Twenty years ago, terrorism reared its head in Punjab. Then we called it militancy and the death-merchants were called militants. In the space of eight years, militancy claimed thousands of innocent lives. In the end however, by 1991, militancy in Punjab was practically wiped out. Punjab returned to normalcy and resumed its journey on the path of prosperity. Despite the decade-long suffering and the tragic loss of lives, Punjab is one of the more prosperous states of India.
There are valuable lessons to be learned from that experience. Fortunately, many of the key players during that period (with the exception of that brave man, Sardar Beant Singh) are still alive.
As it is today, militancy in Punjab too was encouraged, armed and financed by our neighbour across the border, Pakistan. Trained and armed militants were smuggled into India across the international boundary (which had not been fenced), they killed and maimed people, and then escaped to safe havens in Pakistan.
Throughout that tempestuous period of eight years, India did not swerve from certain basic beliefs:
That the Sikhs and the Hindus were not enemies of each other, and nothing should be said or done that would create a mental divide between the two communities;
That the militants (read Sikhs), contrary to what some claimed, were not advancing the cause of the Sikh religion, they were simply mercenaries and murderers who had to be dealt with as such;
That the Sikh religion did not support wanton killing or violence; on the contrary, like every other faith, Sikhism also preached love and brotherhood;
That the militants must be fought with all the force at the command of the State, and in this do or die battle, some militants will, unavoidably, be killed;
That a careful distinction must always be maintained between the Sikh militant and the peaceful Sikh citizen, and that the latter must be co-opted in the fight against militancy;
That the Government must, to the best of its ability, address the causes of alienation of the Sikh youth, and prevent recruitment of fresh cadres to the side of the militants;
That, above all, the State is common to both Sikhs and Hindus, and must be seen to be fair and just to both communities; that is to say that the State must be seen to be secular;
The situation in Kashmir today resembles, in many ways, the situation in Punjab 20 years ago. In my view, the same basic beliefs hold good in the current situation too. Take each one of them and substitute the word Muslim for the word Sikh and the word Islam for the word Sikhism. Can anyone honestly say that the BJP-led Central government swears by any of those beliefs Can anyone honestly say that the BJP-led government has endeavoured to put any of those beliefs into practice in its fight against terrorism
Some critics have gone so far as to say that electoral and political calculations have driven the Central governments response to terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere. Every terrorist act is attributed to Muslims, and that too Muslims aided and abetted by Pakistan. Every act of terrorism is responded to by another final warning to Pakistan. We are left with the suspicion that the Central government would like nothing better than keeping the nation on the edge of a war with Pakistan. Even a cricket match between India and Pakistan is seen in terms of a battle between the two countries, and the winner (in this case, India) is generously rewarded. I wonder what would have been the governments response if India had lost the match to Pakistan.
At the global level, President Bush is committing the dreadful mistake of portraying his countrys problems with an Osama bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein as a clash of civilisations. He succeeded in reducing to rubble a pathetically poor country like Afghanistan without capturing, dead or alive, Osama bin Laden. He may succeed in flattening Baghdad and other cities in Iraq and there is no guarantee that Saddam Hussein will be eliminated. The US caused a regime change in Afghanistan and may bring a regime change in Iraq, but it will not be able to put an end to the terrorist threat faced by that country or by Americans around the world.
It is obvious that political calculations the next Presidential elections are only 20 months away are driving Americas war against Iraq. Powerful commercial interests notably big oil companies are able to influence American policy. Perhaps, there is also the unarticulated premise of the son avenging his fathers personal defeat (referring to Saddam Hussein, Bush once said, He tried to kill my father).
The parallel with the Indian situation is obvious. Here too, political calculations, commercial interests (recall the looting of shops owned by Muslims in Ahmedabad) and personal agendas are driving the fight against terrorism.
Mr Bush will fail in his self-appointed mission, and terrorists will sprout all over the world. Here too, the Government of India will fail, and with it the Togadias and the Singhals will also fail.
President Bush would do well to read history and imbibe the wisdom of Truman, Eisenhower and Marshall in building a post-war world. It is these men who scored the real victory of the World War by winning over Germany and Japan to the Western alliance. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mr Advani would also do well to read recent Indian history and how India won the ultimate battle in Punjab the battle for the hearts and minds of the Sikh community.
President Bush and the US will realise, one day, that to have pit Christian against Muslims was a grave blunder. The BJP and the Central government will realise, one day, that to pit a Hindu against a Muslim is a mistake of gross proportions.
(The author is former Union finance minister)