Bridging the chasm

May 23,2017

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A recent resolution urging South Asian giants India and Pakistan “to take all steps possible towards improving relations” aims to counter the prevailing atmosphere of hostility between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

These endorsements from significant thought-leaders may be like the ripple effect of a “pebble thrown in a pond”, as one political leader hopes. The fact that the said leader did not publicly endorse the statement even though he supported it privately provides evidence of the reluctance of mainstream politicians to take positions perceived as unpopular in the public realm. Going against the tide created by the political rhetoric and media hype requires courage and the risk of being pilloried as a ‘traitor’.

However, the 900 endorsements garnered within days of the resolution – which are being circulated privately – show that many are willing to take that risk. The alphabetically ordered list reads like a who’s who of intellectuals, artists, journalists, filmmakers, lawyers, historians, physicians, retired soldiers, politicians, economists, and students in the region and beyond. The list is peppered with names like Amin Hashwani, Asma Jahangir, Ayesha Jalal, Gulzar, Admiral L Ramdas, Mahesh Bhatt, Mubarak Ali, Nandita Das, Naseeruddin Shah, Nayantara Sahgal, Noam Chomsky, Romila Thapar, Salima Hashmi, Shubha Mudgal, Gen Talat Masood and Gen Mahmud Durrani, to name a few.

The resolution does not mention specifics. However, it comes on the heels of a series of events over the past few months that mark a new low in relations between the neighbours. As per the statement: “in the 70 years since Independence and Partition, the people of India and Pakistan have seen too many conflicts and the loss of many valuable lives. Enough of the distrust and tensions. Those who suffer particularly are ordinary people denied visas and those in the conflict zones, especially women and children as well as fishermen who get routinely rounded up and arrested for violating the maritime boundary.”

Titled ‘Resolution for peaceful relations between India and Pakistan’, the statement’s subtitle – “Make dialogue uninterrupted and uninterruptible” – uses a phrase popularised by veteran Indian politician Mani Shankar Aiyar, who is among the signatories.

Over a dozen retired senior armed forces personnel from either side are among the signatories, including Indian Navy Admiral L Ramdas and Pakistan Army Brig Rao Abid. Founding members of the India Pakistan Soldiers’ Initiative for Peace (IPSI), launched by the late Nirmala ‘Didi’ Deshpande, have also endorsed the resolution. IPSI’s current presidents in India and Pakistan – Gen Tej Kaul and Gen Humayun Bangash, respectively – have also endorsed the statement.

The endorsement by Mohini Giri – chairperson of the War Widows Association, India – speaks for the pain of the soldiers’ families who face the brunt of unnecessary hostilities. Signatories include college student Gurmehar Kaur who was two years old when her father, an Indian army captain, was killed in the aftermath of the Kargil “war-like situation”. Hypernationalists in India attacked Kaur for her courageous, thought-provoking assertion that it was “war and not Pakistan” that killed her father.

Many young activists have endorsed the resolution, especially on the Indian side. Praveen Singh has since 2013 led an annual cycle rally for India-Pakistan friendship across India; Devang Shah has organised college debates featuring visiting Pakistani students; and Chintan Girish Modi runs an online platform, ‘Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein’. Members of the cross-border youth group Aaghaz-e-Dosti(Start of Friendship) and the Red Elephant Foundation are also signatories.

The resolution contains a pledge to “act responsibly and stop broadcasting hate speech and creating public hysteria aimed at the other country and/or vulnerable communities”. Signatories include dozens of top journalists – some of them household names like Rajdeep Sardesai and Hamid Mir.

Aiming to implement the 2003 ceasefire agreement and recognising that “the Kashmir dispute above all concerns the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people”, the statement urges policymakers to “work to resolve it through uninterrupted dialogue between all parties concerned”. There really is no way forward except for dialogue, as senior Indian journalist Prem Shankar Jha – also a signatory to the statement – stressed recently.

Both countries must, as the resolution suggests, develop an institutionalised framework to ensure that continuous and uninterrupted talks between India and Pakistan take place regularly no matter what and renounce all forms of proxy wars, state-sponsored terrorism, human rights violations, cross-border terrorism, and subversive activities against each other, including through non-state actors or support of separatist movements.

The statement condemns “all forms of violence regardless of its objectives”. Highlighting the importance of people-to-people contact, it urges Pakistan and India to “remove visa restrictions and discrimination faced by citizens of both countries”. They should, in fact, go further “to allow visa-free travel between India and Pakistan”.

Pakistan and India, the region’s most populous and largest economies, should “increase trade and economic linkages and cultural exchanges”, the statement reveals. The current bilateral trade, which is less than $2 billion a year, belies their enormous trade potential of about $20 billion, making South Asia one of the world’s least integrated regions.

Endorsements by prominent signatories from countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan underscore the impact of Indo-Pak relations on the region. The signatories’ list is being updated daily online by volunteers at various websites, including Aman ki Asha (www.amankiasha.com).

The signatories have no illusions that they will change the policy overnight. Creating ripples in the pond is merely a step aimed at contributing to the eventual goal of attaining peaceful relations between India and Pakistan. Bridging this chasm is critical for the sake of future generations in the region and beyond.

The writer is editor of Aman ki Asha.


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