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IAF Pilot Abhinandan Returns: Let’s Consider ‘Badlaav’ Not ‘Badla’

Aide to former PM AB Vajpayee, Sudheendra Kulkarni makes a bid for peace – for positive change, not revenge. 

Updated
Opinion
9 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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India has served Pakistan the proverbial dish of ‘badla’ (revenge) – how cold it was, and how accurately aimed, are still being debated. Pakistan also took its ‘badla’ by retaliating. But where do we go from here?

After the savage terror attack by a suicide bomber belonging to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed on a CRPF convoy at Pulwama in Kashmir on 14 February, in which 40 jawans were martyred, the one word most heard on Indian TV channels was ‘badla’ (revenge).

Some eminent Indian commentators made the word more popular by evoking the proverb − “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. The message to Pakistan was clear. “Badla” will come, but “der se” (delayed), and it will take you by surprise.

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From ‘Badla’ to ‘Badlaav’

It came twelve days later in the form of jets of the Indian Air Force, conducting what is now known as “Surgical Strike 2.0”. This time, the so-called “non-military” strike was not just across the Line of Control (LoC), but inside the Pakistani territory.

In retaliation the following day, Pakistan shot down an IAF plane, and held pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Vathaman. However, Pakistan released pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman on Friday, 1 March, as a peace gesture, and in an effort to de-escalate tensions between the neighbouring countries.

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Since the menacing train of ‘badla’ and ‘counter-badla’ began, I have been tempted to urge the leaders in both Islamabad and New Delhi, to change the dish (of revenge), by urgently adding a new ingredient to its recipe.

The ingredient has only two humble letters ‘a’ and ‘v’, but it will transform ‘badla’ into ‘badlaav’ (change, specifically a positive change in the revenge-seeking mindset in the two countries) – and thereby transform the current ominous situation of conflict into consequential dialogue.

We Should Welcome Imran Khan’s Sensible Speech

There is a discernible ‘badlaav’ in the thinking of many Pakistanis, including those at the highest level. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech on Wednesday, seeking a dialogue with India on all issues (including the issue of terrorism) was mature and sensible. This welcome mindset change is not yet absolute, nor does it fully stand scrutiny against the highest standards of civilised international behaviour. Yet, I have no hesitation in affirming that both Imran Khan and Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa want peaceful relations with India.

Of course, the civil and military leaders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi cannot absolve themselves of blame in the fidayeen attack at Pulwama, for which Jaish-e-Mohammed, a UN-proscribed terrorist organisation, has claimed responsibility.

JeM operatives and their leader Masood Azhar are allowed to move freely in Pakistan. There is not even an iota of credibility in the claim of some Pakistanis that the Pulwama attack was “staged” by the government of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi with an eye on the impending parliamentary elections in India.

Pakistan cannot, simply cannot, come out of the current crisis without giving – rather, re-giving – a sincere, categorical and verifiable assurance to India and the international community that it will de-activate JeM and all other terrorist outfits operating from its soil.
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That Pakistan will have to give this assurance once again is clear from the fact that it had already given such a commitment in January 2004. Read the following lines from the joint statement issued after our former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met Pakistan’s then President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad, on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit:

“Prime Minister (Atal Behari) Vajpayee said that in order to take forward and sustain the dialogue process, violence, hostility and terrorism must be prevented. President (Pervez) Musharraf reassured Prime Minister Vajpayee that he will not permit any territory under Pakistan's control to be used to support terrorism in any manner.” (Emphasis added.)

Pakistani Mindset on Terrorism & Extremism Is Changing

This time around, Imran Khan will have to give an even more explicit assurance – and, with the help of General Bajwa, take concrete action in accordance with the assurance. It is no longer in Pakistan’s own self-interest to let the Indian opinion – also world opinion – continue, that the writ of its prime minister and its COAS does not run on its “Deep State” which is unwilling to act against the terror snakes that bite India every once in a while.

