By Anjum Altaf
Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of the argumentative Indian with his book of the same name. Given that Sen has never allowed himself to be constrained by arbitrary divisions, and the fact that his family origins are in Dhaka, we can safely assume that he is referring more generally to the argumentative South Asian. So, although this post pertains to India, the question I would like to pose for discussion is: What is it that the argumentative South Asian argues about today?
The occasion for this question was attendance at a recent presentation by the Indian Foreign Secretary. In the course of a long discourse covering many topics the Foreign Secretary articulated the position of her government on relations with Pakistan. This position came across to me as overly hawkish even after allowing for the fact that a Congress government has to protect itself against BJP accusations of being soft on Pakistan.
By itself, I did not have a problem with the position expressed by the Secretary. The evidence of problems created by Pakistani agents was real as was the accusation that not enough was being done to restrain them. No one could doubt the frustrations that resulted in India as a consequence. The question that arose in my mind was a more general one: Had there been a debate in India regarding the options that could be adopted vis a vis Pakistan? And had the hawkish option emerged as the one likely to be the most effective?
The question occurred to me because I am not aware of such a debate. Perhaps it has taken place behind closed doors in strategic think tanks but that is not a substitute for public debate. I recall the Secretary mentioning that the position on Pakistan reflected the will of the Indian population. How has this will been manifested and communicated to the decision makers for whom this is a critical issue?
Here one is faced with a conundrum because one hears all the time that asides from a segment of the Delhi and Mumbai elites and a section of the media, the majority of Indians do not give much thought or importance to the issue of Pakistan. This would suggest that the official Indian position on Pakistan really reflects the choice of the Indian government of the time. This could reflect prejudice and bias or narrow self-interest as much as it could reflect an intelligent choice from a set of strategic options. The flip side of this assertion is that Indian governments might be able to sell to their citizens any one from a number of feasible alternative policies regarding Pakistan.
This issue assumes importance in my mind because I am not convinced that the hawkish position as articulated by the Foreign Secretary is really the one that would deliver the best outcome for India or for South Asia. Rather, it is one that could perpetuate antagonisms for a considerable period into the future. Personally I feel there are smarter options available to India and would like to see a serious discussion of the alternatives.
I am aware, of course, that there are variations in the positions taken on Pakistan by the Congress, the BJP and the parties of the Left. But these are more or less stereotypical positions that have become fossilized over time. Just as one does not observe a national debate on the issue, one does not see a vibrant debate reflecting new developments within the individual parties. And this brings me back to the question I had asked in the beginning: What exactly does the argumentative Indian argue about today?
Pakistan is, of course, not the only foreign policy issue that calls for debate and discussion. India’s involvement in Afghanistan to the point of losing lives there also calls for an argument. And, how many people are discussing the Indian flip-flop on Burma? Is the will of the argumentative Indian reflected in these policy positions?
At the end of the presentation by the Foreign Secretary I was struck by the fact that a shift in the Indian position on Pakistan was abetted by the war on terror launched by the USA. It was mentioned that just as the US was the target of terrorism, so was India. And just as it was justified for the US to take retaliation to the lairs of the terrorists, so was it for India. The parallel is certainly there without forgetting the fact that the US can withdraw and retreat into its borders ten thousand miles away if its strategy fails to deliver. Such a luxury would not be available to India.
This is yet another issue within an issue that calls for the argumentative Indian to start arguing. The Pakistani state has proactively silenced the argumentative Pakistani or indoctrinated him/her into arguing in a particular way. Is the argumentative Indian silent by consent? Or is the argumentative South Asian a myth dreamt up by Amartya Sen?