In 1521, King Henry VIII, he of the six wives and many mistresses, wrote an attack on the protestant reformer Martin Luther, describing him as “a venomous serpent, a pernicious plague, infernal wolf, an infectious soul, a detestable trumpeter of pride, calumnies and schism”. The austere cleric had a feisty comeback, calling the king “pig, an ass, a dunghill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon, a mad fool with a frothy mouth”.
King Henry broke with Rome the very next year, after Pope Clement VII refused to annul Henry’s 16-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He set up his own Church which flourishes to this day. Martin Luther broke with the Pope because of its corruption.
The point of the story is this: angry words might have unfortunate consequences at Gurgaon pubs on a Friday night but they have next to no impact on the tides of history.
When External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj delivers her much-awaited speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, she needs to remember the old adage about why it’s unwise to wrestle with a pig: you’ll get dirty, and the pig will like it. Though a fighting comeback on Kashmir might win her cheers at home, there’s no payoff from them for India.
Ignoring Pakistan, on the other hand, will signal to the world that Kashmir is an issue that India can, and will, deal with on its own. It will also demonstrate that India, as a rising power, has equities in the global system that are larger than its problems with its western neighbour.
For Indians who heard Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speak at the United Nations on Wednesday, this advice might be hard to swallow. Filled with invective on Kashmir, his harangue has irked many.
The truth is, however, that the Sharif speech has done more damage to Pakistan’s cause than anything Swaraj could conceivably say. Think: a Pakistani Prime Minister praising a Kashmiri jihadist who publicly called for armed struggle to build a global caliphate was the stuff of dreams for Indian diplomats.
All India needs to do is let his words sink in.
India’s long term response
Longer term, India needs to ask itself if it needs to be playing college debating-society games with Pakistan. Each terror attack, for example, need not elicit reflexive denunciations of Pakistan from every political leader who wishes to be seen on TV. No-one in the global community doubts Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence uses jihadists as proxies for its war against India; shrill accusations bring no gains.
The Ministry of External Affairs also needs to ask itself if it really needs to respond to every inflammatory statement on Kashmir, or the conditions of Indian Muslims, that emanates from Islamabad—or play tu quoque by pointing to Pakistan’s many sins.
For the most part, India’s hot words are actually a reward for Pakistani polemicists. To their audiences inside Pakistan, it appears that the political leadership must be giving India a bloody nose on Kashmir—something that always draws applause.
New Delhi can, and must, always be willing to have a serious engagement with Islamabad—but the operative term there is serious. There are a range of issues on which such conversations need to happen, from military risk-reduction, to resource management and, of course, political issues.
There’s no sign that Pakistan’s military-led establishment is prepared to have those conversations. But rather than rail against reality, New Delhi should just turn its back, and get on with business.
Frosty silence isn’t an Indian virtue. The truth is, however, that we’ve reduced diplomacy to a kind of tamasha theatre, played out on prime-time—and it isn’t doing the country any favours.