The Nation, 26 May 2003
By Sherry Rehman
“History is the most dangerous product ever concocted by the chemistry of the intellect. It inebriates nations, saddles them with false memories, keeps their old sores running, torments them when they not at rest, and induces in them megalomania and the mania of persecution.”
[Reflections on the World Today]
Every time a window of opportunity opens to make peace between India and Pakistan it is as if one-fifth of humanity holds their collective breath. The current thaw looks like another one of these moments. As one of the parliamentarians who recently crossed over the Wagah border for a five-day yatra of New Delhi on the invitation of the Pakistan-India Peace Forum, I was privileged to bear witness to a rich skein of opinions and discourse on the subject.
What did we see and hear in India? Many voices from Indian civil society, the media as well as the parliamentary opposition were certainly united in seeking an end to the hostilities that hold both nations prisoners of history. Many found the highway to peace paved with good intentions, but sought different road-maps from the one the BJP government disingenuously seemed to offer. Strikingly, the highest level of optimism came not from the mainstream media or the security establishment, but from opposition politicians and from key members of civil society. These were the people who welcomed us with open hearts and open homes, through a prism of back-to-back engagements and public meetings. There we met every kind of person engaged in opinion-making, community-building and public representation. Many of the people we met belonged to that category of humanity who feel that history should be a living thing, with a chapter reflecting their collective will, not just the agenda of hegemonists and misanthropes.
The massive phalanx of media persons that swept us up like a tidal wave across the border, and remained with us throughout the trip had one question running in common: what do you think people-to-people contact and CBMs such as these accomplish? Do they actually get us anywhere? My answer to them was often as follows. Track II diplomacy in its many manifestations, is really about the creation of public space for peace and disarmament discourse to gain legitimacy. It is also about the manufacturing of consent and trust in each other. For the process to work on an institutional level, the human element must be operational in terms of basic confidence-restoration measures. A nation cannot, must not, be reduced to the sum of its parts, nor should human agency become the sole preserve of the state establishment. Only illiberal democracies such as ours, [which are also in favour now in the West] can afford to ignore the fact common people are what makes both our countries go round, not the anarchists, not the extremists and not the nay-sayers. These are the people who keep the candle of hope burning even when conflict brings the two nations close to the edge, teetering on the rim of an abyss when death dances its hypnotic two-step on our long blood-stained border.
The most frequently asked question, of course, was about the renewed interstate dialogue. Will the process even be allowed to get off the ground? Will the Americans push us into another Camp David for South Asia? What will happen to Kashmir? And if we’re eyeball to eyeball across the table, who will blink first, in terms of concessions to each other? On the surface at least, it seems the worm is turning, with a BJP prime minister in India once again asking tentatively to explore the possibilities of re-starting the dead engine of our peace process. Vajpayee’s strategic choices for picking this moment to take the initiative may be driven by the fallout of Iraq and the fear of US pre-emption. It may be driven by his personal sense of making history, or it may be driven by the US facilitation that has assumed unprecedented overt dimensions. For every sane humanist in the region, however, the alternatives to peace are as few as a chance of surviving nuclear war in the sub-continent.
Let’s talk about it, even if it is for the hundredth time. India and Pakistan share a border of nearly 3000 kms. The people on both sides, particularly the whole SAARC region, comprise twenty percent of the world’s population. There is little disagreement on the contention that we cannot afford to live in poverty and malnutrition while scarce resources are swallowed up by defence establishments still trapped in a cold-war security paradigm. A former Indian foreign secretary and envoy to Pakistan summed it up rather poignantly by saying that ‘our geography has to be more important to us than our history. We can’t change the fact that we are neighbours. And we can’t wipe out our ugly history, but we can certainly look to shaping our future.’
The next problem , other than of course, the vexed issue of how the British apportioned Kashmir, has to do with the complex €˜cross-border terrorism’ accusation hurled by New Delhi at Islamabad at an interval of roughly every twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Yet both sides need to handle this with care, as it can easily derail the peace process by inflaming rhetoric through the long hot summer. Islamabad needs to clearly address this concern with more than a short-term clampdown on militant camps in Azad Kashmir as well as develop a containment strategy for non-state actors who recognise the authority of no government or mainstream institution. At the same time, if Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operations are out of anyone’s control, Hizb commander Syed Salahuddin’s defiance of Islamabad should also register with New Delhi. Former Hurriyet chairman, Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s contention that he would convince militants to observe a ceasefire if New Delhi conceded that Kashmir was disputed may not appeal to the hawks in the Indian establishment. But as an option, it needs to be taken seriously and not wasted like the unilateral truce announced by Hizb field commanders like Majid Dar two summers ago in June 2000.
