India/Pakistan: ‘Peace is a process, not an event’

My first monthly column for Himal Southasian (Feb 2016 issue), a Kathmandu-based magazine I’ve been associated with since its launch in 1997. The headline derives from something I remember a Naga woman from India saying at a conference I attended in Colombo, Sri Lanka many years ago. I focus my piece on what links the Pathankot and Bacha Khan University attacks, Modi’s Christmas Day visit to Pakistan and beyond – the issue may have died out from the headlines, but remains relevant. Article below with additional links and photos.vxtvfzk
By Beena Sarwar

If Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stopover in Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on 25 December last year came as a surprise, the subsequent militant attack in India barely a week later on 2 January did not.


Indian security forces respond to the attack at Pathankot

Given past patterns, many had been expecting something to happen that would to ruin the bonhomie between Pakistan and India that Modi’s Christmas Day visit generated. Some expressed their apprehensions privately, some on social media. Indian intelligence officers said that they had been tracking information about a forthcoming attack on the air base in Pathankot for a few days before it took place. The attack was launched from Pakistani soil, going by telephone intercepts and other evidence. Had it not been for this information, they said, the damage and casualties would have been far greater. (The attack could have been much worse, but due to the alerts the terrorists were kept away from the technical area).


Pakistani security forces respond to the Charsadda attack

This was soon followed by another tragedy in Pakistan on 20 January, 2016 when gunmen attacked Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, near Peshawar, killing 21 students and staff. The university is named after Pashtun nationalist leader and freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as ‘Badshah’ (king) or Bacha Khan.


Gandi and Bacha Khan during a prayer meeting

A devout Muslim who stood for a tolerant version of Islam that the Taliban oppose, he led a non-violent red-shirted army of Khudai Khidmatgars (servants of God). He was also known as the Frontier Gandhi due to his insistence on non-violence and close friendship with Gandhi. The university was commemorating his 28th death anniversary on 20 January with a mushaira, poetry recital.

Bacha Khan had initially opposed the creation of Pakistan but pledged allegiance to the new nation after 14 August, 1947. He spent the rest of his life in and out of jail for opposing Pakistan government policies. When he died in Peshawar in 1988 while under house arrest, India declared a five-day mourning period. Bacha Khan was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in accordance with his wishes. Despite the security establishment having portrayed him as a ‘traitor’ for years, hundreds of thousands of mourners attended his funeral, termed as a caravan of peace.


Relations between Pakistan and India had been inching towards improvement, as seen during the two Prime Ministers met in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015. They sought to improve Indo-Pak relations, agreeing that their National Security Advisors would meet. However, that was not repeated in September at the United Nations General Assembly in New York when they did not interact except to wave at each other,despite staying in the same hotel.Before this, the scheduled meeting in August between the National Security Advisors was cancelled because “the two sides dug in heels, not leaving any room for flexibility”, as the Indian Express reports.


Still from the silent video in Paris

But at the sidelines of the Climate Summit in Paris, on 30 November, 2015 their meeting made quite a few headlines. A brief video shows them speaking intently to each other. (Some creative souls used the inaudible recording to make their own versions of the conversation with voiceovers in different accents and languages)

Back home, both Prime Ministers stressed the need for better relations.

On 6 December, national security advisors Nasir Khan Janjua and AjitDoval of Pakistan and India respectively held a ‘secret meeting’ in Bangkok and agreed to take forward the ‘constructive’ engagement. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj attended theHeart of Asia conference in Islamabad on 9 December arriving“with the message that ties between the two countries should be good and move forward”.

It was in this background that Modi posted hisapparently casual tweet on 25 December whileon a state visit to Afghanistan:“Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi”. He had apparently rung Sharif from Kabul to wish him for his birthday. Sharif mentioned that his granddaughter was also getting married and invited him to drop by on his way back.

Hours later, the world was treated to a highly photogenic ‘drop in’ –the two Prime Ministers beaming, hugging, holding hands. The scene provided a glimpse of what is possible when such spontaneous visits are allowed unencumbered by the restrictive visa regime between the two countries.

Of course, Modi’s visit was not expected to usher in great changes overnight in terms of official relations between the two countries. But it was a start. And as opposed to earlier instances, after the Pathankot attacks the wheels already set in motiondid not come to a grinding halt. The meeting of foreign secretaries expected to take place in mid-Januarywas only postponed to February, not cancelled.

