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Bridging the divide: thoughts on Indo-Pak relations
By Yoginder Sikand

Going by recent reports in the Indian press, the impending visit to India of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf seems to have generated a euphoria of sorts, with hopes being expressed of his talks with Indian leaders leading to a radical breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations. However, with neither India nor Pakistan seeming at all willing to seriously consider the genuine aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, continuing to treat the Kashmir issue as a real estate dispute, it seems that the forthcoming talks would achieve little by way of a final solution to what is the greatest hurdle in improving relations between the two countries. Hard-liners on both sides, represented by the likes of the RSS in India and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba in Pakistan, have refused to consider the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir issue which satisfies the urges of all Kashmiris, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and others alike.

Given the enormous clout that such chauvinist bodies exercise today within as well as without ruling regimes in both countries there seems little hope for any move forward in seriously addressing the Kashmir question in the near future. Hence, the forthcoming talks promise to deliver little more than what Vajpayee’s Lahore visit was able to, being, at the risk of sounding cynical, yet another futile exercise in public relations. As the Persian saying goes, ‘They came, they feasted and then they departed’.

Given the fact that no government can afford to take decisions that would not go down well with its public, it is clear that a settlement of the Kashmir dispute can only come about when civil society in both India and Pakistan, as well as in Kashmir, has been convinced of the urgent need for a settlement that can satisfy all three parties to the conflict. Talks at the official level are important and necessary, but given the fact that endless rounds of talks between India and Pakistan in the past have failed to move the two countries anywhere closer to a resolution of the problem, they seem doomed to failure in the future in the absence of a sustained pressure from civil society forcing them to tone down on fiery nationalistic rhetoric and seriously consider means to solve the Kashmir dispute. Hence the need for mobilizing public opinion on a large scale to goad governments in both countries to address the aspirations of the Kashmiris and be willing to make compromises for the sake of peace and progress in the region as a whole.

The virtual absence of any people-to-people contact between ordinary Pakistanis and Indians constitutes the single greatest barrier to developing better relations between India and Pakistan. Most Indians seem to imagine Pakistanis as nothing less than malevolent creatures, sub-humans or perhaps aliens from another, menacing planet. I suppose the sentiment would be shared by many across the border about Indians. If ordinary Indians and Pakistanis were allowed to meet and interact with each other, as members of professional bodies, as students, teachers, journalists, or simply as friends, it would go a long way in countering the distressing stereotypes that we seem to have of each other. If Indians and Pakistanis were allowed to explore the many things that we have in common by way of a shared culture and history, and, most importantly, a common humanity, public opinion in both countries could be mobilized to pressurize both governments to tear down the walls of hatred and suspicion that divide them, and come to a settlement over Kashmir and other vexed issues that today are playing such havoc with our lives.

Some years ago, when I was at the university in Delhi, I arranged for a friend of mine from Lahore, a leading Pakistani writer and human rights activist, to address a group of students on Indo-Pak relations. After the talk, a student got up to say that all along she had imagined Pakistanis to be green devils with little horns growing on their heads, but, having met a Pakistani for the first time, she was shocked at seeing that Pakistanis, too, were human beings, with a lot in common with Indians, warts and all, yes, but also with a commitment to peace and harmony and good neighbourliness. Imagine what miracles could be wrought if many more such interactions between ordinary Indians and Pakistanis could be arranged!

Governments would then be unable to resist public pressure to take serious steps to improve relations, and we could divert all those scarce resources that today are being spent on building up stockpiles of arms to economic development instead.

One of the few organizations that are seriously working for building up people-to-people contact between Pakistanis and Indians is the Pakistan-India People’s Forum For Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD). Founded in 1994, the PIPFD is an association of Pakistanis and Indians from different walks of life, united by a common commitment to improving relations between the two countries based on increasing contacts between the citizens of India and Pakistan. The group meets annually, alternately in India and in Pakistan, and this provides an opportunity for building up public opinion on both sides of the need for improving Indo-Pak relations. In its various resolutions it has called for a solution to the Kashmir question that takes into account the aspirations of all sections of the people of Kashmir, and has insisted on demilitarization and a radical cut on spending on arms, promotion of free movement on travel between India and Pakistan as well as cultural and media exchanges. Inspired by the PIPFPD, several smaller groups have been spawned in recent years trying in their own small way to bring ordinary Indians and Pakistanis together. The Internet has proved to be a God-sent in this regard, with much interaction taking place in cyberspace. A good example of this is, a website devoted to the cause of peace in South Asia, run as a collaborative venture by young Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis and Sri Lankans. A random check on the Net would probably unearth several more such groups, as yet little-known but articulating the voices of a new generation of South Asians tired of nationalistic jingoism and religious obscurantism that continue to play such havoc with our lives. And it is in these muffled voices that lies our only hope for a sane future.

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