By Patwant Singh | January 29, 2002

Both Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf should take an hour to read the chapter, "Talking With the Enemy", from Nelson Mandela’s memoir, Long Walk to Freedom. It might help save both countries thousands of lives and untold misery. Mandela’s life demonstrates how individuals – with integrity and courage to rise above their prejudices – can solve the most intractable problems. Imprisoned for 27 1/2 years by a barbaric, racist regime, Mandela never lost faith in fellow-humans. Even during his years on Robben Island, a brutal South African prison, he found proof to support his personal conviction "that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing."

His faith in this ideal was borne out by his experience – amongst others – of Colonel Piet Badenhorst, Robben Island’s callous commanding officer, who amazed Mandela by revealing an altogether different side of his personality before his transfer from the penal settlement. "Ultimately," Mandela concluded, "Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behaviour."

Of another encounter, this time with South Africa’s President, P. W. Botha, known as die Groot Krokodil, (the Great Crocodile), Mandela writes: "I had heard many accounts of his ferocious temper. He seemed to me to be the very model of the old-fashioned, stiff-necked, stubborn Afrikaner who did not so much discuss matters with black leaders as dictate to them. His recent stroke had apparently only exacerbated this tendency. I resolved that if he acted in that finger-wagging fashion with me, I would have to inform him that I found such behaviour unacceptable, and I would then stand up and adjourn the meeting." Taken straight from prison to the presidential palace, Mandela recalls that when he was ushered into the president’s room: "From the opposite side of his grand office, P. W. Botha walked towards me. He had planned his march perfectly, for we met exactly halfway. He had his hand out and was smiling broadly, and in fact, from that every first moment, he completely disarmed me. He was unfailingly courteous, deferential and friendly."

What was the outcome of this meeting with the enemy, arranged to negotiate an end to the increasingly violent turn South Africa’s freedom struggle had taken? "While the meeting was not a breakthrough in terms of negotiations, it was one in another sense. Mr. Botha had long talked about the need to cross the Rubicon, but he never did it himself until that morning at Tuynhuys. Now, I felt, there was no turning back."

Mandela’s experience with Botha’s successor, F. W. de Klerk, who finally dismantled the repressive apparatus of white supremacy, helped install South Africa’s first democratic, non-racial government, and ended up sharing the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, was equally encouraging. Especially since de Klerk was considered a bit of a "cipher" by Mandela and his colleagues, as "nothing in his past seemed to hint at a spirit of reform. As education minister, he had attempted to keep black students out of white universities". But Mandela kept an open mind, and when de Klerk took over the National Party, "I began to follow him closely…He was not an ideologue but a pragmatist, a man who saw change as necessary and inevitable." Mandela’s open-mindedness paid off, because when de Klerk allowed a black march to take place in Cape Town, which his predecessor would never have allowed, Mandela rightly concluded that "a new and different hand was on the tiller….I was able to write to our people in Lusaka that Mr. de Klerk seemed to represent a true departure from the National Party politicians of the past."

Now lets look at ourselves. Mr. Vajpayee, despite many self-evident indications, has refused to recognise that General Musharraf represents a departure from the policies of his predecessors, and has shown a regrettable reluctance to recognise the obvious fact that Musharraf inherited the well-entrenched maulanas, maulvis, and mullahs from his predecessors. They are not his creation. He may still have some aboard, but they go back to Gen. Ayub Khan, who unwisely turned to the Jamiat-e-Ulemai Islam for help. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s similarly misguided step in 1972 brought Maula Kausar Niazi into his inner circle. The maximum damage, however, was done by Zia ul Haq. He turned Pakistan into a theocentric state with an increasingly intolerant, home-grown version of Islam as its central feature. As for Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, neither did anything to change Pakistan’s disastrous course. In fact they too leaned on the religious elements for support. Mr. Vajpayee is aware of all this. He is also aware that those who preceded Musharraf are guilty on far more counts than he is.

Yet Vajpayee refuses to deal with the General! It is Musharraf’s predecessors who betrayed a beautiful country’s promise by converting it into a swampland of religious fanatics, who helped Talibanise Afghanistan, flooded Pakistan with drugs and arms, bankrupted their nation’s legitimate economy, salted away fortunes abroad, destabilised Kashmir, and kept worsening Indo-Pakistan relations. Zia, Benazir and Sharif did the most damage to their country and its under-privileged people.

