December issue 2011

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 12 years ago


If it’s difficult for humans, it must be much more difficult for countries. In fact, is there such a thing as friendship between countries? Or is that an exaggeration? A country has good or bad relations with other countries. Sometimes, good relations are described as cordial, or even excellent, and in the rare case, friendly; bad relations are difficult, complex, tense and hostile.  Even when countries have good relations, self-interest is primary.

As for Pakistan and India, who have been hostile since birth, friendship sounds like the perfect pipe dream, the construct of those who continue to view these two countries through the heart rather than the head, as natural friends and unnatural foes. The heart says, “We speak the same language, we eat the same food, we look similar,” so we ought to be friends. And it is undeniable that Indians and Pakistanis warm up to each other instantly, as and when they are allowed to meet, and as I did during my 2006—2010 stay in Pakistan.

The mistake we make is apply what might be true for people, to the two nations, and even more mistakenly, to the two states. We let emotions and sentiment get in the way of seeing India-Pakistan relations through the lens of cold logic. No wonder they teeter between the extremes of love and hate, nostalgia and suspicion, friendliness and enmity.

Instead, what if we threw all those maudlin family analogies out of the window, stop thinking of ourselves as one family sundered apart at the stroke of midnight all those years ago, or as twins that got separated at birth? And start thinking about ourselves as two distinct entities on a map that share a long border, have nuclear weapons, and a host of unresolved issues. The simple question that arises then is this: Do we want war — even an endless war of words that kills in its own way — or do we desire peace?  If we do not want war — the presumption here is that most normal people do not wish for war — we need to take steps that would knock out that possibility entirely.

It might lead us to a place where India and Pakistan may not exactly be friends, but they may not be enemies either. We might actually get to a point where we would be two countries with a normal, business-like relationship.

Last month, it seemed like the two countries were taking some baby steps towards a relationship low on emotion and high on rationality when officials met to discuss the normalisation of trade. It makes perfect sense that India and Pakistan should trade like any other two countries; yet, we have not been able to do that because, going back to the sundered family analogy, one twin is sulking and the other is unyielding. But nothing focuses the mind better than money. Let’s just take one facet of the potential from normal trade: Pakistan’s import bills would come down significantly if the same goods could be imported from neighbouring India rather than from far away South America. And it makes far better sense for construction companies in north India to import cement from the factories on the other side of the Wagah border than from south India. As two countries with perennial power shortages we should be able to import from each other, whenever there is a surplus. All this can be done not out of love, but for money.

With feet firmly grounded in the monetary aspect of this relationship, it might be easier to discuss the ‘emotive’ issues. Both the countries are like broken-up families trying to get back together, brushing difficult and uncomfortable issues under the carpet, and not venturing into unmentionable, dark corners of the house for fear of raking it all up again. But that won’t do for nations trying to achieve a normal relationship.

I was at an India-Pakistan Track Two meeting between journalists from the two countries. It was held in Bangkok and called the Chaoprayah Dialogue, administered by the Jinnah Institute in Pakistan, and the Australia-India institute in India, in October this year. One of the suggestions made at this meeting was that instead of saying Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and Indian-held Kashmir, the media could start using more neutral terms such as Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and Indian-administered Kashmir. This was not an ambitious proposal, but it holds some potential for de-emotionalising the issue, by injecting some cold light into hyped-up national expectations.

Getting to normal means a cool-headed discussion about militancy exported from Pakistan into India, and the costs — security, social, economic, and political — of this for Pakistan.  It now also means talking about Afghanistan and about the opportunities of a peaceful Afghanistan for both Pakistan and India — indeed, that seems to have, of late, become an issue more emotive than Kashmir. If Pakistan wants to mess around in Afghanistan, that is its problem, but clearly for India, the primary objective should be the connectivity it offers to Central Asia, for which we first need to normalise relations with Pakistan. Certainly, India’s objective should not be to get involved in some Great Game redux.

When relations are viewed with rationality rather than emotion, there would be no reason why Pakistan should continue with a syllabus in its schools that teaches its children an absurdly distorted history of India-Pakistan before Partition and after. And Indians will realise that normalising relations with its neighbour to the West is as important for finding communal peace at home, as it is for being recognised by the world as a ‘great power’ — something that Indians constantly like to imagine their country already is.

It would also permit a less bloody-minded visa policy, one that would allow individuals to travel unfettered by police reporting and the ridiculous ‘three-city’ regulations across the length and breadth of our countries. Not out of any sentimentality for divided families, but because mobility is an important element of the modern world, and a system that so brazenly violates it, has no place in this narrative. Even Myanmar is loosening up on its visas.

A normal relationship does not mean there will be no problems, but just that the two sides will have institutionalised and civilised processes for dealing with these problems, without affecting citizens on both sides. It would be great if some day, relations between India and Pakistan could be described as friendly. But for now, I just wish for normal.

This article was originally published in the December issue of Newsline under the headline “Be Rational, Not Emotional.”

Nirupama Subramanian is Deputy Editor, The Hindu. She was the newspaper's correspondent in Pakistan from May 2006 to February 2010.