September Issue 2013

By | Cover Story | Published 8 years ago

Just as Pakistan and India reach some kind of rapprochement, something just ‘happens’ to set things back.
The latest happenings at the Line of Control (LoC) present a scenario that is very similar to what happened in January this year, soon after both countries signed a liberal visa agreement. This time, things seem worse because India is in election mode. The political opposition in that country sees tensions at the LoC as a convenient way to whip up nationalist fervour and put the ruling party on the defensive. In this, they have a ready partner in the ratings-driven media, always quick to amplify fighting words. The hyping up of negative and sensational news gives the false impression that both countries are readying for war.

Until a few years ago, Kashmir was the major bottleneck in India-Pakistan relations. Pakistan refused to work towards better relations with India until it was sorted out. Now that Pakistan is willing to move ahead on other matters leaving aside Kashmir, India is being intransigent about terrorism, refusing to move forward until Pakistan does more to tackle this monster.

For its part, Pakistan has willy-nilly changed its official policy towards non-state actors, who are now targeting symbols of the state and military bases as well. Their attacks have claimed over 50,000 civilian and 10,000 military lives inside Pakistan over the past decade. Such groups have also attacked targets in India. The Mumbai attack of November, 2008, perhaps not so coincidentally took place barely four days after President Asif Ali Zardari, addressing a televised media conclave in New Delhi via satellite, said that Pakistan would pursue a no-first use nuclear policy.

Last month’s attack at the LoC, which the Indian defence minister initially said was carried out by men in Pakistan army uniforms, killed five Indian soldiers on the Indian side of Kashmir. This came in the wake of newly-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s peace overtures to India.

So in India: an increasingly belligerent opposition — including right-wing groups that feed off their counterparts in Pakistan (and vice versa) — and a hysterical media in the run-up to elections. In Pakistan: an increasingly belligerent militant movement, components of which are aggressively anti-Indian. Some in Pakistan think it is fine to allow these anti-Indian groups to operate, forgetting that in the final analysis, all these fasadi groups are ideologically aligned — anti-democracy, anti-women, anti-religious freedom and pro-Al Qaeda.

In such a scenario, can and should the peace process between India and Pakistan continue?

The answer must be viewed in the context of the long-term goal of improving the lives of the people of India and Pakistan, as well as the progress that has been made towards this end so far.
Firstly, it is a no-brainer that peace between India and Pakistan will hugely benefit the people of both countries economically as well as at a personal level, besides benefiting the region as a whole. Clearly, it is those working for this peace and prosperity who have the interests of the nation at heart, rather than those engaged in shrill rhetoric about ‘national interest.’

Secondly, Pakistan has only recently taken the first steps on the road to an ongoing democratic process, with an elected government for the first time having taken over from another elected government. The dynamics of democracy may in the long-term bring Pakistan’s security establishment under some kind of civilian control. This will not be easy, given that this establishment is used to setting the agenda not only for defence, but also for foreign policy and economy — the three areas that were off-limits for Benazir Bhutto when she came to power following the 1988 elections, after General Zia’s military regime came to an end. Military interference in Pakistan’s politics has led to disastrous consequences with far-reaching ripples. This can only change over time with the continuation of a democratic political process, not just for one or two elected governments but over many decades. We may only just be starting to see a shift towards that end.

Social media has opened up spaces for people in both countries who want peace and can use the new technologies to engage with the other side. A new breed of Indians and Pakistanis have joined the ranks of the more traditional peace activists in both countries. The latter tended to be leftists, political activists and intellectuals or those with ancestral, and therefore emotional, links with the other country due to their ancestors having migrated from there. And the former work mostly in fields like IT, software engineering, or are involved in business, commerce or trade. They are curious and appreciative of the music, culture and food on ‘the other side,’ and are keen to be able to trade and travel freely.

Making connections: Panelists at the first Pakistan-India Social Media Summit.

Making connections: Panelists at the first Pakistan-India Social Media Summit.

