NOTE: Published in The Hindu op ed, July 14, 2009, as ‘For the peace dividend’
A shorter, slightly edited version was first published in Dawn, July 13, 2009
The forthcoming meetings of the Pakistani and Indian foreign secretaries and prime ministers on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned summit in Egypt on Jul 14 and 15, again raise hopes for a revival of the composite dialogue process, suspended since the Nov 26 2008 attacks in Mumbai. India accuses Pakistan of not doing enough to contain terrorism. Pakistan counter-accuses India of not cooperating in terms of sharing evidence and translations.
The Mumbai attacks came barely four days after President Asif Ali Zardari’s ground-breaking address to The Hindustan Times Leadership Summit via satellite link from Islamabad on Nov 22. Zardari, Pakistan’s first head of state to promise a “no-first nuclear-strike” policy against India, talked of a common South Asian economic bloc, even a passport-free ‘flexible Indo-Pak visa regime’.
It’s an all-too familiar pattern – goodwill gestures followed by incidents of violence that are used to set back the peace process (Bus yatra – Kargil; talks – Samjhota Express blast; peace overtures – Mumbai). Who benefits? Certainly not the ordinary people but the right wing, the security apparatuses, military establishments and arms lobbies on either side.
Those who critique the push for peace as an obsession of the ‘liberal elite’ and the ‘Punjabi lobby’ ignore sentiments at the grassroots level: while aware of the problems, people on both sides are keen to live as neighbours in peace. This is what surfaces during interactions with ‘ordinary people’ across the ethnic and economic divide as the Indian delegates found when they met with fishermen’s families, workers and community-based organisations in low income localities of Karachi, Hyderabad and Lahore.
At a seminar in Karachi recently to honour Nirmala Deshpande (‘Didi’), the peace activist who passed away in May 2008, most audience members were poor women from far flung localities, brought over by community based workers. Prominent writers, political leaders and activists who addressed the seminar included three Indian delegates (the visas of the other two were ‘pending for clearance’).
Mumtaz, a young Pushtun mother distracted by a six-year old and a suckling toddler, said that her husband was a daily wage earner who was at work that day. To be honest, she said she had hoped to get something out of the seminar like food (which was served at the end). She had completed eight grades of schooling (it showed in her bright eyes) and had attended one such event in the past. What did she think of the event? “I don’t understand everything they are saying, but I do understand that they want peace between India and Pakistan,” she replied, adding, “We should live in peace with our neighbours. Maybe then our lot will improve. We all want that.”
Jaipur-based Kavita Srivastava of India’s People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), had come with a concrete agenda: to get information about five Indian prisoners incarcerated in Pakistani prisons since 1991.
“Only two are in touch with their families, we don’t even know if the other three are alive,” she said. “When they heard that I got my visa, their families walked for a whole day to meet me. With tears in their eyes they begged me to bring any information I could.”
Kavita spent an evening in Ranchore Lines with Silawat women, Rajasthanis with families on both sides of the border. Shakeel Silawat of the Youth Progressive Council who helped organise the meeting, says such visits are important to increase contacts. “After all, we are one region. We should be able to meet”.
I remember an engineering student I interviewed in 1995 for the Indian magazine Outlook’s launch issue. He hated India’s Kashmir policy and wouldn’t wear Indian-made jeans – but believed that India and Pakistan should cooperate economically even while maintaining separate identities.
A student from Calcutta, who visited Lahore with the Nirmala Deshpande-led women’s peace bus in 2000 following the Kargil conflict, had no Partition baggage or ties to Pakistan. Yet she was overcome with emotion on arriving here. She befriended an engineering student who was volunteering with the group “out of curiosity” (having never met an Indian but hated India and Indians). He told me that, despite disagreeing with official policies “now at least we can talk about our disagreements.” Young Pakistanis and Indians wept as they said goodbye three days later.
I am reminded of these encounters by Ashutosh Varshney’s essay ‘Founding Myths’ (in ‘The Great Divide’, Harper Collins, 2009) in which he suggests that India-Pakistan rivalry be re-imagined “as a thoroughgoing competition, not as a do-or-die conflict”.
“A distinction needs to be drawn between two terms: adversaries and enemies. Adversaries can be respected, even admired; enemies are killed. India and Pakistan must cease to be enemies; they need to become adversaries competing vigorously to become better than the other.”
The stakes are high for both nuclear-armed neighbours riddled by internal insurgencies and ‘religious’ militancy, endemic poverty and high military budgets that directly and negatively impact development.
Zardari’s talk of a South Asian bloc and easing visa restrictions did not emerge from a vacuum – peace activists have been presenting such out-of-the-box ideas for years. The visiting Indians added more to the previous talk, like twinning press clubs and even dual nationality for Indians and Pakistanis (“believe me, many would take it,” asserted award-winning social activist Sandeep Pandey from Lucknow).
These ideas may be ahead of their time – but so then was the Pakistan-India Forum for Peace and Democracy notion first articulated in 1994 that Kashmir is not just a territorial dispute between Pakistan and India, but a matter of the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people, who must be included in any dialogue about their future. This formulation has now permeated political discourse.
When Sandeep Pandey and others participated in a peace march in 2005 from Delhi to Multan, villagers enthusiastically welcomed them along the way (though the urban-based media largely ignored this rural activity) and endorsed their demands: One, resolve all problems through dialogue; two, de-weaponise and remove armies from the borders; three, end visa restrictions.
“One cyclist stopped and said, ‘Make the third demand your first. Once that happens, the rest will sort out’,” recalls Pandey.
The Indian delegates have now left with a renewed sense of the urgency Pakistanis feel about the need for peace with India. They also realise the need to go against the tide back home and push the Indian government to go beyond pressurising the Pakistani government to ‘take action’.
There may be no immediate results to any of these initiatives. But the fact that the governments allow them to take place itself speaks for the realisation of the need to at least maintain such contacts. And in the long run, they create a pressure for peace from below, something for the political and bureaucratic establishments to bear in mind when they next meet.
Filed under: Pakistan-India Tagged: | Dawn, Fisherfolk, Kavita sri, Kavita Srivastava, Nirmala Didi Deshpande, Pakistan India peace, Politics, prisoners, Rajasthani, Sandeep, Sandeep Pandey, Silawat, Silawat community, The Hindu