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NON-FICTION: CYCLICAL CYNICISM

October 22, 2017
Youngsters attach flags of Pakistan and India together for a peace initiative that was launched simultaneously in both countries. The Peace Now and Forever Campaign Between Pakistan and India grew out of a Whatsapp group and brought together journalists, political activists, retired government and military officials, writers, artists and youth activists keen to improve bilateral relations between the two countries | Reuters
Youngsters attach flags of Pakistan and India together for a peace initiative that was launched simultaneously in both countries. The Peace Now and Forever Campaign Between Pakistan and India grew out of a Whatsapp group and brought together journalists, political activists, retired government and military officials, writers, artists and youth activists keen to improve bilateral relations between the two countries | Reuters

Events in South Asia are significantly shaped by tensions between Pakistan and India — neighbours who view one another with hostility and mistrust. Given the history of a predictable pattern of bilateral engagement that is generally antagonistic in nature, the two unleashed tirades against each other at the 72nd session of the United National General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2017. One accused the other of sponsoring terrorism, the other alleged human rights violations on the part of the first. The accusatory tone of both countries’ representatives was in sharp contrast to the principles of diplomacy that primarily attempt to address issues without arousing animosity. Continuing with the past, in the follow-up to 1994’s UNGA meeting when Pakistan’s “bid on Kashmir fell through”, there was a steady deterioration in Pakistan-India relations. Regrettably, the naming and shaming at the international forum encapsulates the essence of Pakistan-India relations, that shapes their domestic politics and vice versa.

From short phases of people-to-people progress to longer durations of frozen ties, the tale is repetitive, with each seeing the other as the primary national security threat. It is enough to engender cynicism. Writing about this cyclical cynicism — the watchword for Pakistan-India relations — T.C.A. Raghavan in his book The People Next Door: the Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan, covers the post-Partition ramifications on the political, social and cultural spheres in both countries. Raghavan, who served twice in Pakistan — the last time as India’s High Commissioner — takes into account the two countries’ arduous journey of 70 years to build thriving bilateral relations; decades of hostility interspersed with brief moments of hope.

Generally understood as communal, Partition was a two-way religious displacement of people that continues to shape the anatomy of the state and psyche of the people in both countries. The hostility between the nuclear-armed neighbours rests primarily on “recurrent discordant notes” that include “statements on Kashmir emanating from Pakistan” and “continued Pakistani statements on the condition of Muslims and the communal situation in India.” On the other hand, while elaborating the brief moments of hope, Raghavan points out the period of 1977-79, that “stands out for positives”, ranging from the “resumption of cultural ties, resumption of cricketing ties, to the opening of consulates and finally, the Salal [Dam] Agreement” which ended a three-decade-old dispute through diplomatic negotiations and “good measure.”

Former Indian High Commissioner T.C.A. Raghavan charts the ups and downs of neighbourly relations

Such ‘good measures’ that were preceded by other confidence-building measures, such as the Shimla Agreement and Tashkent Declaration among others, were usually guided by pragmatism — a quintessential element of diplomacy. However, sometimes pragmatism and reason were shoved on to the backburner while high passions — reflected in cross-border rhetoric and military engagement — came to dominate the narrative on bilateral relations, thus undermining diplomacy as an instrument of foreign policy and bringing the progress achieved to a halt, only to begin again from scratch. Specifying the lingering irritants in Pakistan-India relations, Raghavan writes, “But if both sides frequently expressed a desire to move ahead and move on, the portfolio of problems was accumulating. Pakistan’s assistance to terrorism and militancy in Punjab topped the list, but other points were no less difficult. Pakistan’s position on J&K, increased clashes in Siachen and Pakistan’s fears and anxieties regarding India’s support to extremist groups in Sindh, such as the Al-Zulfiqar Organisation. Indian anxieties about Pakistan’s nuclear programme and Pakistani apprehensions about a possible Indian strike at them were factors which were not to fade away.”

