Times of India
May 17, 2010
PEACE NEEDS WORKING ON
Â Sherry Rehman,May 17, 2010, 12.00am IST
The Indian leadership is brave to want peace, but expect no miracles from the mid-July resumption of dialogue between Indiaand Pakistan. Because after the Mumbai massacre, the notion of peace with Pakistan runs counter to the new muscular nationalism that lays down red lines in a strident Indian television culture of consumer-led discourse.
This talking-head phenomenon reflects the voice of a new reactionary middle class that exhorts governments to talk tough and carry a big stick. They target Pakistan as India’s main security challenge, and compete with each other to trash peace as a non-starter if the process accommodates Islamabad’s priorities. Thoughtful voices that caution moderation are getting sparser as a species, and rare is the Indian pundit who can hold her own to suggest that Pakistan is part of a regional solution to the rising terrorist challenge. The reality that Pakistan is at war on its western borders, losing soldiers and non-combatants almost daily in terrorist reprisals all over the country, is of no interest to this class.
The good news is that this narrative of belligerence finds little resonance in the great mass of the urban and rural underclass that feeds, washes and services Emporio India or its aspirational lifestyles. This underclass of taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, waiters and launderers is invested in a far more benign counter-narrative of an authentic yearning for the neighbour that got lost in the fog of war. And most are not Muslim. Shopkeepers lay out discounts, drivers romanticise Pakistani fruit, and waiters never stop asking questions about obscure towns they have no connection with.
Yet, it is the state on both sides that will have to act. The fact that both states had to rely on a sideline SAARC meeting on such a substantive issue as resumption of dialogue between two nuclear neighbours is an index of bilateral intellectual poverty. In this diplomatic milieu, the ballast to move from distrust into settlement mode will require more than just a standard-issue agenda.
Productive dialogue seeks intended consequences, not ossified goalposts. Four items can protect the process from attrition. To define objectives, the first set of meetings should set the agenda for what items are laid on the table. Second, the reactivated process should be used as an opportunity to ensure that dialogue, by whatever name, remains intact, even if it is used to eyeball displeasure. If dialogue remains hostage to external events, which may well be out of state control, then it will become less viable as an instrument of preventing conflict. Third, dialogue should be nudged back from confidence-building formats into conflict-resolution templates in less than two meetings. Old stalemates on settled items like Siachen redeployments, Wullar barrage, Sir Creek, must be broken to reinvent the dialogue track and to reinvigorate trust
Of latest currency, two nodes have dominated the pathology of conflict between India and Pakistan. Terrorism and water-sharing now frame a new discourse for conflict-resolution, very different in nature from the long-standing disputes that vexed the relationship. Water deficits in Pakistan, partially impacted by India, have become the new force multiplier of nationalist dogma. Much of the narrative is based on widespread ignorance in both countries. Pakistan ignores the fact that over 35 per cent of the water in its system is wasted, and India ignores the misery it causes when crucial spigots run dry because upstream water is stored at sowing season in Pakistan. India can technically remain on the right side of the Indus Waters Treaty if it builds hydropower dams on the rivers Chenab and Jhelum, but it is not allowed to use storage and timing to render downstream farmers destitute, nor to divert tributaries as indicated by the Kishanganga plan.
For India, the “T” word has trumped everything. Terrorism has transformed a thaw in South Asia to cold war terrain again. Instead of easing the strain, it seems that Ajmal Kasab’s conviction has reinforced inflamed sentiment in India, but informed discourse recognises that he is the kind of non-state actor that has scorched Pakistan’s earth as well. Seven other accused in the Mumbai carnage are being tried in Pakistani courts, and a fast track verdict on these would help, even though the acquittal of two Indians involved in the Mumbai attacks has added a partisan twist to the process. However, there is much more than a Pakistani connection to Mumbai, as Hemant Karkare’s widow will say. Given that the reputable chief of Maharashtra’s anti-terrorist squad was killed minutes after the Mumbai attack, the episode leaves a string of questions still unanswered.
This is not to suggest that Islamabad must not act against terror. It will and it must. But to hold one government responsible, especially a democracy with a history of engagement with India, is just plain bad politics. The region is hot with international game-players looking for strategic gains. If we don’t walk the talk soon, we may have more camels in the tent than we bargained for.
The writer is a member of the National Security Committee in Pakistan’s parliament and former minister of information.