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The Song Of The Sufi

By Sagarika Ghose

The Indian Express
04 July, 2003

An Indian parliamentary delegation has come beaming across the Wagah border. The bus service to Lahore is about to begin. And the new Pakistani High Commissioner accompanied by his trendy young wife have rolled into New Delhi. Perhaps this is the beginning of those exclusive jet set gatherings that are known as Confidence Building Measures between India and Pakistan. Confidence Building Measures, People to People contact or Track II diplomacy is supposed to feed into official diplomacy and create a public peace constituency. Yet after at least a decade of these People to People exchanges, we still find hostility under the small talk, we have fought the Kargil war, terrorism continues on the border, diplomats have been publicly expelled, and official tu tu main main has never been worse notwithstanding the jhappiyan pappiyan at ghazal functions. Have Confidence Building Measures become trapped in sentimentality, Sufism and the chota peg?

A predictable escapism surrounds the People to People process. They invariably take place in air-conditioned resorts where the subcontinent only intrudes in the shape of waiters serving chilled juice and other prohibited beverages. Journalists retreat to Italian towns like Bellagio, academics and retired bureaucrats head to scenic mountain hotels in Nathiagali, Kathmandu or the Pearl Continental Hotel at Bhurban to pretend that they are solving the Kashmir dispute. Mushairas are sung wafted by the breeze of the Delhi Golf Club at soirees that take place under a mushroom cloud of cigarette smoke. Various excellent Sufis are pressed into service, their undoubtedly beautiful lyrics set in sharp contrast with the brutal insanity of the political leadership. People to People contact is simply not reaching out to real people.

Given the inescapable reality of geography, there can be no doubt about the value of Track II. In fact, it is precisely because such interactions are so important that they shouldn’t be frittered away in mushairas. There have been and are many valuable exchange programmes between India and Pakistan. University students have been taken to each other’s countries. Schoolchildren from Habib Public School in Karachi have visited India and gone not just to Delhi and Mumbai but to meet kids in Panipat. Anti-nuclear activists have formed associations across the border and there are examples of Indian and Pakistani scholarly collaboration in areas like natural history and modern fiction.

But one of the chief reasons why Track II diplomacy simply hasn’t acquired the muscle it should have is the cussedness of both the Indian and the Pakistani states. Pakistan’s civil society is stunted and feudal army rule means that the activities of the small intelligentsia are all futile. People to People contacts are naturally irrelevant in a country where the people or their views simply don’t matter. But the Indian government’s mentality on CBMs also remains provincial, narrow-minded and suspicious. Its stinginess on visas is crazy considering that unlike Pakistan, which is run by the army, we are apparently governed by a poet prime minister and a scientist president. Yet MEA babus operate on the basis of some crazy ‘‘reciprocity’’ which completely negates the fact that as the bigger, confident democratic state India should facilitate much more wide-ranging social contact.

CBMs are rigidly monopolised by the same group of eminent ageing liberal citizens invariably all resident in Delhi. When women’s activists went in bus loads to Pakistan, once again, it was the left leaning liberals who traveled. Why not create a more democratic exchange? What about teachers from Coimbatore, software engineers from Bangalore, entrepreneurs from Jaipur? Why is it the same small liberal chic group who have nothing to bring to the table but their romanticism who keep going back and forth across the border?

Why not simply cut out the sentimental waffle and find innovative ways in which young people from both countries can know more about each other instead of simply stopping at the level of: “Hey, they too have two arms and two legs and they also love Bollywood!” How many Indians know for example that Pakistan has the one of the world’s highest rates of per capita irrigated land in the world? We know little of the history of the Pak Tea House in Lahore, we know little of the programmes at the Alahambra Arts Complex at Lahore, we know even less about Pakistani divorce rates or about the Lahore University of Management Studies (LUMS). There is also a failure to recognise the deep cultural competitiveness that inevitably exists between the Indian and the Pakistani.

In fact, some younger Pakistanis sometimes tend to be even more hardline and anti-Indian than the older Partition generation. They call Indian churidar kurtas ‘‘spandex suits’’ and are scornful about the Ambassador car. Tourist guides in Lahore point out how much better protected historical monuments are in Pakistan than in India, how dirty the Nizamuddin Auliya shrine is and how there’s nothing to Agra beyond the Taj Mahal and even that is not all that great. Many young foreign-returned Pakistanis said all they see in India are thin starving people and all you get in the shops are boring saris. In fact a Pakistani programme officer with USIS said in an interview with your humble columnist that her younger cousins are much more hawkish and militarist than older family members. So let’s get real.

Getting real about People to People contacts means dropping the sentimentality like a hot potato. Let’s face it, Indo-Pak is an inherently problematic relationship where the burden of apology cannot ever be on one or the other side. Having said that, there are a wide range of contacts to be created in science, technology, energy, software and culture but it’s ridiculous to think that any of this can prevent another war or lives being lost. It is thus crucially important that Track Two diplomacy shakes off the song of the Sufi and concentrates on specific issues of public welfare. Why not a combined group of social workers to undertake the upliftment of war widows in both countries? Or why not a jointly run hospital with Indian and Pakistani doctors caring for soldiers fighting our mutual war? Bizarre? Absurd? Let’s think anew, let’s think boldly.