Flood relief: Beyond politics

Article published in Aman ki Asha page, Aug 25, 2010

Beyond politics

It is heartening to see efforts by Indians and others around the world to help Pakistan in its hour of need

Even as the deadliest floods in living memory rage across Pakistan – affecting more people than the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the 2006 Asian tsunami, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined – tensions between India and Pakistan can still obstruct efforts to help those in need. With over 20 million people affected – more than the population of Australia or several European nations – and about a quarter of Pakistan under water, some people still find time to play politics.

When India generously offered $5 million to Pakistan, cyberspace and media pundits exploded with negative comments. From Pakistan came comments like: “Too little too late” and “Pakistan should not accept because of the bloodbath in Kashmir”. From India came: “The PM should withdraw the offer if Pakistan doesn’t immediately accept it”, and “India should not offer aid to Pakistan because they sponsor terrorism”.

It is to the credit of both governments that they did not succumb to this pressure. Meanwhile, Indians at home and abroad, as well as others, are increasingly stepping up on a private level to help out with flood relief efforts in Pakistan. Continue reading

‘Bridging Partition: People’s Initiatives for Peace between India and Pakistan’

Cover art: K.B. Abro; design: Bindia Thapar

JUST PUBLISHED

BRIDGING PARTITION: People’s Intitiatives for Peace Between India and Pakistan

Edited by SMITU KOTHARI and ZIA MIAN

With Kamla Bhasin, A H Nayyar and Mohammad Tahseen
Essays by Shehryar Ahmad, Karamat Ali, Sumanta Banerjee, Kamla Bhasin, Nirupama Dutt, Madeeha Gauhar, Mubashir Hasan, Pervez Hoodboy, Asma Jehangir, Sheema Kirmani, Sanat Mohanty, Kuldip Nayar, Sandeep Pandey, Narendra Panjwani, Anand Patwardhan, Balraj Puri, Laxminarayan Ramdas, Lalita Ramdas, I A Rehman, Beena Sarwar, Jamila Verghese, Achin Vanaik

“Over the past three decades, in the shadow of hostile nationalisms fuelled by radical Islamic and Hindu politics, military crises, a runaway arms race, nuclear weapons and war, an amazing set of civil society initiatives has been taking root in India and Pakistan. A citizens diplomacy movement embracing thousands of activists, scholars, business people and retired government officials has emerged in an unprecedented effort to build national and cross-border networks for peace and cooperation between the two countries.

“In these essays, leading scholars, activists and writers from India and Pakistan reflect on the political and personal impact of crossing the border, and explore the possibilities and limits of this new movement in its quest to chart a path to peace between the two countries.”

Cover design Bindia Thapar
Cover art 60 Years of India Pakistan by K. B. Abro

Published by Orient BlackSwan India

Neighbours in peace – or pieces?

My monthly column for Hardnews, India, August 2009 – http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2009/07/3122. Also published in The News on Sunday, August 9, 2009

Karachi, July 26 2009

Personal Political

Neighbours in peace — or pieces?

Beena Sarwar

The auditorium was full of women from far-flung, poor localities of Karachi. One of them plonked herself next to me in the second row along with her daughters, a toddler and a six-year old. A gigantic banner featuring a photo of the late activist Nirmala Deshpande formed the backdrop to an array of speakers from India and Pakistan seated behind a long table on the platform. ‘PROMOTING PEACE IN SOUTH ASIA AND REMEMBERING NIRMALA DIDI DESHPANDE’ it read.

Mumtaz, the young Pahstun mother next to me, had studied up till the eighth grade, unlike most of the other women present. The toddler nuzzled against her to breastfeed from time to time.

The speakers included prominent Urdu writer Zahida Hina, peace activist and educationist from Lahore Syed Diep, parliamentarians from  the PPP and MQM and Indian activist Sandeep Pandey from Lucknow, journalist Jatin Desai from Mumbai, and Kavita Srivastava of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) from Jaipur. Two other Indians weren’t given ‘clearance’ from Islamabad in time for the visit, meant to further the aims of a joint signature campaign for peace launched earlier this year.

