It’s one of the most remarkable campaigns the subcontinent has seen: a joint peace initiative run by the Times of India, India’s most powerful media empire, and the Jang group, Pakistan’s most influential Urdu newspaper. Their ‘Aman ki Asha’ (Hope for Peace) initiative looks to develop a stronger Track II channel in the diplomatic and cultural relations between India and Pakistan.
The choice of Jang is relevant, and crucial. It might have perhaps been easier for the Times of India to tie up with one of Pakistan’s leading English dailies, but it is probably the vernacular Jang reader who needs to be made more open to establishing a rapport with India. The case of the linguistic divide is less pronounced in India. Readers of the English press and vernacular press often share similar opinions on relations with Pakistan.
The criticisms of such civilian initiatives are probably fair: the assortment of cricketers, musicians and matinee idols who are lending their names and faces to the cause have little influence in either country. As long as the politicians and mandarins in India’s establishment and the military men and mullahs in Pakistan’s power elite are not involved, what difference does it all really make?
What most of us fail to see is that such a concerted initiative could not have been orchestrated without a nod and a wink from those who matter in Delhi and Islamabad, and possibly in Washington as well. Clearly the intent is to build a strong peace constituency among the masses in both countries for a pact that’s being made in the highest echelons. Because war, in its adversity, unifies nations while peace divides them and gives rise to arguments about the price.
Negotiations on Kashmir have never got anywhere because neither country has been willing to compromise. For years, we have heard the familiar volley of archaic recriminations; with India refusing to budge from the status quo, and Pakistan looking to significantly alter it. Clearly both countries, at some point, will have to make some compromises to build peace. The gradual process of selling that compromise to their respective electorates has now begun in earnest.
Indians and Pakistanis, raised on animosity and mutual suspicion, now have to be programmed to yearn for peace. At any cost.
There have always been romantics and idealists in both countries who spoke fondly of their neighbour and lobbied for peace. But these constituencies were always relegated to peripheral positions by realist viewpoints that stressed strategic interest. And today, after years of opposing interests, we have a situation where the strategic interests of India and Pakistan seem to coincide.
The galaxy of strategic stars in the subcontinent is now aligned for peace. And things are moving quickly.
A few days ago, the governments of India and Pakistan announced that their foreign secretaries will meet for talks at the end of February to resume the formal dialogue on a number of key issues, including Kashmir. In an apparently unrelated gesture, India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram said that the scores of Indian militants from Kashmir who have crossed into Pakistani territory should be allowed to return to India without punishment.
New Delhi’s interest is in stabilizing the democratic regime in Pakistan to prevent a nightmare scenario: a million Pakistani refugees, fleeing a theocratic Taliban-dominated city, pounding the gates at Wagah. It’s a real threat, with a precedent. The Indian government hasn’t forgotten the humanitarian crisis of 1971, when millions of Bengali refugees flooded into the state of West Bengal from the erstwhile East Pakistan. Almost forty years ago, the question was economic and humanitarian.
Today, it’s a catch-22: let the Pakistani refugees in, and you run the risk of a phalanx of anti-India militants being camouflaged among them; refuse them entry, and it becomes horrible publicity for a country that fancies itself a responsible, emerging superpower.
Islamabad, on the other hand, feels that the time is ripe to pressure Delhi into a settlement. With Washington leaning on them heavily for support in the war on terror, their approach will be to convince the Americans that they can’t fight the battle on their Western border when there are Indian guns being pointed at their back in the East.
One suspects that Manmohan Singh, having seen the nuclear deal through in his first term, is looking to make a settlement on Kashmir his foreign policy priority for the UPA’s second term in office. If all goes well, each player in the love triangle has their strategic interests fulfilled and becomes a surefire candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
A fine feather in their caps, but also the possibility of a final and lasting peace in a subcontinent that has been saddled with sorrow and disquiet for decades.