How the Sarabjit-Sanaullah episode diminishes India

Even in this 24x7 age of hypermedia, the moral outrage that India summoned up over the killing of Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani prison didn't get a chance to play itself out over a satisfactory news cycle. Barely had Sarabjit Singh been returned and cremated -  with state honours, no less - than news trickled in of a grievous attack on Sanaullah Ranjay, a Pakistani prisoner in a Jammu jail. All the thunderous fulminations of the commentariat directed at Pakistan froze, quite literally in mid-sentence, but they found an eerie echo on the other side of the fence, with Pakistani officialdom and the media going into the same hysterical overdrive that  overcame us just a few days earlier.

If there's one thing that the mutual recrimination in India and Pakistan over the killings of Sarabjit Singh and Sanaullah Ranjay ought to teach us, it is that the moral high ground isn't a sturdy rock, but an infirm perch built on loose sand, which can come crashing down in an instant.  And given that neither side has absolute control over how the lowest rung among us will conduct themselves, bilateral relations are fated to be determined, even derailed, by bit players whose motives aren't readily fathomable.

The Sarabjit-Sanaullah episode boxes India into a hyphenated relationship with Pakistan.

The Sarabjit-Sanaullah episode boxes India into a hyphenated relationship with Pakistan.

Even given the rotten condition of Indian prisons, and the frequent outbreak of violence within, the failure to prevent the attack on Sanaullah - after a specific alert had been sounded to secure the safety of all Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails in the wake of Sarabjit Singh's death - must count as a colossal failure of  authority. The notion that Pakistani prisoners should be entitled to heightened security considerations that even Indian citizens increasingly feel unable to get may seem excessively considerate to our unwelcome guests, but it was nevertheless important to secure their safety in the short term.

Not just because the attack on Sanaullah Ranjay ate into our Fifteen Minutes of Moral Grandstanding, but because it allowed us to slip so readily into an equivalence with Pakistan that isn't entirely justified, but which nevertheless gets play owing to the eerie similarities that run across the personal life trajectories of Sarabjit Singh and Sanaullah Ranjay.

This is symptomatic of India's larger failing: for all its attempts to project itself as an emerging global power, with a footprint larger than just the South Asian peninsula, India finds itself unable or unwilling to break out of its hyphenated relationship with Pakistan.

Every tit-for-tat reprisal, every tu-tu-main-main spitfest diminishes us and keeps us entrapped in the bog that Pakistan wants to box us in. It may seyrve Pakistani officialdom's strategic interest to maintain the hyphen that has long outlived its par value, but for India to fall so readily into the trap points to supreme lack of  imagination.

It is, of course, not easy to ignore the many deliberate acts of provocation from across the border and the sheer cussedness of the Pakistani Army and the ISI in keeping alive the embers of  anti-Indian hatred, which finds expression in periodic jihadist terrorism directed at India - or even the beheading of Indian soldiers along the Line of Control. The irony is that such extreme provocations, which merited a muscular response, were met with at best ineffectual responses from India, whereas episodic events get far more play than they perhaps merit.

The irony is that after working successfully to de-hyphenate itself from Pakistan (which was symbolised in the itineraries of visiting heads of states, establishing a delicate equivalence between India and Pakistan, until Barack Obama broke the mould in 2010),  India is today at risk of falling back into the same swamp. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's upcoming visit to India, for instance, will be punctuated by a parity-inducing visit to Pakistan as well. China's strategic interests, in any case, are well-served by keeping India preoccupied in the South Asian neighbourhood, giving China the room  to swing its arms around the world.  But that India should allow itself to be boxed in thus beggars belief.

Moral outrage, as we've seen, is worth only so much: it can crawl into a coffin and cross borders. The larger lesson for India is that so long as it has its nose to the grindstone in the South Asian tinderbox, it will be unable to see the stars.