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January 09, 2004
The late 1980s represented the decade of smoking the 'peace pipe.' Rajiv Gandhi's regime embarked on signing agreements with anybody picking a bone with New Delhi in order to bring about 'peace.' After going through the motions of negotiation and discussing peripheral issues, the government would sign an 'accord' that supposedly ushered in peace. The signing of the peace accord would be routinely followed by the accord going up in smoke before the ink dried.
Shortly after the signing of the Punjab accord in 1985, Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal (the main signatory for the Akali side) was assassinated. The accord signed with the AASU (All Assam Students Union) a few days later saw the spawning of other student movements in Assam without any abatement in violence. The 1987 accord with the Sri Lankan government achieved little besides drag the Indian army into the quagmire of Sri Lanka's civil war earning them the uncomplimentary sobriquet of 'Innocent People Killing Force.' Nevertheless, the government (and media outlets parroting the government, Doordarshan for instance) would routinely hold each peace accord to be a grand success.
Fast forward 17 years and see history repeat itself.
Consider the present SAARC tamasha. Even as delegates bid each other adieu, politicians and certain sections of the media are all ga-ga over 'progress' at the SAARC summit. Indeed, some seem to be falling over each other in singing paeans of praise to the supposed successes of the summit. Specifically, the pre-SAARC conference between foreign ministers of various countries is being trumpeted as being 'historic' and a 'harbinger of peace.' And what exactly is the cause for the euphoria?
It turns out that the foreign ministers of all countries involved in the SAARC summit have agreed upon the importance of discussing three different issues -- an additional protocol on terrorism, a framework for free trade (SAFTA) and a SAARC social charter. This in itself, resulted in 'a highly positive development,' according to External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha. Furthermore, the two sides have agreed to meet in February for a 'historic meeting' that addresses all ills plaguing the sub-continent, starting with violence and terrorism.
Much of the euphoria stems from the apparent willingness to discuss the prickly issue of terrorism. After all, terrorism has reduced a once thriving and prosperous Sri Lanka into pathetic penury while simultaneously bleeding India for more than a decade. Indeed, the expenses related to fighting terrorism have eclipsed the gigantic economic strides made by India, contributing to a complex set of causes that have prevented the latter from being discernable at the individual level.
However, how realistic will the progress be?
While all parties agree about the eradication of terrorism, there doesn't seem to be any agreement on the definition of a terrorist. Indeed, this million dollar question is slated to be discussed at the February summit. We need to remember that Pakistan's alternative view of reality posits 'freedom fighters' in Kashmir, as opposed to terrorists raising hell in the name of heaven. Despite compelling proof to the contrary, Pakistan consistently refuses to accept its sponsorship of terrorists in Kashmir as well as other parts of India.
Unless there is a major change in Pakistani attitudes over the next month, no significant progress may be expected on this front. India's 'terrorists' will continue to remain 'freedom fighters' in Pakistan. And since 'freedom fighters' claim to be inspired by none other than Allah, they can do no wrong, let alone submit to punishment. The above scenario is buttressed by recent developments in Kashmir. Pervez Musharraf recently made his peace with the vocal and volatile Islamic hardline parties in Pakistan by agreeing to step down as army chief in exchange for their supporting his continuation as president. A wily Musharraf (whose ingenuity in retaining his kursi remain unmatched) can hardly be expected to turn his back on his new friends within the month. The much trumpeted 'conciliatory' stance will disappear, to be replaced by a jihadi fervour that would do Osama bin Laden proud.
Indeed, the out-of-character 'conciliatory attitude' is nothing but Musharraf's tangoing to the tune of the Americans as a part of his adroitly walking the tightrope between Islamic extremists and the Americans in order to hang onto power. Come next month, all that will be agreed upon is the unacceptability of terrorism without any agreement on who is a terrorist. India also seems to be buoyed by the agreement about not admitting terrorists as 'refugees.' This issue is critical in view of the antics of the likes of ULFA leader Paresh Baruah's by disappearing into Bangladesh and other terrorists playing the Flying Dutchman by disappearing into Pakistan.
It is pertinent to point out that the South Asian nations have not signed the 1951 Geneva Accord that governs refugee acceptance internationally. Since the acceptance of such 'refugees' is deemed to be permanent, the only acceptance that can be discussed will be 'temporary status' (in which the accepted refugee is required to return to their country of origin after the situation improves). Such status has been long granted by India to refugees from various countries starting with Tibeteans fleeing the Chinese occupation in 1959. Subsequent examples include the acceptance of Buddhist Chakma refugees from Bangladesh and Tamils from Sri Lanka.
India can also expect a battle over acceptable standards of evidence to link a potential refugee to terrorism. Given Pakistan's obduracy over repatriating Indian criminals and hijackers hiding in Karachi through demanding impossible standards of proof, the best one can hope for is developing legal criteria that are virtually inapplicable to mortal beings. In addition, admission on legal grounds can always be bypassed by the government acting purportedly on humanitarian grounds. In other words, should the family of an alleged terrorist (as opposed to the terrorist himself) show up at Pakistan's border and request refuge as a result of 'religious persecution,' would Pakistan refuse them admission? And after admitting the family, would it be fair to separate them from the patriarch, even when he is linked to terrorism?
Surely, 'humanitarian grounds' will compel the government to admit the accused on a temporary basis. The immense power available to governments (especially in a dictatorship like Pakistan) for admitting refugees on 'special grounds' would make a mockery of any legal definitions excluding claimants demonstrating a clear nexus to terrorism. India would be back where it began. If anything, any agreements over refusing admission to terrorists would only hurt its ability to offer shelter to refugees escaping religious persecution.
This is best illustrated in the case of Chakma refugees from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh. As a result of being targeted for conversion to Islam, the Chakmas have seen untold suffering at the hands of the Bangladeshi army. Through a perverse flipping of definitions, Bangladesh accuses Chakmas of terrorism due to the latter's opposition to conversion. Since thousands of Chakmas pour into Tripura every year, India can expect Bangladesh to lobby for the removal of the former through accusations of terrorism.
Should India refuse the request (as it ought to), it can expected to be pilloried and censured over the seeming double standards. Pakistan, ever ready to assist a fellow Islamic country no matter how quixotic the cause, can be expected to lead the chorus in condemning India. India could therefore find itself trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea -- being falsely accused of assisting terrorists without nary a thought to its genuine concerns.
Hardly surprising, since history tends to repeat itself. High-profile meetings about South Asia's future yield nothing but low profile results.
S Gopikrishna writes on matters pertinent to India and Indians from Toronto. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org