India-Pakistan relations do not move in a straight line. They zigzag from crisis to crisis.
In the interregnum the two countries either engage in negotiations or struggle to revive an interrupted dialogue. This is not something new. It has always been the case.
This pattern veils a strange paradox. Behind all the polemical exchanges the reserve of goodwill between the people of the two countries has continued to grow. This was manifest in abundance at Caux (Switzerland) on the sidelines of the Forum for Human Security last week.
Nearly 30 delegates from all walks of life — activists in their own way — from India and Pakistan got together to talk about various issues that have divided their two countries. This meeting was the brainchild of Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, that great apostle of non-violence.
A scholar, author and peace activist in his own right, Rajmohan is the president of Initiatives of Change, International, an independent, privately funded foundation designed to promote peace, trust and inter-cultural dialogue to prevent conflicts.
Having been associated with the organisation for over 50 years and given his unlimited passion for peace, he has left no stone unturned to tear down the barriers that have kept the two countries apart.
Caux, where the Mountain House conference centre provides an idyllic setting for peace ventures, proved to be an ideal choice for our tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte. Adopting the Chatham House rules — no one can be cited by name without his/her permission — the participants could speak freely. And voilÃ ! What emerged was a wealth of information which is considered too sensitive to be shared at public forums. Hence the need to protect the anonymity of the speakers.
A number of issues were discussed — some with the idea of creating a better understanding of what is happening on the ground and others to unravel the knots that have made disputes between the two countries so intractable. Of course, the ubiquitous Kashmir dispute was brought up as were the water issue, terrorism in Fata, trade and extremism in India.
The experts who spoke on these subjects and answered questions were extremely candid as they were not adopting official positions and had no constituency back home to be mindful of. That raised hopes all around that disputes could be resolved. Given this euphoria, the suggestions that followed in the closing session were ambitious — in some cases they even appeared too utopian.
There was talk of building bridges of trade and organising nucleus groups in both countries to facilitate businessmen and traders. One suggestion was for both sides to lobby jointly for the abolition of the death penalty which has often vitiated relations between the two countries. Another asked for the Indian consulate in Karachi to be reopened and the Khokhrapar-Munabao rail route to be revived.
Other recommendations that have a better chance of producing results focused on what the participants could organise at different levels. They were primarily designed to build a climate of opinion in favour of peace between the two countries. Thus it was suggested that the media, especially television, should be engaged in support of the Caux initiative. Cultural exchanges involving youth should be promoted. Politicians, legislators and policymakers in both countries should be approached. The Indians should raise resources for the IDPs in Pakistan and win the hearts and minds of people.
Thus it was hoped that civil society in India and Pakistan would generate pressure on the two governments and compel them to address these issues.
But will the governments oblige? Only last week The New York Times reported that Pakistan had objected to expanded American combat operations in Afghanistan saying that it would force militants across the border into the troubled province of Balochistan and the Pakistan Army did not have enough troops to open a new front with the Taliban 'without denuding its border with its arch-enemy, India.'
Earlier, writing in The New Yorker, Steve Coll had warned, 'The danger of open war between India and Pakistan has not passed. As recently as Dec 26, Pakistani intelligence officials concluded that Indian warplanes were being positioned for an air raid.' Only US intervention had dissipated the war clouds.
It clearly emerged from the exercise at Caux that there are quite a number of people who are genuinely convinced that the survival of India and Pakistan depends on their mending fences. The resistance comes from the establishment. Even public opinion can be easily mobilised to recognise the need to change swords into ploughshares.
The hawks can be expected to strive hard to retain control. This was confirmed by some participants who had held high official position on both sides and knew very well how the state machinery works. From them we learnt how peace efforts are sabotaged in Islamabad and New Delhi.
One can quite believe this after reading 'How serial war became the American way of life' by David Bromwich in The Huffington Post which shows how the defence establishment has drilled the inevitability of war into the American psyche. Similarly, there are vested interests in India and Pakistan who feel they stand to gain by continued tensions between the two. They ensure that peace deals are scuttled.
I asked Rajmohan Gandhi how he felt about the outcome of this exercise. He was initially cautious as he said he didn't wish to raise false hopes. But then the peace instinct in this quiet unassuming man took over and he added, 'This group is actually representative of a larger stirring. The peace constituency is much larger than what it is given credit for. But it is still too early to say if there is evidence of solid changes taking place in the popular mind. We can now hope that confidence will replace the distrust of yesteryear.'
As one participant so rightly observed, 'Before you start working for a goal, you have to begin by dreaming about it.' There were plenty of dreams at Caux.