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Aman ki Asha - People To people To people

By Ather Naqvi

21 February, 2010
The News

One gets an entirely different perspective on relations between India and Pakistan when one talks to one’s friends in India. In sharp contrast to the war-mongering, hate-spitting image of an Indian that we grew up with — thanks to our state-sponsored media and highly distorted education syllabus — my Indian friends are just as human and peace-loving as it can get.

Understandably, in the current scenario, the upcoming talks between foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan in New Delhi have once again raised hopes of these war-hating people of the two countries. Most Pakistanis and Indians see no reason why the two countries cannot leave their bitter past behind and live in a conflict-free region where economic prosperity is a priority.

Srinivasan V. Ramani, Assistant Editor, Economic and Political Weekly, New Delhi, believes people-to-people contacts have paved the way for improvement in relations, "More than making their respective governments change their ‘hardened’ stance on relations, people-to-people contacts have melted the opprobrium for each other in the country, especially among the urban communities. People-to-people contacts — through sporting ties, through student passes, and civil society initiatives — have indisputably melted away the hostility for the ‘other’ among Indians and Pakistanis."

Ramani says governments have to be accountable to the people, "For the governments to change their ‘hardened’ stances, however, they have to be more accountable to the public. In my opinion, both in India and more so in Pakistan, governments are not fully accountable, nor do they impress upon foreign policy initiatives in public debates sensibly enough. Once that happens, there is good chance of the ‘hardened stances’ to melt quickly."

On why the two governments have been inconsistent on the issue of holding talks despite their stated commitment for the composite dialogue, Ramani says, "The Indian government is unable to decipher as to who is the real power authority in Pakistan to hold talks with. In my personal opinion, the Indian government should keep engaging with the Pakistani civilian government, thereby strengthening the civilian government’s writ in the ‘external affairs’ sense. There has got to be more effort from democratic sections in Pakistani society to lessen the hold of extra-democratic forces in the country. On the Indian government’s side, efforts must be made to emphasise on civilian and peoples’ ties and not on ‘realpolitik’ or oneupmanship."

Ramani sees the governments’ urge to ‘compete’ rather than cooperate as the basic problem, "There are many areas of congruence, yet governments find it compelling to ‘compete’ rather than cooperate. The Indo-Pakistan-Iran pipeline was one such golden opportunity. Or indeed, a regional caucus based progressive settlement of the mess that has been created by NATO in Afghanistan. Composite dialogue can feature all these and more while whittling away the major differences such as on Kashmir."

Husain Naqi, National Coordinator Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a senior journalist, says people-to-people contacts can influence a government in a certain direction but not the establishment, "In Pakistan’s case it is the establishment that calls the shots on critical decision-making issues such as relations with India. People can perhaps make the government listen to their point of view and make them take actions accordingly but not the establishment." Naqi ascribes this situation to the establishment’s threat perception of India, "The establishment sees India as their enemy. But the reality is that Pakistan has been its own worst enemy, hence the fact that we lost East Pakistan due to our own wrongdoings."

Naqi laments the fact that India and Pakistan, along with other South Asian countries, have not been able to utilise the trade potentials under SAARC that could eventually form an economic bloc something like the Europeans have in the shape of the EU, "There are now more than 1,000 items that India and Pakistan can trade between each other. But this has not been possible due to the tension between the two countries."

Muthu Krishnan, a freelance journalist and a social activist based in Madurai, India, blames it equally on the two governments, "Successive governments on both sides of the border have been insensitive to the aspirations of the people. Unfortunately, it is only the defence and external affairs ministries that seem to be taking decisions. People to people contacts have not yet formed into a considerable pressure group that has some influence on the governments of India and Pakistan."

Krishnan thinks the two governments take decisions in the light of external pressure, "To me it seems that governments on both sides talk about a composite dialogue only when there is external pressure or an election is round the corner. Add to it the tension at the borders that results in the increase in defence budgets of both India and Pakistan."

Krishnan says he will visit Pakistan at the first opportunity, "In my childhood days I had Nazia Hasan as my favourite singer. From then on I always love to hear about Pakistan and have read about it. That is one reason why Pakistan features in many documentaries, including Anand Patwardhan’s ‘War and Peace’." Krishnan warns against religious extremism, "The madness of reinventing a larger India by the Hindutva hooligans or reinventing the meaning of jehad is suicidal for people of the subcontinent."

Krishnan gives his recipe for normalisation of relations, "Demilitarisation of Kashmir is a must. Both the governments should see that they have to win the hearts and minds of the people through a shift in their stand. Civil society’s participation is essential for harmony in the region."

Syeda Diep, a social activist and Chairperson Institute for Peace and Secular Studies, says the people of Pakistan and India are victims of pre-conceived notions imposed on them through hate literature and use of state media, "The ill-will between India and Pakistan at the governments’ level or between the people is due to propagated perception about India and vice versa. I can tell from my own personal experience from the students’ exchange programme. When students from our side leave for India some of them have pre-conceived notions about India, such as that it is an enemy country or that it hates Pakistanis and Muslims. Believe me, just after a few days of talking and mingling with Indian students and other people their perception about the people of India is completely transformed. They form lasting friendships and yearn for better relations between the two countries."

Diep believes we can come out of this situation by analysing issues rationally, "We talk about India blocking our share of water by building dams on the rivers in violation of international laws and the Indus Water Treaty. Instead of raising the alarm bells we should go to the UN and launch a complaint there if we have some proof. This is how it works in the rest of the world."

Ruchika Talwar, Senior Correspondent, The Indian Express, says people’s coming together has instilled "this thought in the minds of the common man living on both sides of the divide, that if Indo-Pak issues are to be resolved, they cannot be resolved without their participation, however big or small. The people of both countries had been hitherto left to the mercy of the forces that be, which had never yielded impressive results. The resounding success of the historic 2004 ‘Friendship Cricket Series’ between the perceived arch rivals is an example of how the people thawed the relations between India and Pakistan and got both the countries talking again."

Talwar ascribes the trust deficit between Pakistan and India to, "a cause and effect relationship between India’s unfulfilled demands (from Pakistan on the Mumbai terror attacks) and Pakistan’s consistent failure to address them to India’s satisfaction. Just as it is in life in general, when one partner does not listen to the other, the relationship is doomed or at least, unpleasant and non-committal," she says adding, "The permanent panacea to this disorder that India and Pakistan suffer from is economic interaction. If you and I influence each other’s income, we can never think ill of each other."

This article appeared in the Political Economy section of The News on Sunday on Feb 14, 2010