Mumtaz and the other women, mostly wives of daily wage labourers, had been brought there by various ‘bajis’, women activists working in their areas. “I don’t understand everything they’re saying,” Mumtaz told me, “But I know they are talking about the need for peace between India and Pakistan. That is what we all want.”

Her immediate concern was to feed her family. “Maybe if these two countries stop fighting, our lot will improve,” she said optimistically.

“Let the people meet, all other matters will sort out,” a cyclist told Sandeep Pandey and other peace marchers who went from Delhi to Multan in 2005, demanding that the governments of India and Pakistan resolve all matters of dispute through dialogue.

Such basic wisdom is at odds with the justifications for continued animosity presented by ‘intellectuals’ on either side of the border. “India/Pakistan wants to destroy us”; “Stop appeasing India/Pakistan”; “There is no point in talking to them”.

If we listen to this babble of voices whose sole aim seems to be to present their own country’s case as better than the other’s, we’ll never get anywhere. There is an old saying in our part of the world, ‘Taali donoN haathoN se bajti hai’ – it takes two hands to clap.

Let’s stop these blame games and accept that there are problems on either side – of varying degrees and natures, and try and understand the complexities of the problems.

Those with access to the Internet have increased the potential for such understanding. But because we’re not used to talking to each other, the un-moderated exchanges posted on blogs are often crass and offensive. Direct interaction involving basic civility and an open mind is more meaningful.

Some time back, a Mumbaikar emailed saying, “Frankly, with Pakistan itself is in such a mess (Lal Masjid, Swat valley, Taliban, regular suicide attacks and of course the numerous Muslim organisations ranting about Jehad), do you really feel safe in your own country? And the most amusing thing is when Pakistan tells that India is its enemy number one. Wait for a few more years, am sure the Taliban will take over Pakistan. And what pains us, is what did we do to Pakistan. Kargil was Musharaf’s misadventure.”

I replied, yes, Pakistan is in a mess, due largely to the continual disruption of the political process, with no democratically elected government being allowed to complete its terms. “This is the biggest difference between India and us, and what I most envy about your country”.

Still, women do get around here too, carry on with their work and their lives. And at least elements within Pakistan’s establishment no longer consider India as enemy number one.

Kargil was indeed Musharraf’s misadventure. Many of us spoke out against it (were labelled as Indian agents). Pakistan’s military must be accountable and answerable to elected civilian governments. This will only happen if the political process is allowed to continue.

Rocky as politics in Pakistan currently are, with a floundering democratic process, it is only more democracy on a sustained and continuous level that will in the long run yield positive results.

(ends)

See also:

‘HRCP urges Pakistan, India to resume prisoner swap, stop arrests for minor violations’, Aug 5, 2009 – http://hrcpblog.wordpress.com/2009/08/06/hrcp-urges-pakistan-india-to-resume-prisoner-swap-stop-arrests-for-minor-violations/

Why not hang Sarabjit Singh, March 2008

http://www.chowk.com/articles/why-not-hang-surabjit-singh-Beena-Sarwar.htm

Move on please, decisively

NOTE: Published in The Hindu op ed, July 14, 2009, as  ‘For the peace dividend’

http://www.hindu.com/2009/07/14/stories/2009071451040900.htm

A shorter, slightly edited version was first published in Dawn, July 13, 2009

http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/16-move-on-please-decisively-hs-07

Karachi, Aug 14, 2002: Citizens' peace demonstration at 'Quaid-e-Azam' M.A. Jinnah's Mazar - in the midst of testosterone-charged young men roaring about on motorcycles waving huge Pakistan flags. On learning what it was about, some of them joined the demo...

Karachi, Aug 14, 2003: Citizens' peace demonstration at 'Quaid-e-Azam' M.A. Jinnah's Mazar - in the midst of testosterone-charged young men roaring about on motorcycles waving huge Pakistan flags. On learning what it was about, some of them joined the demo.

Beena Sarwar

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.

PAKISTAN/INDIA: Citizens Push for Peace

By Beena Sarwar

India's Kavita Srivastava meets Pakistan's Rajasthani women. Also pictured Haris Gazdar (left) and Karamat Ali. Photo: YPC

India’s Kavita Srivastava meets Pakistan’s Rajasthani women. Also pictured Haris Gazdar (left) and Karamat Ali. Photo: YPC

KARACHI, Jul 8 (IPS) – The months following last year’s Mumbai terror attacks have seen a renewed sense of urgency among peace activists in Pakistan and India. Citizens are pushing their governments to resume the composite dialogue process between the two nuclear-rival nations.

