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Debating Islam ( 5 Oct 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Ancient buildings, modern preoccupations

By Irfan Husain

06 Oct, 2010

THE Great Assembly Hall in Westminster is easily the oldest and most magnificent building any parliament can boast of. It was begun in 1097 and finished in 1099, and still retains some of the earliest walls. The present roof with its splendid oak beams was built in 1377.Although no longer the scene of House of Commons debates, the hall is the venue for state occasions and ceremonial lying in state for royalty and distinguished statesmen like Winston Churchill. I happened to be there to participate in a panel discussion on India’s foreign policy organised by the Commonwealth Journalists Association. I had no idea such a body existed till last year when Rita Payne activated it on her retirement from the BBC.

I got to know Rita when I first began spending time in the UK a few years ago, and she invited me from time to time to comment on events in Pakistan for her Asia Today programme on BBC World TV. Over the years, visiting politicians and journalists would be invited to the BBC studios by Rita, and many of them became her friends. On retiring, she has turned her vast network of contacts to good use, organising a number of talks and panel discussions under the CJA banner.

The session I participated in was organised due to retired Major General Ashok Mehta’s presence in London. After retiring from the Indian Army nearly 20 years ago, he has been a leading defence analyst, and is deeply involved in various peace initiatives in the subcontinent. He has established a number of forums to analyse Indian defence and foreign policies, and is a soldier of the old school: articulate, good-humoured, and courtly in his manners.

The discussion was chaired by Humphrey Hawksley, the well-known BBC foreign correspondent and author of ‘Democracy Kills: what’s so great about having the vote?’ Jonathan Fenby, a noted specialist on China, had flown in the previous evening from Beijing, and gave us an insight into how China regarded its Asian rival. Deepak Tripathi, another retired BBC journalist, and now a full-time writer, was the other panellist.

Deepak (Tripathi) started the discussion with an overview of Indian foreign policy, making the excellent point that after the end of the Cold War, India had become more pragmatic, shedding its earlier non-aligned position originally based on Nehru’s idealism. Now, according to him, New Delhi had built a ‘bridge to Washington that passes through Tel Aviv’. Thus, India had disengaged to an extent from its neighbours, and from the Middle East. A sign of this change in foreign policy is the fact that when once India actively supported Palestine in its conflict with Israel, it is now neutral.

This is an accurate assessment of the shift in India’s outlook. Of course, there is little place for non-alignment in today’s post-Cold War era. But India’s reaching out to Washington and Israel with such indecent eagerness would not have pleased the country’s founding fathers.

As we were given 5-7 minutes for our presentations, I focused on Indian policy as it impinged on Pakistan. Basically, I repeated what I have written about several times in my columns: India, as the far more powerful and self-confident state in the region, can afford to take unilateral steps to reassure the Pakistani defence establishment. This is essential if India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are to coordinate the ongoing battle against the jihadis who are the common threat. When Western forces leave Afghanistan – as they will in the near future – it is the regional powers that will have to face the Taliban menace.

Jonathan Fenby spoke of the lack of interest in China about India: whereas he had noted a preoccupation with China on his visits to India, he saw no such fixation in China. To his mind, the fact that China’s growth was dependent on its trade with the rest of the world, India’s economic expansion relied more on indigenous demand and production. These realities made China better placed to become a global player. The lack of any concern of India’s sensitivities is evident in the Chinese decision to supply nuclear reactors to Pakistan.Ashok Mehta dwelt at some length on the restraints placed on Indian foreign policy by its cumbersome political system and its unwieldy coalition. Replying to the point I had raised about the need for Indian initiatives to reduce tension between India and Pakistan, he asserted that the latter had already moved a significant part of its army from its Indian to the Afghan border. According to him, this could not have happened if Pakistan believed that India posed a threat.

Basically, Ashok gave reasons why Indian foreign policy was a prisoner of a system that was increasingly local in its concerns. With the decline in the major political parties like Congress, the future seemed to reflect a fragmented polity that would be increasingly incapable of reacting quickly to a changing foreign environment. An army man, he seemed impatient with the incessant compromises needed to run a democracy, especially one of India’s complexity and diversity.

In the wide-ranging question and answer session that followed, we discussed the need to reorient current policies to confront the extremist threat. I argued strongly that we needed to break from the past, and face a future in which the Americans would inevitably pull out of Afghanistan. In this scenario, the Taliban would be back in Kabul, and India would not be immune to the fallout. I also pointed out that given the fact that Pakistan’s defence policy was entirely shaped by our generals, and they were not under any civilian control, they would have to be reassured before there could be any modification in Pakistani policy.

In the reception that followed, I met several highly educated and articulate Indians who agreed with me. I reflected for the umpteenth time on how well Indians and Pakistanis get on abroad. While there was an Indian diplomat present, our high commission was not represented. Just as well, I suppose, for my comments would not have gone down with our foreign office.

Source: The Dawn, Karachi