Multiple factors contributed to the shift in the governments’ reactions to the terror attacks. Usually, it is the right wing in both sides that makes the loudest protests when there are moves towards peace. But when the right wing is in power and attempts to mend fences, the liberals who have always supported better ties can, at the most, call out the hypocrisy, but they will not oppose the rapprochement. This is the situation at present since both elected governments in power in India and in Pakistan have right wing, business-oriented constituencies.

Furthermore, chances of peace tend to increase when the democratic political process is underway on both sides. As elected leaders, both Modi and Sharif have made efforts to distance themselves, even if only cosmetically, from their right-wing springboards. Their political parties still have links with extremists but being centre stage in the world as heads of aspiring democracies they have an image to uphold.

Even former President Musharraf who, as the army chief, was responsible for the Kargil ‘war-like situation’, attempted to mend fences when in power. But he was not an elected leader. He had no constituency to answer to. When he left office, political parties could not follow through on the advances he had made in terms of reviving relations with India. No longer dependent on a nod from a one-man band, the issue had to be discussed and taken forward in Parliament.

Going by a Reuters report, Pakistan’s military seems to be on board this time, supporting Sharif’s overtures towards India. This supposedly stems from “ownership” of peace talks by the military and the appointment of recently retired general Khan Janjua as the new national security advisor.“This round is different because there is backing from the top where it matters … the army chief is himself on board,”Reuters quotes a “top diplomat” as saying.

If that is really the case, then they have realised what many have long been saying: Pakistan has enough to do, fighting the enemy within.

Profile4peace banner-2

Collage by Farhan Ahmed, Aman ki Asha

Along with all these factors, a popular inclination towards peace has been increasingly visible. Social media platforms allow people to make their voices heard, for example, through the #ProfileForPeace campaign launched a couple of days after the Pathankot attack. Many ordinary people as well as stalwarts from both sides of the border participated in this effort, putting up photos on their social media profiles holding placards addressed to the leaders of India and Pakistan, urging them to #KillTerrorismNotTalks – or, as some prefer, #StopTerrorismNotTalks.Prominent among them are actor Nadia Jamil, directors Mahesh Bhatt and AnandPatwardhan, and musician TaimurRahman, to name a few.

The people’s push for peace has been steadily increasing over the last few years, given impetus by new means of communication across the hostile border. There seems to be a growing realisation that the citizens of both countries are not as dissimilar as political leaders project. Both face similar issues of poverty, gender violence, unemployment, lack of education and clean drinking water, maternal mortality and so on.

The commonalities of culture across the Punjab, divided between Pakistan and India in 1947, include language, food, festivals – and issues like agricultural and water wastage.In an attempt to work together to resolve common problems, in December 2013, the chief ministers of Indian and Pakistani Punjabs signed a joint statement – an unprecedented move bypassing the respective central governments –that called for the free movement of academics, students and interns.

Businesspeople from both sides have expressed a desire not just to work with each other and hire people from the other country, but to invest in each other’s countries in diverse fields such as textiles, energy, information technology, education and skills training, healthcare, and agriculture.

Peace groups have long been calling for both countries to remove the restrictions on each other’s media, ease visa restrictions, and telephone connectivity. India and Pakistan are probably the only two neighbouring countries in the world that disallow each other cell-phone roaming (I wonder if the Indian cellphones of the over-100 strong Indian delegation that visited Lahore with Modi work in Pakistan, or if the roaming stopped, as it does when Indians and Pakistanis cross the border).

The dividends from such cooperation will in the long term be far greater and benefit a far greater number of people than the agenda being pushed by warmongers and the weapons and security industries. At present, much of the trade between the two countries takes place mainly via the Middle East, leading to higher prices at the retail level. According to some estimates, bilateral trade between the two countries has the potential to rise from the present paltry $2 billion a year to $40 billion if relations become normal.

In Pakistan there is a consensus among all political parties on the need for peace with India. Every political party that the people voted into power in the democratic interludes between army rule has stood for peace with India. Nawaz Sharif, thrice elected Prime Minister, is no exception.

Yes, hate-mongering continues as some chose to lay the blame squarely on India for the attack on the Bacha Khan University. But as evident from former intelligence officer retired Brigadier Asad Munir’s tweets, not many are buying that.

A mess that has taken over six decades to make cannot be resolved overnight or in the tenure of one or two elected governments. But perhaps some wheels have been set in motion that will yield dividends.

It is important to remember that peace is just that – a process, not an event.


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