Shorter US Visits And Pakistani Threats

Updated: Apr 13 2002, 05:30am hrs
What a delicious irony it is. The United States of Americas decision to slash the stay on visitors there, from the customary six months to a mere 30 days, has caused much greater consternation and worry here than the Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharrafs dire threat to use nuclear weapons against this country in certain circumstances.

The reasons for the strikingly different reactions to the two issues so far apart are not far to seek. Even the most unsophisticated Indian knows instinctively that the General, troubled by Indian military deployments that New Delhi refuses to wind down until cross-border terrorism ends, is indulging in bluff and bluster. Therefore he can and should be ignored.

American visas to say nothing of the coveted green card are a different story altogether. There is literally no elite family in India that does not have one child or more settled in the US. Tens of thousands of Indian parents, therefore, make a beeline for the US to comfortably spend a few months with their offspring.

I know of several elderly couples that spend the entire Indian summer with their US-based children. The 30-day limit on such idyllic family reunions has understandably spread alarm, indeed, panic. To spend huge sums on airfares for the sake of a months stay with the loved ones makes little sense. The thought of abandoning the annual pilgrimage is too horrible to even contemplate.

However, the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service has provided for a public debate on its proposed restriction, and it can be taken for granted that the affluent and active Indian community in America would go into overdrive to oppose what the INS has proposed. Also, Mr Bhisham Agnihotri, the Sangh Parivars appointee as a second ambassador in the US, will surely be asked to earn his keep because the Indian diaspora is his specific area of responsibility.

So we can leave the vital issue of American visas alone and explore briefly what impelled the dear General in Islamabad to make some totally unnecessary noises about the use of nuclear weapons. To be sure, he covered himself by adding that this would be done as the last resort and only if Pakistans existence were threatened. But his purpose clearly was to rattle the nuclear rockets.

It is noteworthy that the Generals bellicose statement in his interview to Der Spiegel was totally opposite of what he had authorised his hand-picked spokesman, Major-General Rashid Qureshi, to say when the rival deployments had led to an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of the two countries.

To quell fears that an accidental spark might start a war that could then escalate into a nuclear exchange, Qureshi had stated categorically that there would be no nuclear war between India and Pakistan because both were responsible countries with responsible governments.

Two things seem to have changed since then. First, the continuing Indian deployments at striking positions along the border and the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir have begun to bite. Since there is no question of these being wound down, at least until the Kashmir Assembly elections in October, Musharraf finds it expedient to revive the international communitys carefully cultivated fears of South Asia being the worlds most dangerous nuclear flashpoint.

Apparently, the Pakistani ruler believes that after the shame and nightmare of Gujarat, India has become more vulnerable to international pressure while the opprobrium earlier concentrated on Pakistan has diminished greatly.

There is something to this, as the strong plea for de-escalation and dialogue by the visiting US assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca has underscored. Other American officials have been saying that Musharraf made his remarks on the nuclear exchange in response to an earlier statement by an Indian dignitary.

That apart, the Musharraf outburst has something to do also with the referendum he is staging to gain a fig leaf of legitimacy, as two other military despots preceding him Ayub (1960) and Zia (1984) had done. Pakistans two mainstream parties Benazir Bhuttos Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharifs Pakistan Muslim League have opposed the illegal referendum and called for its boycott. This was expected.

But, rather unexpectedly, the religious parties have also taken the same stand. Musharraf, who is determined to be an elected President rather than a self-appointed one, evidently thinks that his threat of nuking India would placate the jihadis.

Nuclear weapons have been around for nearly 57 years. Except at Hiroshima and Nagasaki they have never been used even by a drunken and paranoid Nixon, or by Mao, the great megalomaniac, or the utterly fossilised Brezhnev. Neither India nor Pakistan is mad enough to use them, especially when the US is militarily present in Pakistan in strength. Atal Bihari Vajpayee did well to refuse to comment on Musharrafs ranting.