February issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

The advocates of peace and friendship between India and Pakistan have a Sisyphsean task. They labour for years through various means to persuade the two states to normalise their relations and whenever they begin to see chances of succeeding, something happens to push them back to where they had started.

This is what happened again in the last week of November 2008. The government and the people of India, almost without exception, saw a Pakistani hand in the terrorist attack on Mumbai. The deaths of over 200 innocent people and the damage to some symbols of their mercantile status apart, they could not bear the thought that the great power that India considers itself to be, could be humbled and humiliated by a handful of terrorists. Their feeling of anger was similar to the Bush Administration’s loss of cool after the events of September 11, 2001.

The first casualty was the peace process. While demands for punishing Pakistan, at least in the form of a ‘surgical strike,’ were raised in various quarters, all negotiations were suspended. For a few days, there was a strong likelihood of war breaking out. Somehow, active hostilities have been avoided so far, but the danger of things getting out of hand persists.

A non-official Pakistani delegation of peace activists that paid a brief visit to New Delhi about two months after the Mumbai outrage, realised that the Indian citizens had been provoked to an unprecedented extent, by what they believed to be Pakistan’s unforgivable perfidy, and that communications between the two countries had become difficult, even at a non-official level.

Among the Indians we could meet — including some associates of the establishment, former bureaucrats and diplomats, leaders of political parties in the opposition, media figures and peace activists — many rejected war as a means to settle differences with Pakistan. But they were nearly unanimous in ruling out any resumption of the composite dialogue between the two countries that had been started under the slogan of an irreversible and uninterruptible process. Some wanted diplomatic ties with Pakistan snapped while others stopped just short of that.
The Indians denied having issued any threat to attack Pakistan but insisted on keeping all other options open if Islamabad failed to provide due satisfaction. The critical demand was that Pakistan hand over those believed to be responsible for the Mumbai outrage and earlier acts of terrorism in India, at least those who were not Pakistani nationals.

The Pakistani delegation was conscious of its lack of authority to challenge the Indian side’s contention. It chose to confine itself to a few points — that war must be avoided as it would grievously harm both sides and will solve nothing, that Pakistan had suffered and was suffering at the hands of terrorists on a much greater scale than India, that terrorists being enemies of both India and Pakistan, the two countries needed to join hands to fight them together, and that India’s rejection of cooperation with Pakistan would harm the latter’s transition to democracy.

The Indians listened to their Pakistani guests with due courtesy but were reluctant to agree with them. They distinguished Mumbai from terrorist activity in Pakistan’s  northern areas; Pakistan was a victim of indigenous terrorists while India had been attacked by terrorists coming from outside. Besides, the training of the Mumbai terrorists could not have been possible without the backing of some influential people/group in Pakistan. The claim of Pakistan’s return to democratic governance had few buyers in Delhi. However, the only argument to which the Indians had no answer was that the revival of India-Pakistan hostility would hand over to the Mumbai terrorists a success they did not deserve.

The present standoff between India and Pakistan is in several respects different from earlier confrontations. The peace constituency in both countries has expanded, as evident in spontaneous anti-war rallies on either side. Nobody in Pakistan now entertains illusions of resolving disputes with India through an open war. There is a wide measure of accord on the media’s leading role in whipping up war hysteria.

Is this enough to offer hope of India and Pakistan being able to find their way to co-exist as peaceful friends? There is no point in predicting such a happy turn of events a thousand years from now. The people have good reason to think of the future in much shorter time spans. Two factors in the main discourage optimism.

First, both India and Pakistan have held on to their historical baggage with demonic fervour. Neither country realised at independence the need to establish new states and chose not to break with the colonial legacy. This made development of relations with neighbours on the basis of sovereign equality impossible. Besides, both sides failed to grow out of the utterly dissipating communal politics that had plunged the people into an insane orgy of violence. Their quarrels today are not much different than the communal fights of the pre-partition era. Neither side has acquired the maturity to accept the other as a legitimate political entity, entitled to exercise its sovereign rights in its territorial jurisdiction. Both have realised, now and then, the need to strengthen the solidarity of the exploited Third World against the depredations of the advanced countries, but they now rarely talk in these terms. First, Pakistan preferred distant patrons to the closest neighbour and burnt its fingers; now India is determined to follow suit and it will surely suffer more serious burns than Pakistan.

One is tempted to paraphrase a part of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech and say that the subcontinent has a bright future if Pakistan ceases to be what it is today and India ceases to be what it is today, not in the sense of independent political entities, for that is the right of any people, but in the sense of their becoming equal members of the civilised community of nations.

At present, the biggest obstacle to an India-Pakistan understanding is the quasi-religious militants’ agenda for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their hopes of capturing power in Afghanistan and bringing a large part of Pakistan under their authority are not entirely baseless. If Pakistan does not succeed in winning the civil war these militants have started, its integrity will be grievously undermined and its capacity to cultivate friendship with India will obviously be further compromised.

It is impossible to believe that India cannot see the threat to itself that Pakistan’s destabilisation will present. However, India still seems to be vying with Pakistan for increasing its influence in Kabul. India and Pakistan both need to realise that their long-term interests will be better served by forging an alliance with other regional actors to save Afghanistan from becoming a terrorism-exporting country because in that event, the whole region will be confronted with a hazard of unimaginable magnitude. Thus, instead of being used to fuel hostility between the two countries, terrorism should be used to lay down the foundations of a long-lasting friendship between them. The risk of India’s cooperation with Pakistan in beating off the terrorists’ threat operating in their favour need not be ignored, but the outcome will be less disastrous than what could be the result of leaving Pakistan alone to deal with the situation.

In fact, the India-Pakistan friendship depends on the consolidation of South Asian regional unity to win a square deal from the developed world. If these two South Asian states can agree to work together in a spirit of friendship, without waiting for a resolution of their historical differences, they may not only be able to solve these differences and do the people on both sides a lot of good, they could also succeed in fulfilling their obligations to the world at large.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.