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Interview with Strobe Talbott

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (2004)

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (2004)

You say in your book that in July 1999, when Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, came to Washington, DC in the midst of the Kargil crisis, arrangements were made by the US government for him to be received at the airport by Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. How is it that the emissary of a third state was accorded this right, and was this not an unusual breach of protocol?

Everything about that whole weekend was unusual. If we were going to stand on protocol, first of all, Nawaz Sharif would not even have received a visa or been let in at Dulles airport because he had not been invited. But we were obviously not going to keep him from coming once he had expressed an interest in doing so. The whole situation was highly unusual and also quite volatile given what was happening in South Asia at the time. To be honest with you, I cannot recall whether Bandar volunteered or whether we asked him to receive Sharif. We talk to Bandar all the time, on a whole range of things, of course, but I just cannot recall whether we asked him or whether he just offered. It was a very good idea in any case: Bandar, dean of the diplomatic corps, knows Nawaz Sharif well (indeed, look where Sharif is living today: Saudi Arabia).

Having Bandar receive Sharif was just a way to soften the guy up, as I say in the book. Bandar was just to let him know that, as far as the Clinton administration is concerned, there is only one outcome that is acceptable in Kargil. And that is what Bandar did.

In discussing the 1998 bombing of Afghanistan under Clinton, in retaliation for the US embassy bombings in East Africa, you say that the Pakistan government was not informed in advance - despite the fact that US missiles had to fly over its territory to reach their target - because there was concern that Pakistan's intelligence services would forewarn Osama bin Laden. Is it not striking then that these same intelligence and military services are now being used by the US in the search for bin Laden and Al Qaeda operatives?

Yes, it is striking, but lots has happened between August 1998 and now. The most important was 9/11 and the 180 degree turn - or 170 degree turn, maybe - that Musharraf made under pressure from the United States.

I am not an expert and I am out of touch on this issue, but I assume that there is still a lot of complex networking that goes on. I am sure American officials are extremely careful about who they are dealing with, how much they know, and what they do with the information they get.

One of the points on which you disagreed with Mr Singh had to do with his reading of the violence of Partition as a legacy of colonial rule. Your discomfort with this argument appears to stem in part from the fact that it was expressed by a spokesperson for the Hindu, rightwing BJP government in power at the time. Is this an accurate interpretation, and how do you respond to the fact that this is an argument frequently made from all sides of the political spectrum in India?

Let me clarify my disagreement with Jaswant. I actually found Jaswant's interpretation of history to more or less comport with what I recalled from my own reading. I don't think there is any question that the British pursued a divide and conquer policy. It is objectively and empirically established that the worst of the violence occurred in those regions which had been directly under the Raj as opposed to areas that had not been. I believe that to be the case.

My intellectual discomfort with Jaswant's treatment of communal violence was that he tended to downplay it much too much. I felt that there was a little bit of not facing up - at least in conversation with me - to what is an unavoidable issue that all of us who want to understand India need to talk very honestly about.

The bigger problem had to do with Hindutva itself. My problem with Hindutva was that, despite my conscientious efforts to really listen to my friend Jaswant - and I did regard him as my friend - explain how Hindutva was not about religion, as far as I can tell, Hindutva is still about religion. I made three visits to India since the end of the dialogue and it has come up every time I have been there. I still hear the argument not just from BJP people that Hinduism is a civilizational category and not a religious category. As a civilizational category, it is like a forgiving and embracing mother, and among its children are Muslims. It strikes me as either a self-delusion or an attempt to delude others to suggest that Muslims in India, never mind in Pakistan or Bangladesh, are going to see Hindutva the same way. They are not going to accept this distinction between a civilizational and a religious category. They will insist it is about Hindus running the place, which is how, if I am not mistaken, we got into Partition in the first place. This is what the Muslim League was all about: a conviction on the part of a highly secularized Muslim living in India that Muslims were never really going to be fully enfranchised. That is what I think Jinnah's idea was all about, as best I understand it.

I will also say that quite a few Hindu and indeed very Hindu Indians who are not associated with the BJP have supported my doubts in this regard. They say they are proud to be Hindus, that they are devout Hindus, that Hinduism is very important to their lives, but that they cannot and should not try to impose it with a different suffix (Hindutva) on fellow citizens who happen to be of the Muslim faith.