Thirdly, despite all the setbacks, there have been some positive developments in Indo-Pak relations, particularly remarkable given how low relations had sunk, especially following Kargil (1999) and Mumbai (2008).
The 2003 ceasefire allowed members of divided families in Kashmir to gather on the banks of the Neelam River on each side of the LoC, wave to each other and throw gifts and weighted-down notes across the roar of the gushing water. The number of casualties along the LoC drastically dropped (notwithstanding bloody incidents like in January and August this year). The cross-border Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service allows divided families to meet — in some cases after decades of separation. A limited amount of trade across the border has helped boost Kashmir’s economy.

The peace process is not dead. The two governments have refused to rise to the bait of hardliners, and the prime ministers are set to meet at the UN General Assembly in New York this September, even though no substantive talks are on the agenda. Back door channels of diplomacy have been initiated and are reported to be making progress. Elements of the revised visa regime that the foreign ministers had signed — put on hold after the January beheadings incident — are being implemented. These include the visa-on-arrival for senior citizens at the Wagah border; visitors allowed to enter and exit from different ports of entry using different modes of transport when visiting the other country (earlier restrictions included arrival and departure from the same port of entry using the same mode of transport); and an increase in the number of cities Pakistanis and Indians can visit (still far short of the demand for a ‘country visa’).

People-to-people: Civil society initiatives like Aman ki Asha are intended to better Indo-Pak relations.

People-to-people: Civil society initiatives like Aman ki Asha are intended to better Indo-Pak relations.

For decades, people have also made a dogged effort to connect across the border — not just divided families, but also artists, environmentalists and intellectuals who engaged with each other at every opportunity. In 1994, sustained efforts by intellectuals on both sides led to the formation of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) that I was also involved in. This important people-to-people initiative featured major joint conventions in various cities of India and Pakistan alternatively, attended by a few hundred delegates from the other country. The interactions enabled connections at many levels and spawned a whole host of other initiatives. The process suffered a setback after the convention in Peshawar in 2006 kept being postponed apparently due to the security situation in Pakistan. But a joint convention was finally held in Allahabad on December 29, 2011.
Meanwhile, another and somewhat different peace initiative took up the baton — Aman Ki Asha (AKA) launched by the Jang Group of Pakistan and the Times of India group in January, 2010, that I started working for soon afterwards.

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The difference between AKA and other peace efforts is that this was the first time that two media houses across the border joined hands for peace. They have approached peace in terms of a corporate social responsibility project, marketing it like a proper campaign. The campaign has a logo and an anthem, ‘Nazar Mein Rehte Ho’, penned by the legendary poet Gulzar and sung by music icons, Rahat Fateh Ali and Shankar Mahadevan.

The AKA launch was accompanied by huge billboards of ‘LOVE PAKISTAN’ in major Indian cities, including Mumbai, barely a year after the horrific attacks of November, 2008. The Times of India newspapers also carried front-page ads announcing the launch of Aman Ki Asha. And, for the first time ever, newspapers in India and Pakistan (The News and Jang in Pakistan and all Times of India editions) published an identical front-page editorial and a report, reaching millions. The report was based on independent surveys conducted on each side on how Indians and Pakistanis view one another, bearing out the view that both peoples want peace.

AKA has conducted several seminars, engaging defence and political analysts, including the former heads of the Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies, as well as television and print journalists. There have been cross-border mushairas, including a very well received women’s mushaira in Pakistan, and huge music and literary festivals in India involving icons like Amitabh Bachchan, Zia Mohyeddin, Abida Parveen, Strings and Indian Ocean.

The Heart To Heart programme, conducted by Rotary International in partnership with AKA, has saved the lives of some 200 Pakistani children with congenital heart disease, through surgeries conducted in India, totally free of cost for the families. As part of this programme, Indian doctors will be training doctors in Pakistan to enable them to conduct such surgeries.