On the other hand, last year, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s assertion in the House of Commons that there was a clear link between the ISI and Kashmiri militant groups was a sobering reminder of policy discord at home. Although the average Pakistani would certainly vote for supporting the resolution of conflict in Kashmir, including moral and diplomatic props for the valley’s inhabitants, they would balk at supporting the architecture of militant jihad, its subsequent fallout on internal violence and its capacity to damage Pakistan abroad. At the same time, Pakistan’s most recent ban on the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, along with seven other such groups should be treated as the most significant confidence building concession to India since Islamabad’s release of prisoners, and the restoration of 78 items on the import list from India.
Creative solutions to border stabilisation in terms of joint patrolling, UN patrolling, or SAARC border monitors can cause little harm to a Line of Control where at least an average of five people are killed or injured on a daily basis. Predictably, neither side comes out smelling of roses on this one as well. While India rejects third-party patrolling, Pakistan was alleged to have rejected joint patrolling after the Almaty summit in 2002.Many of us would like to know why?
For its part, New Delhi needs to appreciate that last fortnight’s downturn in cross-border infiltration from Pakistan has more to do with vigilance from Islamabad than with high levels of snow in the upper reaches of the valley. The Indian Home Ministry’s logic about the downturn being attributable to heightened intelligence activity from their security forces makes little sense for obvious reasons. If more efficient patrolling of the approximately 72 passes in the valley can result in lower infiltration, then New Delhi needs to review the competence or positioning of its 400,000 plus forces massed in the valley. In other words, Pakistan’s best efforts to send in freedom-fighters can easily be thwarted by Indian security personnel. The 3000-odd militants operating in Indian Held Kashmir can also surely be flushed out by the muscular BSF or army corps watching every curve in each road in the valley. End of story.
But that is addressing the supply-side of the problem. As far as stability in the valley is concerned India should focus seriously on cutting back forces if it wants Pakistan’s assistance in the demilitarisation of Kashmiri freedom fighters. Since 1989 there have been 70,000 lives lost just in Kashmir. In the same period over 8000 people in Kashmir have been reported missing, a fact borne out by the National Human Rights Commission of India. No human rights groups, independent media or UN personnel are allowed to go into the valley. All this must change. Political groups in Kashmir often have clashing ideologies and strategies, but they are all united on one position. India needs to drop its insistence on treating Kashmir as an “internal problem”. It is worth remembering that the UN Resolution which forms the context for the plebiscite to determine the wishes of the Kashmiri people has been agreed to as a result of not a Pakistani, but an Indian, official request in 1949 to take the dispute to the UN. The last state elections in Kashmir may have been a cause for renewed hope in that Mufti Saeed was expected to ease conditions in the valley but so far the endemic unemployment and militarization fuelling discontent continues unabated. Including the APHC and other groups such as the JKLF in tripartite talks with Pakistan can no longer be avoided by Delhi if it is indeed serious about easing tensions in the valley.
After Mr Vajpayee’s April 18th offer of unconditional talks with Pakistan, Islamabad’s counter-offer of a composite dialogue needs to be grabbed like the proverbial straw in the wind. In order for the process to start moving and to stay on track, both governments need to put their political house in order. Prime Minister Jamali needs to work on a meaningful political consensus at home if he expects sustained support on this issue from the opposition. Domestic CBMs have to be offered to engender trust and fundamental conflicts resolved before the same can be done in any meaningful way at the regional level. History can only be made by empowered democracies, not apologetic transitionals.
In India too, Mr Vajpayee will have to instil some restraint among his BJP hard-liners like Home Minister Advani and Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha, who was last seen insisting on conditions before any summit could be held. It is bad enough that New Delhi continues its unilateral rain of Agni and Brahmo missile testing at this point. If polyphonous statements have to be made at all by New Delhi, at this fragile beginning, it would be best to echo Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes in October1990 when he wrote [in Perspectives on Kashmir]: “I do not believe any foreign hand engineered the Kashmir problem, and if others decided to take advantage of it, I don’t believe we should make it an issue; given the nature of the politics of our subcontinent such a development was inevitable. Now tell me, would that kind of strategic maturity not match the emotional and intellectual generosity of most people in India and Pakistan?
I, for one, will be holding my breath in the predictably irrational way that human beings tend to when they wait for likely miracles. In the meantime, I impatiently await the arrival of Kuldip Nayyar, Nirmala Deshpande, Admiral Ramdas, Inder Gujeral and other friends at the Wagah border. We South Asians are very competitive people. Have to order the same amount of garlands and barfi they had for us every step of the peace track, don’t we?