India suspended the process after the Mumbai attacks, accusing Islamabad of not doing “enough” to contain terrorism. But activists argue that terrorism is not Pakistan’s problem alone.

“Both countries are going through a critical phase,” says Jatin Desai, a veteran Mumbai-based journalist.

A frequent visitor to Pakistan, he was in the country with two other Indians, meeting community-based organisations, political leaders and media persons in Karachi, Lahore and Hyderabad to take the push for peace to the people. His proposal to ‘twin’ the press clubs of Karachi and Mumbai was positively received.

“After the Mumbai terror attacks, Mumbai residents sent a clear message – No to war, No to violence, No to terror,” said Desai. “Thousands joined hands for a hundred kilometre long ‘human chain for peace’ on Dec. 10, 2008, to say this and urge a resumption of the peace process.”

Zahida Hina and Jatin Desai at the seminar for Nirmala Didi. Photo: beena sarwar

Zahida Hina and Jatin Desai at the seminar for Nirmala Didi. Photo: beena sarwar

He was speaking at a seminar in Karachi to underline the need for peace in South Asia and to honour Nirmala Deshpande, a prominent peace lobbyist, who passed away in May 2008.

A majority of participants in the seminar were women from low income localities whose husbands work as daily wage labourers. Mumtaz, a young woman suckling her toddler, told IPS that this was the second such event she had attended.

“I understand what it’s about,” she said. “They want peace between India and Pakistan. We should live in peace with our neighbours. Maybe then our lot will improve. We all want that.”

Breakthroughs between India and Pakistan are routinely subverted by violence like the Mumbai attacks.

The security establishments and military machines also have vested interests in keeping tensions simmering.

“There will be no peace until the arms race ends,” said Mohammad Ali Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, representing a community severely impacted by the hostilities, with whom the Indian delegates spent an evening.

“There are currently over 500 Indian fishermen in Pakistani prisons, and over 150 Pakistani fishermen in Indian prisons,” Shah told IPS. “Fishermen on both sides caught violating the maritime borders are treated as prisoners of war.”

A consular access agreement of May 2008 – aimed at facilitating early release of prisoners – requires both sides to exchange updated lists of each other’s nationals in their custody every Jan. 1 and Jul. 1.

Pakistan handed over its list to the Indian government. “But India defaulted both times this year, and has been unable, for unspecified reasons, to provide Pakistan with a list of Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails,” reported The Hindu on Jul. 2.

The lists in any case are incomplete, with many prisoners unaccounted for.

Jaipur-based Kavita Srivastava of India’s People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), on her maiden visit to Pakistan, wanted 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 told IPS. “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.”

She was unable to ascertain their whereabouts but left with a promise from the provincial minister for prisons that “next time” she would be allowed to visit the prisons and verify for herself.

“Such visits are important to increase contacts. After all, we are one region. We should be able to meet,” Shakeel Silawat of the Youth Progressive Council told IPS, after arranging a visit for Srivastava with girls and women from his community. Silawats are Rajasthanis who often have families on both sides of the border.

“If there was dual citizenship for Indians and Pakistanis, believe me, many would take it,” asserts award-winning social activist Sandeep Pandey from Lucknow.

Pandey participated in the 2005 peace march from Delhi to Multan in the south of Pakistan’s Punjab province. The marchers had also received enthusiastic welcomes from Pakistani villagers along the way.

Karamat Ali from the Pakistan Peace Coalition which organised the visit said that the Indians left with “a sense of the urgency for peace with India which appears to be greater among Pakistanis”.

“They realise that they need to push the Indian government to change its attitude towards the elected government of Pakistan, go beyond pressurising the Pakistani government to ‘take action’, in order to break the grip of the establishment here,” he told IPS.

Such visits may not yield immediate results, but the fact that the governments allow them to take place is in itself a step, if not forward, then at least not backwards. And in the context of India and Pakistan, that can only be seen as positive.

(END/2009)

http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=47575

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