Despite these necessary disclaimers about Pakistan’s inescapable responsibility to take verifiable action against anti-India terror groups working from its territory, I would like to say something which the Indian public and Indian politicians ought to know – namely, the Pakistani mindset on terrorism and religious extremism is changing.

Anyone who visits Pakistan, and interacts with Pakistanis from different walks of life, would aver that there is far less anti-India feeling in Pakistan now than anti-Pakistan sentiment in India. Let me illustrate this with a personal experience.

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Pakistani Candour on Kargil Misadventure

When I was in London in October 2018, I happened to get an invitation for the launch of an important new book, From Kargil to the Coup: Events that Shook Pakistan. It is authored by Nasim Zehra, a veteran Pakistani journalist, TV anchor, writer and a long-time India watcher.

Her book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in knowing the Pakistani perspective on the last Indo-Pak war in 1999. It is also a work of extraordinary boldness because, backed by an admirable amount of research, it minces no words in concluding that the Kargil war a costly “misadventure” by a small clique of top-level Pakistani army officers headed by General Musharraf. It lays bare the duplicity and delusion in the highest echelons of the establishment, that ultimately led to a humiliating retreat and defeat for Pakistan.

Zehra, whom I have known for nearly two decades, is a proud Pakistani patriot. And she pulls no punches in criticising India when she thinks India is in the wrong. Nevertheless, I was deeply touched when Zehra, in explaining the theme of her book, referred to Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the only enlightened leader and statesman in the region. 

For a Pakistani author, it took some candour and courage to say this about a former Indian prime minister who was one of the central figures in the Kargil war – and that too in front of a Pakistani (diaspora) audience that had filled the hall at London University’s prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Today’s BJP Is Choosing ‘Muscular Policy’ Over Vajpayee’s ‘Weak Line’

Zehra’s book is a useful read for not only Pakistanis, but also Indians, since it shows how Vajpayee’s firm but self-restrained leadership (in terms of asking the Indian armed forces not to cross the LoC) actually benefited India, both vis-à-vis Pakistan and internationally.

Sadly, today’s BJP is discarding Vajpayee’s “weak” line in favour of Narendra Modi’s “muscular policy”. (“Dushman ke ghar mein ghus kar maarenge – We’ll hit the enemy inside his own house.”) If Modi’s government puts this jingoism into practice, the chain of ‘badla’ and ‘counter-badla’ will surely lead to another war – with one crucial difference. This time the international community will see India as the aggressor.

If a war does break out, it will be the fifth Indo-Pak war since our two countries gained independence from British rule in 1947. The first war in 1947-48, which was fought in the immediate aftermath of the messy and blood-soaked Partition of India, and which ended in a stalemate, became the cause for the three subsequent wars (in 1965, 1971 and 1999). The unresolved dispute over Jammu & Kashmir it left behind, now looks all set to precipitate a new armed conflict.

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Indo-Pak Hostility Rules Out Opportunity for Genuine Cooperation

A new war has grim consequences for the whole of South Asia, as Zehra’s book emphasises in its opening lines:

In recent years, across the Pakistan-India border and the Line of Control (LoC), guns have tended to converse more than policy-makers. While the relationship between these two nuclear-armed states, Pakistan and India, influence the lives of almost 1.5 billion people, yet unfortunately hostility seems to be the only durable factor in this inter-state relationship.
Nasim Zehra

(Continued...) “This hostility rules out genuine cooperation while minimising the possibility of resolving outstanding issues ranging from Siachen, Sir Creek, Kashmir, to water and trade disputes. Against the backdrop of this abiding antagonism, South Asia remains the world’s least economically integrated region.”

Vajpayee’s ‘Jang Na Hone Denge’ is Better than Modi’s ‘Muscular’ Line

Have India and Pakistan learnt any lesson from history? Did the four previous wars resolve any of the “outstanding issues” that Zehra mentions in her book? Have they taken our two countries even an inch closer to good-neighbourliness – since both history and geography have compelled us to live as neighbours?