Even though the adventurism of Pakistan’s wayward leaders and the terrorism they sponsored in India has taken a tragic toll of Indian lives over the last 15 years, every Indian did not suffer from the excesses of its neighbour. But in South Africa’s struggle for freedom every colored person suffered at the hands of a sadistic Afrikaner system with its indiscriminate killings, beatings, unprovoked assaults, and degrading indignities and humiliations under segregation laws. Mandela personally bore such inflictions with equanimity and inner strength. Yet even after 27 1/2 years in some of South Africa’s worst prisons, he could still see the "core of decency" in Badenhorst, could still insist he "was not evil", that "his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system." By talking to Botha, the Great Crocodile with the ferocious temper, he discovered his willingness to cross the Rubicon. And because he kept an open mind on de Klerk, he gained for his people the freedom they had long struggled for.

None of India’s leaders – least of all our Prime Minister – have suffered personal humiliations at the hands of the Pakistanis. So if Mandela and his colleagues, despite their suffering at Afrikaner hands, could recognise a core of decency in their oppressors, the reluctance of India’s Prime Minister to see some decency in Pakistan’s President is, to say the least, strange. His refusal to talk to Musharraf reflects personal prejudice unworthy of a Prime Minister. If Mandela could emerge as one of the world’s greatest living statesman by rising above his prejudices, Mr. Vajpayee should do so too. Especially since he knows he will be negotiating with General Musharraf from a position of strength, not weakness. India is far more powerful than Pakistan: in terms of its industrial strength, its immense natural and human resources, growth rates, financial stability, and military power. There is, in fact, no comparison.

Then why this hesitation? Leaders do not serve national self-interest by turning their backs on problems. They face them resolutely, and resolve them with supreme self-confidence. In a statesmanlike manner. That statesmanship has not been forthcoming so far. Mr. Vajpayee and
his counselors have failed to see the unique opportunity to establish the basis of peaceful coexistence with Pakistan. Nor have they recognized the obvious fact that there couldn’t be a better man to deal with than General Musharraf, who – compared to his predecessors – is a moderate. He also has, by all indications, the government and armed forces under his firm control. And most of all he has the guts and willingness to act. It is doubtful if anyone in Pakistan would have dared to spell out the steps he planned to take to free his country from the clutches of the fake mullahs, jehadis, fanatics and fundamentalists, as he did on January 12. It is clear the man is not evil as we tend to make him out.

But our response to his path-breaking address was the usual carping criticism we reserve for him. What is disturbing is the degree to which India’s political leaders are turning the Indian public’s mood against Pakistan. In conversations, public debates, media comments, opinion surveys, seminars, and wherever else, Pakistan continues to be demonised daily. Since the public takes its cue from its leaders, this is where their bias originates from. It is coarsening India’s political culture. When our responses are compared to the farsighted leadership provided by Mandela, which enabled him to carry his people with him despite their endless savaging by white supremacists, then only can the qualities of real leadership be appreciated. It is not about winning provincial elections and keeping party affiliates happy. Enlightened leaders look beyond that. They look at the happiness, welfare and future of all constituents of a nation, not just of their own supporters.

Where General Musharraf is concerned, destiny, and his own deft handling of events have placed him in a pivotal role in which he can either pull his country out of the morass in which his predecessors pushed it, or he can end up in the morass himself. His address was a bold blueprint of reforms Pakistan badly needs. He deserves full marks for the confidence with which he spelt them out. It is that very same confidence – combined with skillful planning – which helped him stage a military coup whilst on his way from Colombo to Karachi. Very few Generals have staged coups whilst airborne hundreds of miles away from home! If he was able to pull that off successfully, he certainly has the ability and means to put an end to the murderous acts of Pakistan’s jehadis in Kashmir and other parts of India.

But even after his promising address he has failed to do that. No one, whether his current Western suitors, or other admirers, will accept his innocence regarding who in Pakistan is choreographing the gruesome dance of death in India. He cannot be unaware of who is doing what. He is thus morally – and now publicly – committed to ending their criminal activities, and unless he does he too will end up on the dust heap of his country’s history. Ataturk, whom he admires, did not relent in the pursuit of his reforms. Nor should Musharraf, because this historic opportunity will not wait for him. As Stanley Weiss observed in a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, "The Pakistanis must do much more than detain 1500 zealots.

General Musharraf should use his moment to change the nature of Pakistan itself." A confederation of India and Pakistan could make a unique contribution to the dynamics of Asia. It ill behoves Mr. Vajpayee and General Musharraf to ignore this larger promise and fritter away their energies and resources in endless bickering, and bloody encounters.

This convergence of the two nations, of course, will not be easy since the self-appointed mediators between them are not interested in another major power center in Asia. They are interested in dependencies, not self-sufficient nations with a sense of pride and national dignity. It is time Mr. Vajpayee and General Musharraf showed the world what they are capable of. Just as Nelson Mandela proved to such stunning effect. He is easily the world’s most towering statesman today. How will our statesmen be rated tomorrow?

First published in The Asian Age January 29, 2002 1931 w.


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