A talk on India-Pakistan relations; a foreign secretary with a lineage; an author at large. Omair Ahmad on Shiv Shankar Menon, aspects of Indian foreign policy and the human condition.--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Innocents At Large by Omair Ahmad
It is six in the evening at the second day of a conference titled, “India and Pakistan: Understanding the Conflict Dynamics” hosted by the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. The speaker is the Indian Foreign Secretary, Shivshankar Menon. I’ve heard a great deal of praise from a friend in the Indian Foreign Service. Since I respect her judgement I’m keen to see if I share it in this case.
It is immediately obvious that he has presence. This is apparent even before he formally begins his talk. As a tall man by Indian standards, six foot something, he is obviously used to using the advantage of his height as he meets people. The effect doesn’t lessen when he sits down. He dominates the small gathering without having to make an effort, speaking clearly with a direct, intelligent gaze moving over the audience. A vast improvement over a number of diplomats who recite from written speeches, he speaks with authority and with obvious thought. Menon is, thankfully, not a man to repeat stock phrases and statistics. Nor does he indulge in bombast or self-congratulations that I’ve heard from some of our diplomats in the US & the UK.
Menon has been Ambassador to Israel, China, (High Commissioner to) Sri Lanka and Pakistan. He has superseded a number of colleagues to be appointed to his current position, and carries his authority well. He was handpicked by the last Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for the challenging position of Ambassador to Pakistan when the two countries were resuming diplomatic ties in 2003.
He tells us about being appointed to the position and asking, “Why me?”
“Because you are an innocent,” Menon was told.
A New Place in the World
It is this somewhat surprised, sly and amused wit that Menon brings to his talk. With a few sharp jabs he attacks a number of myths held in India and Pakistan.
“Pakistan’s military doesn’t need an external threat to justify its position in the country. It’s been involved for far too long and is too deeply entrenched to need such an excuse.
“I’ve heard Pakistanis speak in terms of respect and awe of Indian Intelligence agencies that no Indian would ever use.
“It’s a fallacy, and an excuse, to blame external powers for bad relations between India and Pakistan. We have more independence and agency in the global system than ever before.”
It is in addressing this last theme that he comes very much into his own.
“I haven’t mentioned external actors because these are problems for us to solve amongst ourselves. External actors aren’t that relevant in this context. For their own reasons the international community is supportive of our position. And for once, we aren’t the problem for our neighbours. Our neighbourhood is arguably going through a great deal of instability, as countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan manage their transitions; in Nepal’s case, two transitions simultaneously. But increasingly they do turn to us for help.
“It is a good time for India since we now actually have some tools to further our policy options. Before all we had were our words. That we have never been short of.”
A Drooping Banner
As impressive as Menon is, I have also been observing another story running in the background. The banner carrying the name of the function has lost its stickiness at one corner. As Menon began speaking two people with some cellotape were trying to stick the drooping edge back up. But neither of them was tall enough, and their continued attempts and failure finally led to the Vice Chancellor of the University silently pleading to them to stop.
As Menon continued in his myth-demolition exercise the banner continued to sag. Just as he declared that the number of people fanning sectarian and religious hatred for political reasons was actually very small, the banner gave a lurch and half of it flopped over, completely obscuring what was written on it.
For a smaller figure the situational irony would have been acute. In Menon’s case, it elicited only the briefest of smiles from the audience. They were far too focussed on what he was saying.
It was still a telling indication that we operate in a constrained environment, no matter our personal beliefs, relative power, and ‘innocence’. This was also reflected in a couple of other comments by Menon. One was his ever-so-slight exasperation about the intervention of a World Bank expert to deal with the dispute over Baglihar Dam. Menon stated that, in effect, it only meant involving an outsider into telling “us what we already knew”.
That exasperation recurs when I ask him about Indian-Pakistani cooperation in stabilising the fraught situation in Afghanistan. He acknowledges the scale of the issue, and that it is a worry for both the countries. But although any problem will impact India heavily, as did the post 1989 situation after the retreat of the Soviets from Afghanistan and the beginning of the mujahedin free-for-all, it is Pakistan that will suffer the most.
“It is ultimately a conclusion that Pakistan has to make for itself. We can only say so much. And it may actually be counterproductive for us to emphasise it.”
A Bagful of Guavas
I am left to muse on this, both the show of strength, maturity, and confidence, as well as the situation that sets limits on even the most capable of people. As I stroll out of the campus and onto the main road, I run into two men fighting. Actually it is one man punching another. This is the violence of the poor, and these are long, looping punches that don’t always find their mark. The smaller man, on the receiving end, scrunches his body, dodges and weaves, while the one hitting him has a strong grip on the smaller man’s shirt.
The taller man’s language is largely a string of obscenities, but as I, and a few others, try to intervene he tells us that the other man is his partner who owes him some money that he was supposed to pay back three weeks ago. The smaller man largely says nothing, trying to use the lull to wriggle away. His guilt is plain. We aren’t very successful in halting the violence, and as the taller man realises that the other is slipping away, he runs after him, to catch him by the shirt and start slugging him again.
With no change in my wallet I buy some guavas, and then ask the men how much the smaller man owes. “Fifty rupees”, says the taller man. “Twenty,” pipes up the smaller one in a resentful tone.
I give the smaller man a fifty rupee note to give to his partner / creditor. The smaller man objects; suddenly finding his voice now that he feels he can be rescued. But in the face of the other man’s anger, a small crowd of people who obviously know and are irritated by both men, and my own irritation, the deal is done. They wander off, the taller man still cursing the smaller man for his drunkenness, unreliability and assorted other sins.
Farther down the road I walk into an old mosque in time for evening prayers, and during my ablutions think that this is how conflicts in South Asia play out. Resource scarcity, mistakes, or ill intentions among natural partners lead to lasting tensions. Even the intervention of external actors, out of sheer irritation at the unpleasantness, if it manages to deal with the resource issue only puts off conflict for another day as the resentments linger.
By the time I stand for prayers, though, the mosque is empty except for a lazy cat unimpressed by my wisdom. But then I deal with things on the street, people like Menon deal with grand designs. One hopes he is able to deliver for us more than a bagful of guavas.
1. Quotes in this essay are paraphrased as no recording devices were allowed at the talk.
2. Fifty Indian Rupees is approximately $1 US.