People to people

Published April 15, 2021
The writer is a public and cultural diplomacy analyst at TRT World Research Centre in Istanbul.
The writer is a public and cultural diplomacy analyst at TRT World Research Centre in Istanbul.

WHEN headlines announcing that India and Pakistan were resuming trade flashed across our screens, the first response of many was ‘what about Kashmir?’ or ‘has Pakistan given up on Kashmir?’ For some reason, the government decided against the move. And, just as quickly as they had agreed to restart, Pakistan and India were no longer trading.

Given the state of Pakistan-India relations over the past few years, this was not unexpected: we no longer watch Bollywood movies in Pakistani cinemas and Pakistani films were almost always entirely banned in India. We no longer play cricket together, and even when Pakistanis do have a chance to play in India, visas are hard to get. Gone are the days when it was easy to travel to Delhi, or to come to Lahore, whether to attend friends’ weddings, meet relatives or conduct business.

Read: There is hope for Pakistan-India peace process

But the question remains: what about Kashmir? The Kashmir dispute is one of the longest-running conflicts in history, frozen in time. Kashmiris in Indian-occupied Kashmir have gone through some of the hardest times. And though the decision to not resume trading with India was not unexpected, especially given the trajectory of the Kashmir dispute including the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution that took away Kashmiris’ UNSC-guaranteed rights, absurdity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

Clearly, the BJP-led Indian government is not going to reverse the revocation — the party’s entire identity is based on a muscular approach to national security, particularly Kashmir. Additionally, in today’s geo-economics-driven world, it is unwise to depend on the UN or the larger international community to fulfil their role faithfully. Believing that the world will be suddenly up in arms over human rights violations in Kashmir is naïve, when it otherwise remains silent as the Rohingya are being forced to settle on an uninhabitable island, as Syrian children escaping conflict drown in the Mediterranean or as Israeli settlers bulldoze Palestinian homes.

India and Pakistan are losing out on potential public diplomacy efforts.

This is not to say that the world did not take notice. It did. But that doesn’t fix the issue. The Kashmir dispute is still simmering, ready to explode at any time. It is important for India and Pakistan to recognise that and, for all that they hold sacred including the safety and security of almost two billion people, attempt to resolve it, even if the Kashmir issue’s convoluted nature means it will take a long time to resolve. Dialogue, understanding and trust are needed. In fact, building trust is the starting point.

This brings us to trade, entertainment and sport diplomacy. By banning each other’s movies, cancelling cricket and not granting visas, India and Pakistan are losing out on potential public diplomacy efforts by restricting exchange and access. During the Cold War, ie the “war of ideologies”, American jazz musicians were sent to the Soviet Union to influence the Soviet public positively towards US culture and way of life, and there could be no comparison between the impact of yet another speech by a US politician and, say, Louis Armstrong singing What a Wonderful World when it came to generating goodwill in a suspicious Soviet audience.

More recently, NGOs facilitated access to indirect diplomacy by having Israeli and Palestinian children play football together, so they are able to “break down barriers, open dialogues, and form friendships”, in their own words.

In well-functioning democracies, the public needs to support government action. By facilitating access between the two countries, the governments of India and Pakistan can start to build trust and understanding between the two publics. Let Indians and Pakistanis experience each other’s art, play cricket together, let them trade and make money together. Whe­ther people choose to or not, whether they even like the experience or each other shouldn’t be the government’s concern, but enabling access could be the elusive answer to lasting peace in the region. This is a unique situation in terms of security, but a long-term approach may yield more enduring benefits than a short-term one.

As per Joseph Nye, an expert on public diplomacy, the US won the Cold War because of “smart power” that combines hard (military) power with soft power, which relies on the power of attraction to convince. It is clear that hard power alone may mean a nuclear disaster. But if hard power translates to restraint on both sides, it provides an opportunity to practise soft power and diplomacy to create dialogue and trust, and eventually, peace. The basis of the Kashmir dispute is a deep lack of trust between Pakistan and India. Though it may take a while, instead of attempting to cure the symptoms, it may be time to cure the disease itself.

The writer is a public and cultural diplomacy analyst at TRT World Research Centre in Istanbul.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2021

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