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Waiting for Godot in South Asia

  • Published at 12:03 am October 14th, 2016
  • Last updated at 05:00 pm October 27th, 2016
Waiting for Godot in South Asia

Whenever I wonder whether Pakistan-India relations will ever normalise, my mind wanders to Samuel Beckett’s celebrated absurdist play Waiting for Godot. As most readers will know, it is a play about two nondescript men waiting for somebody, or something, called Godot, who never makes an appearance during the play, and is clearly unlikely to ever come.

One critic described the play as two acts, in which nothing happens, while the audience sits glued to its seat, waiting for something to happen. As unlikely as it seems, this play was a sensation when it debuted in 1953, and it is what brought Beckett his fame.

And while the play clearly has no connection to the Pakistan-India rivalry given its provenance and timing, it seems to me a perfect metaphor for this impenetrable impediment to normalcy and development in the sub-continent.

We all wait for a time when relations will get better between the two countries, and that time never comes. Generations come and go; we hope that each new generation will change the mindset -- yet new generations carry on the hostility. Periods of passive hostility are interspersed with periods of active hostility. In the latter periods, aggressive rhetoric escalates, and we fear that action will escalate along with the words.

We seem to have entered a period of active hostility, with what is being described as an attack of a well-known anti-Indian proxy, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, on an Indian military outpost in the village of Uri inside India-Administered Kashmir (about 65km inside the Line of Control), and the retaliatory “surgical” strike claimed by India across the LoC on Thursday, September 29.

Increasingly bellicose rhetoric has dominated the news since. There is always the worry during such periods of hostility that the bellicosity will spin out of control and escalate to more serious warfare between these two nuclear powers.

Certainly, Mr Modi has a habit of playing to his right-wing on issues related to Pakistan. This also seems to be the case on India’s relationships with other neighbours, primarily Bangladesh

In fact, there is always at least one minister in the Pakistan government who will remind the world, aiming his comments at India, that Pakistan looks upon its nuclear arsenal as its ultimate deterrent to Indian “aggression.”

I am certain that an enormous amount of communication is going on between Washington/London and Islamabad/Delhi, primarily pushing hard for both sides to “cool it.” The enormous risk of escalation to the slippery slope of unsheathing nukes is, in my experience, never far from the minds of US policy-makers in these situations.

In this scenario, a different historical analogy is, perhaps, apposite. Western policy-makers, often bipolar by nature, remember two historical lessons about war. One: The lesson of World War I is that media hysteria can drive public passion -- as in 1914, when the Western world slipped almost accidentally into a gigantic war over an incident that mattered little to any of their national interests.

Or two: The lessons of World War II are that when leaders are too timid and inclined to appease an aggressive neighbour, this can lead to a far worse war and millions more deaths than if leaders act early.

Interestingly enough, Western leaders may have both historical scenarios in mind when dealing with these periodic Pakistan-India crises. They may fear that Pakistani and Indian leaders will be pushed to, and over, the brink by media and public hysteria, and they may also fear that one side or the other will resort to a pre-emptive strike.

It is difficult to follow from Washington the ins and outs and up and downs of the crisis through our own media. But my impression is that this is a one-sided crisis. At least in Pakistan, the government and the military seem to be making some effort to stay cool and downplay the problem.

India was quite explicit in claiming where its surgical strike had hit inside Pakistani Kashmir, how many militants were killed, etc. In other words, it was maximising the impact of the attack. The Pakistani spokespersons seemed to minimise it by saying simply that fire had been exchanged across the Line of Control, with the loss of two Pakistani lives. Since Thursday, Pakistani reporters have been taken to the scene of two of those alleged surgical strikes, and it appears that they did not see any evidence that they had actually taken place.

This crisis shall too probably pass, particularly if Pakistan remains cool and unprovocative as it seem to have done over the past two weeks. Relations will probably recede into another period of passive hostility.

What I find worrisome, however, is what seems to be coming out of it: A more aggressive attitude toward Pakistan from Indian leaders which implies that relations are worsening.

I read in the media of new and more toxic threats that Indian leaders have uttered since the crisis began with the raid on Uri, not only mucking around more in Balochistan, but in particular threatening to withdraw from the Indus Waters Treaty, or to take other measures which imply unilaterally reducing water flows to Pakistan.

These threats to its lifeblood will do nothing to mitigate the Pakistani perception that India remains a threat to its existence. In fact, such comments will revive a mindset that many of us had hoped was fading with a generational change.

Many of my Pakistani friends date this trend to the arrival of Mr Modi and the BJP to power. Certainly, Mr Modi has a habit of playing to his right-wing on issues related to Pakistan. This also seems to be the case on India’s relationships with other neighbours, primarily Bangladesh. Otherwise why would India, a proud democracy as it claims, be so supportive of the Awami League government’s assault on human rights and its authoritarian behaviour?

On the other hand, given that these crises usually start with an attack by a Pakistani extremist group on India, one cannot absolve Pakistan of all responsibility for the nasty turn this relationship took.

The ISI’s cozy relationship with these groups cannot be ignored, even though whether the ISI is connected to their attacks is open to question. This murky issue will continue to poison Pakistan’s external relations.

Pakistan is trapped in an absurd situation. It can no longer control the monsters it created as proxies to harass India when it was believed to be its existential enemy. These monsters continue to attack India (with or without the ISI involvement). The monsters are too strong for Pakistan to eliminate. Their attacks are rendering India a greater existential threat, eliminating any hope that peace and normalised relations with India are possible. But they are key to a Pakistan that will succeed, not fail.

Failure was what drove Beckett, and what he wrote about. But he believed that one should never quit trying to succeed. His novel, The Unnamable, ends with the words: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” So must Pakistan go on and try to succeed, and this means, somehow, it must immobilise and then unempower the proxies.

William Milam is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. This article was previously published in The Friday Times.