By Adhirath Sethi Feb. 20, 2019
If Imran Khan is serious about redefining Pakistan, now is the time to show his mettle as a leader. Claiming he has more important things to do than worry about martyred soldiers in Kashmir is not a great illustration of good international relations, but committing to bring the terrorists to task would be a good next step.
I’ve spent the last week avoiding any impulse to write about the incident at Pulwama. With the intense media coverage, condemnations from celebrities and politicians alike, and general outcry on social media, there is really very little left to say. Neither will any amount of reflection on the part of an ordinary citizen alter the fact that nothing is likely to change as far as Indo-Pak relations go. In truth, many Indians haven’t quite gotten over the horrors of 26/11, so this new attack has been greeted with a sort of numb, hapless indignation.
A guy I knew in college once compared Pakistan to an annoying child, who keeps playing sinister pranks on an older, larger child – India. What the older child should do, he reasoned, is punch the kid really hard. That’s the only way the shenanigans will stop.
This is, by and large, the attitude of most Indians to how the long-standing conflict should be resolved. We secretly harbour a lust for an all-out confrontation with our neighbours to settle things once and for all, while also wearily admitting that war and violence are never the answer. Peace, we have decided, has tried and failed.
The analogy of the child spills over in many uncomfortable directions, as we all know. For one, what about the child’s parents (*cough*… China)? Would they not get involved if their offspring was assaulted by an older child? Second, what if the young child is not so helpless after all and decides to either fight back or retaliate in an even more aggressive manner. Or (and this is where it gets uncomfortable for Indians), what if the older child has been getting back at the younger one in smaller ways and the whole dynamic is now too far played out for anyone to assume the moral high ground anymore?
Peace, we have decided, has tried and failed.
Like many cricket lovers, I was excited to learn of Imran Khan’s victory in the Pakistan elections. This was a man with a worldview. He had played and lived in different countries, was once married to a Westerner, and he could still make the women of my parents’ generation swoon. Surely, he would be the one to build bridges and help resolve this never-ending saga of hate.
Yet, hearing his statement – made a cringeworthy five days after the attack – brought back memories of his speech after the World Cup Final in 1992, where he went off on a rant about a hospital he was building. The man still appears to have trouble reading the room.
For one, he confessed that his meeting with the Prince of Saudi Arabia was the reason for his delayed response on the matter, thereby underlining – somewhat tactlessly – that there were more important things on his plate than the murder of 44 soldiers. He then went on to say that pinning the blame on Pakistan was not fair, reasoning that Pakistan would have no benefit in creating problems like this, especially when they have ambitions for economic growth. Then, he distanced himself from the Pakistan-based terror outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammed, calling them enemies of the country.
Anadolu Agency / Contributor / Getty Images
Just when you thought this was going to lead to some harsh introspection, he threw down the fun suggestion that India should re-look at its strategy in Kashmir, since the current approach was breeding suicide bombers. Finally, he signed off with a zippy declaration that if India took any military actions against Pakistan, it would basically mean war and ended with what I assume was the Hindi rap version of the song “War, what is it good for?”
To look for an apology or even a note of empathy in his statement would be futile. The man approached the whole affair with the emotions of a white walker.
It was like telling someone that your dog ran out and bit, “I’m sorry I didn’t come over at the time, but we had guests over and we worked really hard to set up the party”. Then you question the victim on whether it was in fact your dog that bit him. Then you begin a philosophical debate about whether the victim is himself creating an atmosphere conducive to elevated levels of dog aggression. Finally, you threaten that any action taken by the victim will result in more dog biting.
The only possible saving grace for Imran Khan in all this is that his former wife Rehman Khan claims he’s merely a puppet of the Pakistani Army.
There appear to be no happy scenarios here. If Imran Khan is only a pawn of the ISI – as so many Pakistani premiers appear to have been – no assurance on his part can ensure that more Pulwama-type incidents won’t be around the corner. The ISI and the Indian Army have long been at each other’s throats and things are very much expected to continue as they have been.
Would they not get involved if their offspring was assaulted by an older child?
However, consider for a moment that there are some remnants of a World Cup-winning spine still nestled between Imran Khan’s broad shoulders. Leaving aside the ill-worded awkwardness of his statement, his logic on economics is not flawed. He was ushered into power on a promise of bringing in a “Naya Pakistan”, ripe with jobs, prosperity, and possibly thin on terrorism, which destabilises any hope of economic development.
In less than a week since Pulwama, we have 200 per cent tariffs on Pakistan imports into India; Pakistani actors have been flung out of Bollywood; and the US has named Pakistan as a possible perpetrator in the attack. None of these fit into Khan’s political manifesto and may perhaps explain the detached frustration with which he delivered his response. Each time something like this happens, his main job of convincing people to invest in Pakistan’s economic story, becomes that much harder.
If he is serious about redefining Pakistan, there is no better opportunity for Imran Khan to show his mettle as a leader than this. For starters, he needs to embrace the idea that his army might be working with terrorist outfits, rather than hide behind the gripe that the world keeps looking to make Pakistan its “whipping boy”. Claiming he has more important things to do than worry about martyred soldiers is not a great illustration of good international relations but committing to bring the terrorists to task would be a good next step.
Whether he has the power to influence this kind of change, we do not know. If he doesn’t there is little point in him sticking around at all. He is a wealthy man and I can’t imagine his ambition for his twilight years was to sit around and take orders from the ISI.
The Kashmir issue isn’t going to be sorted overnight. But maybe with a little help from our leaders, we can pull in the same direction to ensure that young men don’t blow themselves up to kill more young men. As a man who has enthralled the world of sport with his leadership abilities, maybe it’s time for Imran Khan to dazzle us once more.
Adhirath Sethi is a novelist based in Bangalore. When he is not writing satire, he dabbles in darkness. His latest book, Where the Hills Hide their Secrets, is a product of such dabbles..