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(First published on August 17, 2019)

Is it a pure coincidence that right when a peace settlement in Afghanistan seems within reach, India carried out its recent campaign of brutal repression in Kashmir? A move which has given a fright to the rest of its federating units worried all its neighbours and largely alienated its diaspora. It seems unlikely.

The last time a peace deal seemed possible, an India-inspired Afghan intelligence announcement about Mullah Omar’s death took the wind out of its sails. India is notorious in sabotaging similar initiatives and uses everything in its power to derail the Afghan peace process. It is an unbroken sequence of events that continues since the mid-eighties. Some may assume that it wants to preserve its investments in Afghanistan. But that is small potatoes compared to what India wants, and often gets.

Consider this: we often discuss the cricket diplomacy of 1987 when Zia went to India to watch a cricket test match between the two countries and managed to defuse tensions. But we hardly ask why the need for such an intervention was felt. India had launched a massive exercise on Pakistan’s border, prompting Pakistan to bolster its troops in response. What was the reason behind the unprovoked Indian hostility? The Kashmir insurgency had not even started. The only explanation can be found in Afghanistan. These were the final days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Fearing that the US and Pakistan would succeed in the country, India wanted to throw a spanner in the way. Some believe that India had a hand in Zia’s plane crash which took out most of the military leadership aware of the Afghan endgame strategy along with a US ambassador. True or not, this culling exercise would eventually become the root of alienation between the US and Pakistan. Zia, it is argued, knew how to dismantle the Jihadi infrastructure after the end of the Cold War. With him and most of his military advisers gone, Pakistan was left with a radical militant problem that would eventually be used by the Indian propaganda machine to isolate Pakistan.

But as the US quickly lost interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, India did whatever it could to ensure that Pakistan’s western border remained unsettled. If Pakistan tried to unite the warring factions of the mujahideen, India would invest in their division. When the Taliban experiment began, India threw its weight behind the Northern Alliance. This game continued till 9/11 when the US and Pakistan decided to work together again. India had already used the nuclearisation of South Asia and the subsequent Kargil debacle to its full advantage. The Indian spin industry had also effectively seized the opportunity presented by Huntington’s unfortunate “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. Since Pakistan was aligned with the Taliban, India must have hoped that the US would attack Pakistan instead of Afghanistan. But thanks to General Musharraf’s quick thinking the two countries ended up on the same side of the divide. This meant no role for India and it does not like to be excluded.

And conveniently enough, just like the Pulwama terror attack got Modi re-elected, along came the attack on the Indian Parliament and India amassed its forces on Pakistan’s border. The build-up would continue throughout 2002 — the formative phase of the war against terrorism. It is like asking for your cut and threatening to hurt the kitten if you don’t get your share. This build-up meant that Pakistan could not dedicate its undivided attention to its western border. A worried America would then have to woo India and ensure that it stayed away from starting a war. The Indian governing class has an inexplicable pathological hatred towards Pakistan and it dates back to 1947. So the first part of extortion would be that while Pakistani soldiers and civilians died fighting the US-led war, the international culture industry would badmouth the country. So, it did. Then came the matter of economic benefits, market access, etcetera. India got that too — something about intelligence co-operation and what not.

It is surprising how effectively the Indian state sells various fears in the West. China is rising and only India can contain it, so invest in us. Islamist terror might destroy you and we are secular, so align with us. Iran is part of Bush’s axis of evil but it has cheap oil. Give us a nuclear deal or we will have to buy oil from the country. Right, we got the nuclear deal but still, we need oil so give us a waiver or we will stop buying military hardware from you with the money we made out of your country.

Similarly, Indian crony capitalists also did their bit. A few billionaires opened their companies in the US. A few billion dollars, a little bit of political blackmail in the region back home, and these companies walked away with a majority of H-1B visas throughout the Obama administration’s tenure. These companies would hire workers citing lower wages, and through effective market jockeying these temporary residents would be absorbed into the mainstream.

Don’t get me wrong. The Indian workforce abroad is very talented and has very effectively contributed to the economy. I say this because I have seen the incredible talent the South Asian region has produced. But every country has its system to absorb new immigrants. When this system is bypassed for whatever reason, it causes a lot of pain to the immigrant community that is already there. Hence the constant focus on the H-1B visa in the US and this painful debate about a poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty being about European immigrants alone.

But at least the previous Indian governments were smooth operators. They knew how to use the veneer of secularism, democracy, and pluralism to bolster their country’s image. The incumbent bulls in the china shop do not know the niceties of playing this game. They have made it impossible for the world to sympathise with their cause. Even then, India’s hold on the western media is such that in the past five years of Modi rule little was heard about how his government systematically dismantled institutions and the idea of India. There was a mysterious silence, despite the fact that the same media took Trump to task for his alleged micro-aggressions. We were told the Israeli lobby was strong in the West. But Netanyahu is not spared, while Modi was. If things are changing today, it is because India’s own diaspora is waking up to the ugly realities back home. And that was made possible because the geniuses in the Indian government came up with a clever idea to stop the region from slipping out of their hands, and set themselves on fire in the process. Let us see when this clever idea ends.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2019.

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