Masood Azhar's 'protective custody': Too small a step to be called a giant leap for Indo-Pak relations

India can go across the border tomorrow and give an official seal of approval to Nawaz Sharif’s initiative to tie down Jaish-e-Mohammed top brass. No harm done. No great points gained either.

Let’s not get all grateful and starry-eyed and set the move to music. Maulana Masood Azhar has not been arrested. He has been taken into ‘protective custody’ pretty much as if he was being kept safe from retribution. Neither the word ‘arrest’ nor any of its more incarcerating derivatives have been used.

Protective custody started in the 1960s in the US as an adjunct to the witness protection programme. It arose out of the need to ensure that those who give evidence against mafia bosses and crime warlords are not eliminated. Canaries ready to sing and whistleblowers were taken — and still are — to safe houses and provided a new identity.

Masood Azhars protective custody: Too small a step to be called a giant leap for Indo-Pak relations

Maulana Masood Azhar in a file image. AFP

It is interesting how protective custody is described officially as a “type of imprisonment (or care) to protect a person from harm, either from outside sources or other prisoners. Protective custody might simply involve putting the person in a secure prison (if the threat is from the outside), but usually protective custody involves some degree of solitary confinement. For people who are threatened because of their association with a certain group, moving them to another section of the prison may be sufficient.”

Who is Azhar then being protected from? An Indian act of reprisal? Unlikely. And since there seems no reason to perceive any threat to him in Pakistan what exactly does this custody constitute?

The Indian mindset reacts out of habit. Since the Indo-Pak equation has been mesmerising for India’s political and bureaucratic set ups these 70 years and they cannot get past the Pakistan bogey, it becomes an instinctive and natural Pavlovian response to find dollops of virtue in every little concession from across the border. Even this act of Sharif’s is being pumped up into a ‘wunderbar’ exclamation of victory. Let’s first find out what Azhar is having for lunch before we get all excited about “Ha! Pakistan has seen the light" scenarios.

In a perfect world, India would have gone past the Pakistan milestone decades ago and relegated it to a postscript while moving forward to other markets and nations. But whether it is cricket or conflict, the hype and the equation endure.

In the present context, it is a moot point whether the foreign secretaries meet. Has New Delhi made a calculated and indepth assessment of the steps taken by Islamabad in this one day since Azhar’s custodial development? That is the only factor that has to be considered. No more, no less.

If we truly believe that relations can improve, let’s take that flight. If we are just becoming victims of historical Pakophobia and dredging for merit, perhaps we could wait. Either way, India has nothing to lose. Let the protective custody mature into something more convincing and long-term and then make our move.

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2016 14:18:31 IST

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