Voices of peace in din of war

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

INTERNATIONAL politics do not move in a straight line. There are ups and downs in how states manage their ties.

They move forward and backward in a zigzag movement of two steps forward, one step back which is very often reversed and becomes one step forward and two steps back. In this medley of relationships bilateral ties acquire a multidimensional character and are not all black or all white.

This is how India and Pakistan have been conducting their foreign policies vis-à-vis each other ever since they became independent in 1947. Only the complexities have grown. In the aftermath of Mumbai when interstate ties have plummeted to a new low and war has loomed on the horizon, the peace sentiment has paradoxically found stronger expression in unofficial circles on both sides.

Is this a struggle between the doves and the hawks? Unlike earlier years when an incident bearing the hallmarks of the Mumbai tragedy would have driven the two neighbours to war, the calamities of today do not pre-empt the positive moves on which the hope for peace is pegged. Military strategists believe that the deterrence value of their nukes keeps war at bay. But it is folly to place too much confidence in the sanity of generals and politicians whose disdain for human life and self-righteous patriotism leave little room for conflict resolution.

What has certainly emerged as a positive phenomenon in South Asia has been Track-2 diplomacy (symbolised by the Neemrana process) that was launched in the early 1990s with American backing. But more far-reaching in their impact have been the indigenously inspired people-to-people contact groups that followed. There have been a number of them.

The most prominent that come to mind are the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), one of the earlier ones launched in 1994 to bring together civil society activists from the two countries to seek a way out of the impasse. Later came the South Asia Free Media Association (Safma) and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) comprising media practitioners and human rights activists respectively to build bridges of understanding.

Another significant, though less known, is the Gurgaon-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR) that has focused specifically on Kashmir and has sought to connect communities on either side through discourse and dialogue since 2000.

Such peace-building initiatives undertaken by civil society outside the structure of government have offered flexibility and informality. Manjrika Sewak, the author of Multi-Track Diplomacy between India and Pakistan, believes these initiatives “impact official policy and public discourses” while improving communication and facilitating contacts between stakeholders. They can also change the climate of opinion.

Has this happened in these testing times? The cynics might be dismissive. But look at the scenario more closely. The two governments have proceeded to put the composite dialogue process on hold — India terms it as a “pause” while Pakistan calls it a “freeze”. In practical terms it means the next round of talks at the officials’ level are off for the present, no cricketing tour of the Indian team to Pakistan in January, no scheduled talks between the commerce ministers of the two countries and a slowdown in people-to-people exchanges especially the very visible ones as the two governments discourage their citizens from undertaking journeys across the border.

Four writers from Pakistan had to cancel their travel plans to New Delhi for a literary conference when their invitation was withdrawn at the behest of the Indian government. The convention of the PIPFPD to be held in Lahore in end December also had to be deferred. Islamabad refused to provide security guarantees to the 200 or so delegates from India.

While these have attracted publicity, the small goodwill gestures have gone unnoticed in the war hysteria that has enveloped the region. In ordinary times these gestures would not have meant much. In the bleak post-Mumbai environment they should be celebrated as the antithesis of war.

Take the case of the 51 Pakistanis in Indian jails since April last year who were released and sent home in January. On new year’s day the two governments exchanged the list of their nuclear installations as they have been doing since 1992. In the din of war the two governments continue to issue visas and there are brave souls like the hundreds of Pakistanis, Samjotha passengers, or the five Montessori teachers from Karachi who undertake a journey to India that becomes a pilgrimage of peace.

The Kashmir specific confidence-building measures put together so painstakingly also seem to be holding as cross-LoC bus services continue to operate. Trade between the two sides of Kashmir that was launched in October has not been disrupted either. These are positive signs. They have come after Mumbai.

Meanwhile, the citizens’ groups persist. Less than 10 days after the Mumbai attacks three members of PIPFPD from Pakistan visited New Delhi to attend the national convention of the Indian chapter which urged the two governments “to desist from surrendering to war hysteria and the politics of hate” and to “continue with the peace process”.

This month, 17 high-profile personalities, including two from Pakistan met in the Indian capital under the aegis of the CRD to categorically declare, “War is not an option and all talk of partial or targeted action is ill-informed and dangerous given the nuclearisation of the subcontinent.” It will endanger the “precious, yet fragile web of emerging relationships” that has brought it closest to peace so far.

Earlier this week, the chairperson of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, Asma Jehangir, crossed the border at Wagah with Safma’s secretary general to attend a peace conference and declared, “People on both sides of the border are against war.” Next week, a 25-member delegation will go to New Delhi to attend a Safma and SAHR conference to demand the resumption of the composite dialogue.

These gestures are widely appreciated. But what we need badly is the presence of our Indian friends in Pakistan in this hour of crisis. Award-winning author and peace activist Arundhati Roy once promised to be the first to reach Pakistan were India to threaten war. Where are you Ms Roy?