India should avoid trading insults with Pakistan at UN, act in a manner commensurate with emerging-power status

Goaded by a myopic media, India and Pakistan launch their annual tirades against each other from the United Nations forum, and none in the whole wide world except these two nations are even remotely interested in the competitive slanging match. While this perfectly suits Pakistan’s strategy, the time has come for India to take a hard look at its terms of engagement.

It has become something of a macabre ritual. Every year at the UN General Assembly address, Pakistan will “extend hand for peace” in cherubic innocence while continuing to manufacture, nurture and export terror to India. India, indignant, will accuse Pakistan of hypocrisy and duplicity. Pakistan will accuse India of “human rights violations” in Kashmir and call for global attention. India will blame Pakistan for running “Ivy League of terror” and call terrorism the most egregious violation of human rights.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at the UNGA

Pakistan will play the victim and call for “talks” in a spirit of “supreme sacrifice”. An angry India will denounce Pakistan for running the world’s biggest terrorism racket and dismiss “talks” unless it is ready to change its behaviour. Pakistan will exercise its right to reply to India’s insult. India will exercise its right to reply to Pakistan’s insult. And this sparring match will be accompanied by media fusillade from both sides.

This dumb charade plays out every year with unerring accuracy. This year provided no exception. Regimes change, faces change, characters change but the script remains the same. Even media reports are the same as if the same copy is being recirculated year after year with a perfunctory change in date and names. What policymakers in India do not realise is that wrestling with a Pakistan is never going to be fruitful.

As usual, Pakistan opened the batting with its newly minted foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi first suggesting that Sushma Swaraj handed him a snub at the SAARC meeting because she was under “domestic political pressure”. Qureshi even went on to make a tasteless personal remark, that the Indian external affairs minister was “looking pale” in avoiding him.

If anything, there has been a proliferation of violence in Kashmir since Pakistan started talking “peace”. In the Valley, political workers of mainstream parties and even state police personnel are being threatened, kidnapped and murdered. Even family members of the cops are not being spared.

Around the time that Imran Khan played “apostle of peace” by calling for the resumption of dialogue, Pakistan Army operatives slit a BSF head constable’s throat and attempted to behead him along the India-Pakistan international border (not the LoC). Amid reports that India had (inexplicably) consented to a “meeting between the two foreign ministers in New York, reports emerged that Pakistan has “reissued” a series of postage stamps glorifying Hizbul Mujaheedin operatives, and three Indian SPOs have been killed by Pakistan-backed terrorists.

Imran’s calls for dialogue coincided with India’s assessment that Pakistan Military has become “more aggressive”  since the former cricketer was installed in the prime minister’s chair.

So, while Pakistan military continues with its policy of low-cost hybrid warfare against India and employs terror-jihadi tools to achieve its objectives, the civilian administration sends “invitation for peace” and poses as if it is India that is withholding the process by refusing to talk.

Accordingly,  a saintly Qureshi sermonised at the UN that “Dialogue is the only way to address long-standing issues that have long bedevilled South Asia and prevented the region from realising its true potential.” For good measure, he added that the “unresolved Jammu and Kashmir dispute hinders the realisation of the goal of durable peace” as if “peace” is Pakistan’s noble goal, not secession of Kashmir.

Qureshi’s strategy was clear. It has been Pakistan’s long-standing strategy to provoke India into a sparring match the multilateral forum so that its domestic and international objectives are met. Domestically, Pakistan’s military that runs the weak state gets more public legitimacy in entrenching its power. Internationally, the issue of Kashmir is kept relevant. This isn’t a fresh idea but one that has been done to death. If Pakistan insists on using and reusing this strategy, it is because Indian policymakers, politicians and media have been trapped into an illusion of their own making — that it needs to “win” the perception war on Kashmir by “exposing” Pakistan.

On cue, Swaraj spent a good part of her speech castigating Pakistan for “trying to mask malevolence with verbal duplicity.” She said Pakistani allegations of India ”sabotaging” dialogue process is a “complete lie”, narrated Pakistan’s repeated betrayals despite Indian overtures, reminded the world of its perfidies on 9/11 and 26/11 and accused Pakistan of throwing “dust of deceit and deception against India in order to provide some thin cover for its own guilt.” As if the world needed a reminder or an explanation of Pakistan’s treachery.

What Swaraj inadvertently did was create the space for a slanging match, and Qureshi didn’t let go of the opportunity. He escalated the bickering and suggested, quite outrageously, that India was somehow involved in the killing of Pakistani school children by terrorists in Peshawar.

“Pakistan continues to face terrorism financed and orchestrated by India — shall never forget the mass murder of more than 150 children in a Peshawar School, the terrible Mastung attack and others that have links with terrorists supported by India,” said Qureshi.

India had little choice but to react. It called the charges “most outrageous” and “preposterous” and reminded Pakistan of “the outpouring of sorrow and pain in India that followed the massacre of innocent children in 2014. Both houses of India’s Parliament had expressed solidarity while paying respect to the memory of those killed. Schools all over India had observed two minutes of silence in their memory,” stated Eanam Gambhir, first secretary in the Permanent Mission of India to UN, while exercising India’s right to reply.

“The despicable insinuation made by the Foreign Minister of Pakistan dishonours the memory of the innocent lives lost to terrorists on that day,” she said, and added that “it is a desperate attempt to look away from the monster of terror that Pakistan has itself created in its quest to destabilise its neighbours and covet their territory.”

India sought to punch holes in Qureshi’s victim card on terrorism and challenged Pakistan to deny “the fact that it is the host and patron of 132 of the UN-designated terrorists and 22 terrorist entities under the 1267 and the 1988 UN Security Council sanctions regime as of today.”

India’s retort was factual and devastating but served little purpose on the ground except give Pakistan more fuel for even more outrageous attacks.

It brought slanderous charges against the RSS, calling it a “breeding ground of terrorism”, and delved into India’s domestic politics by targeting Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. It made references to National Registrar or Citizens, church attacks, lynching incidents etc.

“For a country where Right to citizenship to Bengalis in Assam is being arbitrarily rescinded and who have suddenly been made stateless and have been called ‘termites’ by a prominent Indian leader, where churches and mosques are torched, is surely not qualified to give sermons to others,” said Pakistan’s envoy to the UN Saad Warraich.

There are two ways of looking at the statement. One, long been accused of using terrorism as a foreign policy tool, Pakistan is desperate to deflect criticism if needed by bringing wild allegations. Two, it wants to lock India into an eternal slanging match because as the weaker of the two nations, it helps Pakistan to hyphenate itself with India and gain a sort of perverse equilibrium in the perception war.

This is cause enough for India to take a long, hard look at its terms of engagement with Pakistan. Getting absorbed in a perennial war of insults on multilateral forums serves no purpose, and in fact is counterproductive for India’s strategic interests.

As an emerging power, a stronger economy and stabler democracy, it is in India’s interest to de-hyphenate itself from Pakistan and act in a manner commensurate with its heft and strategic interests. This obsession with Pakistan is taking India nowhere and stunting its influence in the comity of nations.

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