(Let’s not pay any heed to the lunatics in both countries, some of them occupying high positions, who desire and believe that a cartographic amputation of the ‘other’ is both necessary and possible – Pakistanis who think Kashmir can break away from India either to become an independent nation or merge with Pakistan; and Indians who think Pakistanis can be dismembered into four new independent nations.)

The event at SOAS had two eminent discussants – Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior and widely respected leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, and Dr Farooq Bajwa, a highly successful London-based lawyer, who has authored a fine book on the 1965 India-Pakistan war.

In their speeches, both underscored the importance of peace between India and Pakistan.

Before the conclusion of the event, I, as the only Indian in the audience, and also as someone who had worked as Vajpayee’s close aide, was asked to speak and give an Indian perspective to the discussion.

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“When I Look Back at Kargil War, I’m Not Filled With Pride & Joy”

What I said on the occasion not only resonated with Zehra’s anguish in the opening lines in her book, but is equally relevant to today’s situation, when dark clouds of a new war are hovering over the common sky of India and Pakistan. My words:

“I am not standing here so much as an Indian, but as a South Asian. When I look back at the Kargil war, I am not filled with pride and joy that India was the victor; rather, I am filled with agony that South Asia, the common civilisational home to India, Pakistan and other countries in the region, was the loser.”

Every war, and every eruption of hostility between India and Pakistan, has stalled and sabotaged mutually beneficial regional cooperation in South Asia. And lack of mutual cooperation has made it the least integrated region in the world. It has also made South Asia home to the largest number of poor people in the world who are denied the most basic needs for living a dignified life.
Sudheendra Kulkarni 

“Bharat Pakistan Padosi, Saath-Saath Rehna Hai”

No less relevant to today’s war-like situation were the lines from a poem by Vajpayee I recited on the occasion – ‘Jang Na Hone Denge’ (We shall not let another war break out).

The former Indian prime minister had recited this poem in his speech at a reception in his honour at the majestic Governor’s House in Lahore in February 1999, with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in attendance.

Earlier in the day, the two leaders had signed the historic Lahore Declaration, which was the culmination of Vajpayee’s valiant ‘Bus Yatra’ to Pakistan. I was a co-passenger in the same ‘peace bus’. After the Indian prime minister made a passionate appeal for both Indians and Pakistanis to leave mutual hostilities of the past behind and, instead, courageously embrace a future of peace and friendship, the poet in him spoke:

Bharat Pakistan padosi, saath-saath rehna hai,
Pyar karein ya ‘war’ karein, donon ko hi sehna hai,
Jo hum par guzari, bachchon par na hone denge,
Jang na hone denge

(India and Pakistan, we are neighbours. We have to live together. Whether we love or fight each other, we both have to face the same consequences. What we had to endure, we shall not let our children suffer the same. We shall not let another war break out between India and Pakistan.)

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“No More Kargils”

Vajpayee’s speech received thunderous applause from the audience, which comprised the who’s who of Pakistan. But what especially caught my attention was the sight of tears in the eyes of some Pakistanis sitting next to me.

And there was a similar thunderous applause by Pakistan’s diasporic audience when I recited the same anti-war poetry at the London book launch function, concluding my remarks with the words: “No More Kargils. No More India-Pakistan Wars.” Yes, there is indeed a positive ‘badlaav’ taking place in Pakistan, which Pakistanis must accelerate and make it irreversible.

On its part, India should now act positively, albeit without making the least compromise in its demand for complete elimination of extremism and terrorism from Pakistan’s soil. Together, India and Pakistan must soon find a just, amicable and peaceful solution to the Kashmir problem. If this happens, there will surely be an unimaginable ‘badlaav’ in the destiny of South Asia.

(Click here for live updates on the India-Pakistan situation)

(The author was an aide to former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He has recently founded ‘Forum for a New South Asia’, which advocates India-Pakistan-China cooperation. He welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. He tweets @SudheenKulkani. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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