While the neighbours held each other as anathema, the “1990s saw an initiation of another trend,” writes Raghavan, hinting at the “profound impact” of globalisation. A number of Pakistanis and Indians were travelling and living outside their own countries. Categorising the interaction — or rather, encounters — between Indians and Pakistanis beyond South Asian borders “in a more neutral environment” as “curiously unsettling”, the author writes, “... the internet meant that Indians and Pakistanis were now directly in touch with each other and the traditional filters of government policy were no longer that effective.” This globalisation and technology had a far-reaching impact, mostly evident in “the terrain of cricket.” Against the backdrop of growing proximity between Pakistanis and Indians amid tense relations, Raghavan writes, “Through the contested 1990s, India and Pakistan played against each other in only one series with three test matches in India in 1999 ... But the 1990s were not a desert ... there were as many as 45 One-Day international contests between India and Pakistan, of which over 80 percent were in neutral venues — Singapore, Toronto, Sharjah.”

Globalisation had diluted the “layer[s] of bitterness and mistrust.” Another player crucial in bringing the two sides together was also from the outside. During the 1990 visit of the then Deputy National Security Advisor of the United States, Robert Gates, the idea of unofficial or non-official dialogue between Pakistan and India was floated and enthusiastically accepted among the Americans. “From this idea emerged the Neemrana Dialogue,” writes Raghavan, which became, henceforth, a “catchphrase for India-Pakistan discussions in which opinion-makers and experts outside either government would try and find common ground to break the existing logjam.” Initially funded by the US until the late 1990s, the dialogue was later funded by the governments of Pakistan and India, with the subsequent withdrawal of the US. Setting a template for the future, the Neemrana conversations gave a vision to candid discussions between the two sides — “such dialogues have multiplied and acquired the overall description as Track II.” A common feature in many of these dialogues was that they were sponsored and funded by one or the other Western capital concerned about Pakistan-India tensions, for instance the Belusa group, a “US initiative that brought together Indians and Pakistanis with experience of diplomacy and military affairs.”

As non-official dialogues gained momentum, the moot point among all participants remained “whether their old certainties [had] become a little weaker.” Writing on the challenges of being associated with such peace initiatives, Raghavan cites Pakistani journalist and human rights activist I.A. Rahman: “It was in the 1970s that we started discussing peace seriously. When a few friends decided to form an India-Pakistan Friendship Society, I had no hesitation joining them. But in those early years this was an audacious venture and the intelligence agencies had instructions to chase anyone who entertained ideas of peace between India and Pakistan. It was, therefore, impossible to sustain the initiative launched by the friendship society.” These were the “obvious difficulties” faced by the pro-peace groupings. However, this was not limited to Pakistan alone. In fact, there were “strong cross-currents and disputing voices from the opposite direction, too,” writes Raghavan.

“The rise of peace activism,” he writes, “was often to be greeted by a measure of derision and the charge of woolly-headedness against former policy makers. Often the view also was that these individuals, including senior journalists, were sometimes vulnerable to manipulation by the Pakistan government.” This kind of perception had a negative impact on Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood that initially looked at Pakistan as a ‘bad’ neighbour, “but it was a very subtle and consciously understated one,” and the references were often cast in metaphors. For instance, in the film Upkar, set against the backdrop of the 1965 war, Pakistan as a term or as identification of the enemy, was not used in the script. However, a “big change” was gradually seen when film-makers engaged with the experience of terrorist attacks in Punjab, India-held Jammu and Kashmir and finally Bombay in 1993.

The Pakistan-India journey has been tumultuous. However, at several intervals one witnesses a “beacon of hope and reconciliation.” Raghavan concludes his book with a verse by poet Ustad Daman that “encapsulates the tragedy of the division of Punjab” and the subcontinent at large: “We were ruined in the name of freedom, as were you/ We were looted as we slept, as were you/ The redness in our eyes reveals that we have wept, as have you.” The tragedy of Partition is replete with such poetry and rich literature, each time taking us back into the past, “making for such a curious history.”

Cyclical patterns have dominated the events and narrative on Pakistan-India relations, sometimes leading to extreme cynicism, at others to immense optimism. In the middle of such extremes, the first casualty has been reason. On reading Raghavan’s detailed narrative, one is reminded of Karl Marx’s letter to Arnold Ruge where he writes, “Reason has always existed, only not always in reasonable form.”

The reviewer is a Delhi-based journalist specialising in Pakistan-India relations and Kashmir

The People Next Door:
The Curious History of
India’s Relations with
Pakistan
By T.C.A. Raghavan
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9352770908
348pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 22nd, 2017