Moving beyond nationalism: a new vision for peace in South Asia

Surely now is the time to change the ongoing saga of India-Pakistan relations, moving beyond national identities with a view to building peace?

Charlotte Melly
11 August 2017

Hand-painted Bollywood Mudflap in Ahmedabad – Bollywood is a part of shared Hindustani culture. Meena Khadri/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Pakistan and India celebrate 70 years of independence next week. That also means 70 years of hostility and conflict between the two states over the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir – divided by the Line of Control into Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered territories. Tensions and unresolved grievances around these historic disputes continue to feed wider regional instability. Home to over one fifth of the world’s population, the human and developmental consequences of protracted conflict in South Asia are immense.

As we reflect on the past, surely now is the time to change the ongoing saga of India-Pakistan relations? If we move beyond national identities and change our view of security and of the Line of Control, we have a chance of building a new vision of peace in the region. 

Nationhood and cultural identity

While sovereignty and national identities are celebrated on the anniversary of the birth of the two states, if we want to progress, it is also necessary to think about these differently. It is only by expanding current narrow definitions of sovereignty and nationhood – enabling a broader, more inclusive understanding of these ideas to take root – that new realities will form, divides will be overcome and a new vision for the future will emerge. In order to support such a transformation and build a more peaceful South Asia, we should look to shift understanding of cultural difference. 

There is a trend in the region towards asserting religious and communal identities, which strengthen divisions, pit India and Pakistan against each other and cause animosity between religious groups. Pakistan has long been in the grip of sectarianism and religiously motivated extremism, which often allows anti-India sentiment to dominate in political and policy spheres. In recent years, similar tendencies have also increased in India. In particular, Hindu nationalist sentiment has been stoked in the country, creating an increasingly hostile environment for India’s Muslims and other minority groups.

Shared cultural factors often highlight, in particular to outsiders, the irrationality of the conflict between India and Pakistan.

Yet there are multiple cultural factors which span the region and unite rather than divide. Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu together – the lingua franca of North India and Pakistan), songs and poetry, Bollywood and cricket, are just a few examples of shared cultural heritage. These factors often highlight, in particular to outsiders, the irrationality of the conflict between India and Pakistan. Kashmiris themselves have a close, shared historical identity. It is all these uniting factors which must be underscored in order to prioritise more inclusive identities and positive relationships. 

Rethinking security 

Alongside identity, security in this context must also be considered differently. The crisis in the Kashmir Valley over the past year, which began following the killing in July 2016 of popular militant Burhan Wani, has provoked a repressive response from New Delhi. This has highlighted how the focus of the security establishments in both capitals continues to be on territorial integrity, in order to defend each state’s position vis-à-vis Kashmir. A fundamental rethink away from state-driven concepts of national security, towards human security – an approach which prioritises the safety and security of the people living in the territory – is essential.

The current state-focused security paradigm can lead to tensions arising between citizens and their governments and can even feed people’s sense of insecurity and subjugation. A shift in priorities could allow more collective responses to social problems to emerge, improving relationships between different members of a community. Notably, this could include the betterment of relationships between citizens, authorities and institutions. Surely the lives and livelihoods of a state’s citizens are the most pressing priority? 

A new definition for the Line of Control

Reconsidering how we view security, we should also look at how we perceive the Line of Control itself. How can steps be taken to bring people together across this dividing line? Indeed, how could the Line of Control be transformed from a dividing line into a linking line? A number of measures to build confidence and trust between India and Pakistan and between groups on the two sides of Jammu and Kashmir have been established.

Initiatives such as cross-Line of Control trade and travel have enabled a small shift in the lived reality of the Line of Control for some people in Jammu and Kashmir – away from a dividing line and towards a linking line connecting them to family members and fellow traders on the other side. Limited barter trade between divided Kashmiris at two crossing points was set up nine years ago, and has continued with only short interruptions due to severely deteriorating security situations. While its impact has been limited, the success of the initiative is indicative of the fact that a rethink is possible. 

The support for the trade has continued, despite political upheavals and a worsening of relations, providing a glimmer of hope for wider transformation of the Line of Control. However, it must be more profound. The irrelevance or porousness of the Line of Control could fundamentally change the situation for the people of Jammu and Kashmir and enable political and social realities to be reimagined and recreated. 

What is needed now is courage and imagination: courage and imagination for politicians to work together with Kashmiri civil society, and with those already working for peaceful change, in order to build a vision of a new future.

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