AKA has also played a major role in getting the business and trading communities of both countries together through a series of economic conferences, the third of which is scheduled for the end of October this year in New Delhi. These interactions have connected the business communities and created a more conducive atmosphere for economic cooperation. These communities want not just access to cross-border markets and talent, but also to invest in the other side. It is against this backdrop that both countries have taken certain steps, like Pakistan agreeing to grant India the Most Favoured Nation status (yet to be implemented as approval is pending from certain quarters in Pakistan), and the agreement to allow banks to open branches across the border — unimaginable until now.

Meanwhile, social media has opened up spaces for people in both countries who want peace and can use the new technologies to engage with the other side. Hatemongers also aggressively use the social media. But this does not detract from the connections being made by ‘peace mongers’ — a term I use to describe the new breed of Indians and Pakistanis who have joined the ranks of the more traditional peace activists in both countries. The latter tended to be leftists, political activists and intellectuals or those with ancestral, and therefore emotional, links with the other country due to their ancestors having migrated from there. And the former work mostly in fields like IT, software engineering, or are involved in business, commerce or trade. They are curious and appreciative of the music, culture and food on ‘the other side,’ and are keen to be able to visit, trade and travel freely.

During my recent trip to India, despite all the media hype, I encountered no hostility or ill will for Pakistan but curiosity and eagerness to engage at the personal level. This was the case even for those who resent episodes like Kargil and the Mumbai terror attacks, and who question why someone like the anti-India Hafiz Saeed of Jamaat-ud-Dawa is allowed to function unchecked in Pakistan.

On the whole, Indians and Pakistanis want good relations between their countries, despite disagreements with the other side’s foreign or domestic policies. I believe they are light years ahead of their governments in terms of maturity, wanting engagement despite disagreements. Compare this to the short-sightedness of the hyper-nationalists on both sides that thrive on hatred, going all out to prevent peace.

In India, it is elected representatives like Modi who thunder against Pakistan in their speeches, while in Pakistan there is a political consensus among all the major political parties on the need for peace with India. Here, un-elected people like Hafiz Saeed are let loose to make the anti-India noises.

Bizarre and terrible tragedies take place when the tit-for-tat mentality kicks in, as when the Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh was fatally attacked in a Pakistani prison. The day of his funeral, a Pakistani prisoner was similarly attacked in an Indian prison. These attacks betray the authorities’ inefficiency, and/or their lack of interest in protecting lives entrusted to them.

On the whole, Indians and Pakistanis want good relations between their countries, despite disagreements with the other side’s foreign or domestic policies. I believe they are light years ahead of their governments in terms of maturity, wanting engagement despite disagreements. Compare this to the short-sightedness of the hyper-nationalists on both sides that thrive on hatred, going all out to prevent peace.

In a major gesture of goodwill, Pakistan released over 370 Indian prisoners on 24 August this year, a move that may have been calculated to defuse the tensions being built up over happenings at the LoC. The Indian prisoners were fisherfolk, not criminals or prisoners of war, though both sides treat them as such. They should not have been arrested in the first place. Both countries violate international law when they arrest each other’s fishermen and impound their boats, equipment and catch, for crossing the maritime border. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea prohibits the arrest of fishermen crossing a maritime border.

Tensions between these two nuclear-armed nations should not be allowed to derail dialogue between then, nor hold agreements hostage to political point scoring, expediency or forthcoming polls. They should stop arresting fishermen, implement the previously agreed upon liberal visa policy and continue the process of liberalising trade. These doable steps will greatly benefit millions, such as members of divided families, cross-border spouses, fisher folk, as well as traders and small businessmen.

The two countries should take these steps “for humanity’s sake,” to borrow a phrase from the Supreme Court of India’s judgment of April, 2011, urging Pakistan to free an Indian prisoner, Gopal Das (which President Zardari did). Subsequently, in an unprecedented move, the Indian courts allowed the Pakistani prisoner Dr Khalil Chishty, convicted of murder by the trial court, to go back to Karachi on bail, and on his return to India for the next hearing, acquitted him. We need to cooperate to combat the common issues we face, like poverty, hunger, illiteracy, unemployment, gender discrimination and terrorism.

War is not an option. No matter how shrill the hyper-nationalists get, the policy makers need to continue to move along the right path. Our very future depends upon it.