Let’s move on

23 May 2020


I HOPE regular readers will forgive me for sounding like a broken record: this must be the umpteenth time I’m writing about a normalisation of Indo-Pak ties.

Obviously, this must seem like a bad time to suggest that the two countries should live like well-behaved neighbours, and not like adolescent hooligans throwing rocks to smash each other’s windows. Of course, no time is the right time to advocate sanity in South Asia.

Each time I have written on this subject, I have been subjected to a barrage from both sides of the border. Indian readers immediately bring up the generals and the jihadists. Pakistanis recall Indian perfidy and the refusal to hold a UN-mandated plebiscite in Kashmir.

Now Modi and his Hindutva have pre-empted the debate by a constitutional change revoking India-held Kashmir’s autonomous status. And as they calculated, after token international criticism, the world has moved on, its brief attention span diverted by other crises, principally the Covid-19 pandemic.

No time is the right time to advocate sanity in South Asia.

At the risk of more brickbats, let me say that while I admire the courage and resilience shown by Kashmiris in their fight for freedom, some priorities should be questioned. Should the rights of around 15 million supersede those of over 1.5 billion living in South Asia? The stand-off over Kashmir has rendered Saarc, the regional bloc, completely redundant. Tourism and trade are virtually non-existent, and in the Pakistan-India context, even cultural visits are met with hostility.

Let me repeat: Pakistan should certainly support the Kashmiri cause diplomatically and morally. But it has gained nothing through its previous interventions. While many blame Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for the 1965 and 1971 wars, the fact is that generals were in charge in both conflicts.

There are two broad strands within the Kashmir movement. One, which is supported by the Pakistani establishment, wants the Valley to become part of Pakistan. The other one, consisting mostly of young Kashmiris who are dying as they face the vast Indian security apparatus, want independence. They argue that it makes little sense to go from subjugation under India to living under Pakistani rule.

We are not in a position to force a diplomatic solution. India is just too big and powerful for other countries to antagonise. Its credentials — even under Narendra Modi — make it easy for it to counter the diplomatic efforts of an establishment-dominated Pakistan. Even our closest friends have steered clear of taking sides, and advised us to seek a bilateral dialogue.

Apart from the more obvious dimension of the conflict over land, people and resources, the two countries carry a lot of historical baggage to the negotiating table, should they ever get there. For India, the memories of centuries of Afghan raids and Mughal rule that destroyed temples and defeated Hindu armies have been rekindled by the Hindutva movement.

For many Muslims of South Asia, even though many are descended from Hindus who converted to Islam, one Muslim soldier is equal to 10 Hindus. And since they ruled much of India for centuries, they feel a misplaced sense of superiority.

And yet, despite the years of fighting and bickering, we do need to put the past behind and move on. This is easier said than done, I know, but it has to be done nevertheless.

For Pakistan, the gains of a rapprochement would be enormous. Nawaz Sharif, being a businessman, recognised this, but his peacemaking efforts were torpedoed by both the establishment and Imran Khan. It’s hard to separate the two. Remember the PTI campaign slogan of ‘Jo Modi ka yaar hai, ghaddar hai’ (‘Modi’s friend is a traitor’)?

But you don’t have to be a businessman to understand that trade and tourism have always boosted GDP and increased employment. And while India has a far larger economy, its exporters, too, would benefit. Its military would no longer have to sustain a vast presence in disputed areas, and diplomatically, too, it could claim much of the credit for reducing tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

All this goes against the grain of current thinking: the public and the media have been brainwashed into accepting the ongoing hostility as normal. But few other conflicts have lasted as long, and caused so much unnecessary bitterness and bloodshed. So the argument for ending it must be made.

I accept that reversing decades-long policies will take exceptional leadership, a quality neither side has displayed thus far. But at least a rational debate should replace the dreary arguments over the past, and who did and said what.

We need to remember that just as Kashmiris have the right to fight for their freedom, the rest of South Asia should have the right to end poverty, disease and ignorance.


Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2020