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Rehman Malik: He came, he spoke & slipped up
For three days last week Pakistan's interior minister Rehman Malik insulted India's sensibilities as well as its intelligence, equating the demolition of the Babri Masjid with the Mumbai blasts, dismissing the mutilations on Kargil war hero Saurabh Kalia's body as having been caused by inclement weather and arguing that Zabiullah Ansari, alias Abu Jundal, had really been a double agent.
Already, Malik's noxious behaviour in Delhi has spawned several stories. It is said that when he got off the aircraft which brought him to Delhi, the first thing he said was, "Where is the press?" Evidently, they had been held behind a cordon by protective Indian protocol. Only when they surrounded his permed halo did Malik appear somewhat relieved. From then until the day he left, he seemed to be skating on the slippery slope of the off-hand soundbite.
Back in Pakistan, Malik is known to be a creature of the media. He loves the sound of his own voice, especially on camera;his colleagues know he likes to speak to the press, but unlike him they also know that the press - especially the camera - can be a double-edged beast.
For example the Karachi-based Express Tribun epointed out that a Taliban recruit, recently arrested by the Karachi police, admitted upon questioning that he had been trained in a camp at Mansehra, near Abbotabad, the town where Osama bin Laden lived for six years. Now Pakistani authorities have insisted that there are no terrorist training camps in Mansehra, so unless the Taliban leadership is engaging in psychological warfare against the Pakistani state, it seems Malik has some explaining to do.
The Indian establishment knows Malik well and could have predicted much of the way the foot-in-mouth unfolded in Delhi. Naturally, you might ask, why then did Delhi give him a visa? The answer is simple: Malik had made it known some time back he would not allow the new visa regime to take root if he wasn't allowed to come to India to sign and operationalise the agreement. That's what finally happened last week.
In fact, the home secretaries of India and Pakistan had finalised this agreement a whole year ago and were supposed to meet in Islamabad in December 2011 to sign off on it. But Malik refused to allow the Indian home secretary to visit Pakistan, arguing that the visa agreement needed to be signed at a political level. Instead, he invited then home minister, P Chidambaram, to Islamabad, or alternatively, tried to wrangle a visit to Delhi. But Chidambaram refused to either go or let Malik come to India, demanding that Pakistan first take some action investigating the Mumbai attacks.
When nothing happened for nine months, India sent former external affairs minister S M Krishna to Islamabad in September to sign the new visa agreement - with Rehman Malik, amid hundreds of flashing bulbs and a huge crush of journalists - in an attempt to break the deadlock. This paved the way for the Pakistani cabinet to clear the pact. But Malik made it clear that Pakistan would not operationalise the agreement if he didn't come to Delhi to sign off on the operationalisation. The interior minister could have sent his interior secretary to do the same, but he clearly wanted to come himself. The new home minister, Sushil Shinde, was practically forced to invite him.
Clearly, Delhi has had to bite its tongue hard. If Rehman Malik's presence in the capital was the price it had to pay for kickstarting a new kind of relationship - group tourist visas for the first time as well as visa-on-arrival for those 65 years and older at the Wagah-Attari border - it decided it would pay it. Note how, barely within 48 hours of Malik's departure, Delhi has announced it will open the visa gates right away, not wait until the earlier agreed date in January to do so.
For a change, Delhi seems to be experimenting with something new, which is to reinvent the constituency of the people who, despite 65 years of separation, still seem to have fond feelings for each other. In all these decades the Indian establishment tried to build walls to keep the terrorists out, but each time Indian intelligence failed to snuff them out. Mumbai was the high-water mark of this failed strategy. Something had to give after the Mumbai attacks and India responded by tightening procedures. But since these have had the effect of also choking off the pro-peace constituencies on both sides, there is now a rethink in favour of reopening old travel routes and reinventing the fading gloss with the glitter of new trade and investment - as well as cricket matches.
As for Rehman Malik, he admitted for the first time in Delhi that al-Qaida/ Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Ilyas Kashmiri was a retired major from the Pakistan army - according to the Express Tribune, Kashmiri was sent into Jammu & Kashmir as a 'mujahid' and returned with the head of an Indian army officer which greatly pleased General Pervez Musharraf - which only confirms the Indian establishment's belief that the Pakistan army continues to either control or heavily influence these terrorist groups.
Rehman Malik's commentary may have had a final, unintended consequence: By showing how far divorced a section of the Pakistani establishment remains from reality, he gave us a snapshot of the schizoid nature of the Pakistani state and society - and allowed us, at least partially, to move on.
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