DELHILast week's attack on the Indian Parliament could scarcely have
been better timed by those who want to escalate tensions on the subcontinent and
stir communal politics in India.
The natural instinct for India is to
blame Pakistan for its support of Muslim militants. Influential voices urge
revenge by hitting alleged militant training centers in Pakistan-controlled
territory. The government has two examples to follow of retribution for its own
sake: the United States in Afghanistan and Israel in Palestine.
The dangers of India opting for
retaliation are great.
The government is led by the
Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is especially suspicious of
Muslim Pakistan and badly needs to bolster its image in advance of key state
polls next year.
The great leap forward in Indian-U.S.
cooperation since the Bush administration came to office may embolden India.
This improvement was under way before Sept. 11, as Washington sought a bigger
role for India to balance the weight of China in Asia and to avert a revival of
Russian influence in New Delhi. Since that day, exchanges on military links and
anti-terrorist and diplomatic cooperation have multiplied.
The United States should use its new
influence to counsel restraint, and not just because India and Pakistan are
nuclear powers. Pakistan does support Kashmiri militants in general and some
groups in particular, but it cannot be directly blamed for all their actions.
For all Pakistan's sins in backing Muslim
militants, the fact remains that Kashmir is a political problem between two
states, and one which long preceded the rise of Islamic fundamentalism or the
armed militancy fostered by conflict in Afghanistan and Chechnya. What is
important is that both sides confine their dispute to Kashmir.
Pakistan will need to crack down on
militant activities, and specifically on any which seek to spread terror
elsewhere in India. But India must recognize the difficulties that President
Pervez Musharraf faces in suddenly controlling groups fostered by Western and
Arab as well as Pakistani support.
New Delhi is well aware of the problems
of dealing with militants. It had huge, locally generated problems with the
Sikhs in the 1980s. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, who made a specialty of
suicide bombings long before Osama bin Laden and Hamas, continue to thrive on
the guns, money and supply routes provided by their cousins in India. (To
India's relief, the Tamil Tigers have so far been left out of the "global war on
Recent weeks have seen a bloody leftist
insurgency in Nepal. Quite what support, if any, these insurgents gets from
India is not clear, but the long border is porous and faces India's most lawless
state, Bihar, and its most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
The attack on Parliament has come at a
time when two communal-related issues are in the forefront of debate. One is a
Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, a post-Sept. 11 bill which the opposition
claims will increase already wide police powers, alienate Muslims and other
minorities but do nothing for security.
Another is the rewriting of school
history books by a ministry under the control of the Hindu zealot Manohar Joshi.
Proponents say the rewriting is necessary to remove an alleged Marxist and
secular bias. Opponents say the changes are biased toward the Hindus and omit
inconvenient facts. The government is accused of having "Talibanized" the
education system. Indian pluralism is not seriously in danger. Regional and
caste politics are at least as important as religious divides, and the secular
spirit is still strong. But political leadership is weak. Prime Minister Atal
Bihari Vajpayee is moderate and cautious, but he is also very sick. His BJP
colleagues are either old, communally divisive or simply uninspiring. The
opposition Congress Party is led by Sonia Gandhi, an unskilled politician who
may be unelectable due to her Italian origins. Congress has recently lost two
potential younger leaders in accidents.
In the circumstances, the temptation to
use India's superior military power to "teach Pakistan a lesson" must be strong.
But the blow that India has taken is a consequence of being an open society
wanting to maintain Kashmir as a symbol of Indian unity in a plural and secular
state. It can show its wisdom, and a Gandhian moral leadership, by shunning the
"two eyes for an eye" blood feud mentality of others.