Immediately after the Pakistan-backed terrorist attacks in Mumbai, November 26-29, 2008, my country dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to New Delhi “to ease tensions.” I was furious and asked if our government sent representatives across the United States to “ease tensions” after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. The disparity in our reactions indicated how the US viewed India at that time. Moreover, I made it known that the region and the world would be better served if a high level of tensions persisted, and India took immediate action in response to the attack. I recommended surgical strikes against the Lashkar e-Taiba camps across the line of control into Pakistani-occupied Kashmir:
No one would blame India for acting against the terrorists, who committed such a heinous crime against its people. It would send both the terrorists and Pakistan a clear message that continued violations of Indian integrity and the murder of its people would not be tolerated by India, which would exact a similar or greater cost when such things occurred.
So long as the strikes were pinpoint and against the terrorists, they would not lead to a greater Indo-Pak war or, as opponents of action feared, a nuclear exchange. The last full-blown war between the two was in 1971, and although India was forced to fight on two fronts, it still handed its rival a humiliating defeat. Similarly, the last full-blown war by the Arabs against Israel was 1973, which ended in an Arab defeat that would have had Israeli troops in Cairo and Damascus were it not for the Soviet Union’s threat to attack Israel. In both cases, the aggressors decided that supporting terrorists was far less costly than successive defeats at their enemy’s hands; and since then, they have had Lashkar e Taiba, Hezbollah, and the rest of the rogue’s gallery act as their proxies.
No doubt, I warned, Pakistan would rattle its sabers and protest; and many other countries would condemn the attacks. After a few days, however, that would all die down, and life would resume as before—except for that “clear message” and Pakistan’s new expectations of a resurgent India. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. The UPA government, led by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, stood down. Compounding the problem, they continued the same behavior for as long as they were in power: sending a different message to Pakistan and the terrorists; that they could expect Indian passivity in the face of additional hostile actions. I was in India multiple times and witnessed Congress and the UPA consistently cave in to Pakistani intransigence and its refusal to prosecute the 26/11 terrorists. I can tell you that even as a guest, it was embarrassing for me to witness the Indian government’s ongoing concessions to Pakistan that sought talks of any kind at any price, while allowing Pakistan to set their agendas and refuse any help in bringing the 26/11 terrorists to justice—throwing it in the faces of the entire Indian nation.
Well, as they say in my country, there’s a new sheriff in town; and this can be a seminal moment for Narendra Modi, one in which he has a chance to change the nature of South Asia forever.
When Narendra Modi was running for Prime Minister, he made a speech in Silchar, Assam—a state beset by massive waves of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, in which he said, “The people of Assam are troubled because of Bangladesh and Pakistan is worried because of me.” That sentiment was a big part of his appeal to the Indian electorate and one reason why the people’s voice was a mandate for change. While there were numerous dimensions to that mandate, ending decades of submissiveness was a big one.
In a little more than two years in office, Modi has done a great deal to establish India’s new international brand: a nation that is modernizing; a nation that is a highly desirable economic partner; and a nation that will play an important role in geopolitical events at least for decades to come. And he has done so without giving his adversaries fuel to push their anti-Modi agenda. His unprecedented invitation to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other regional leaders to his inauguration helped set a welcoming tone for his tenure to accompany Modi’s reputation as a tough Indian leader.
For some time after that, the Prime Minister traveled the world and established India’s bona fides as an international economic and military superpower; winning the support of many, who previously shunned the man from Gujarat. At Modi’s first speech in the United States after taking office—on September 28, 2014, at New York’s Madison Square Garden—among the dozens of US lawmakers, who marched onstage to offer congratulations and expressions of support, I counted at least two Congressman, who previously co-sponsored anti-Modi legislation. His stream of Capitol Hill supporters continues to grow, and Modi was even asked to address a joint session of Congress, an honor not accorded to many.
So what does any of that have to do with the Uri attacks? As was the case in the aftermath of 26/11, international sentiments are with India. Israel offered India expertise in securing its borders; Russia has said it would not hold joint military exercises in the disputed areas controlled by Pakistan, and the US Congress introduced a bill to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. In Islamabad and other capitals, people are waiting expectantly for Modi’s next move.
Surgical strikes? Yes, with the same result as likely would have occurred if India’s previous government had taken the same action in 2008. The opportunity, however, goes beyond an immediate reaction. Pakistan is a conglomerate state, made up of several groups struggling for national rights, dominated by a brutal regime committed to eradicating those other national identities. These groups are Muslim and Hindu, and are united by nationality, not religion.
From the time Modi declared that Pakistan would have to answer for “its atrocities against Balochistan,” everything changed. His words of support energized the Baloch community living in Balochistan and in exile, and sources tell me that the declaration of a Baloch government in exile in in the cards. Modi also referred to Pakistan’s oppression of the Gilgit Baltistanis and in the past has provided a safe haven for Sindhis escaping Pakistani persecution. In addition to these groups, Pashtun, some of whom fill the ranks of various Islamist groups, have a substantial secular community fighting similar persecution at the hands of the Pakistanis. And, of course, there is Kashmir—or as it is referred to, PoK, or Pakistan occupied Kashmir. All of these groups have been energized by Modi’s actions, and the Pakistanis recognize that they cannot push him around as they did his predecessor.
Could we be seeing the breakup of Pakistan and a new age of peaceful cooperation among a new group of South Asian states? One of Modi’s challenges might be the historical US-Pakistani relationship, which almost stopped East Pakistan’s successful secession as Bangladesh. That is going to be less of a problem this time for several reasons:
- The current US administration has been withdrawing from international conflicts and likely would not intervene with more than words. Neither candidate to take office next seems to want the US to involve itself in international issues unnecessarily.
- There is a growing movement on Capitol Hill to recognize Pakistani duplicity, distance the US from that country, and end US aid to Pakistan.
- Narendra Modi has won many supporters in Washington and will have more influence there than his Pakistani counterpart.
- National rights for Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi, Gilgit Baltistanis, and Kashmiris resonate with our support for human rights, and also support our international interests.
So far, Modi has demonstrated a canny discernment to know when to push his positions and when to be more “diplomatic,” despite some domestic calls for immediate action. This appears to be a time for the former. Of course, the diplomatic capital that Modi has built up over the last two years extends beyond the United States to all other world players. This might be a good way to spend it: support these groups and their calls for national independence and allow their numbers living in India to demonstrate for it; and explain how their success would mean a significant reduction in support for Islamist terrorists.
Encourage India’s allies in the United States to petition the US to recognize governments in exile and the legitimate national rights of these various peoples, while not intervening in any Indian moves to support them.
By doing so, Prime Minister Modi would honor the 18 soldiers killed in defense of their country, remove a significant obstacle to India’s development and the security of its people, be an international champion of human rights; and strengthen India’s brand as a superpower, a major international force, and no one to be trifled with.
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Dr. Richard L. Benkin is an American human rights activist and the author of A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: the Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus. His forthcoming book, What is Moderate Islam, is expected to be on the bookshelves in early 2017.