Pakistani prisoner, even calling him a hero. Pathetic.
The real truth is that we have been shamed by this murder inside our jail. We are now just as guilty of cruelty as we accuse Pakistan to be. That self-destructive, wretched nation deserved no space to play; now we have given them that space. It’s another sad day for the country…..just as yesterday was when Sarabjit died.