Jan 6, 2010

'Non-state actors' for peace

Shamshad Ahmad

The term "non-state actors" is becoming a catchword in our part of the world. But it has had different notional connotations for each different situation. India has been using the term "non-state actors" to describe the "perpetrators" of the November 2008 Mumbai tragedy. In Pakistan, this catchword is being obsessively used to euphemise one's political nemeses. A different kind of "non-state actors," with eminently positive credentials, now seem to have come together in a joint mission to breathe a fresh new impulse for peace in the region.

Two giant media groups in India and Pakistan, The Times of India group and the Jang group have come together in a joint initiative called "Aman ki Asha" (desire for peace) "to energise the process of peace" between the two countries. It is a noble mission and has been generally welcomed in non-governmental circles. The authors of this well-meaning initiative have an ambitious agenda of "unleashing a new social compact" based on the common desire for peace at the level of the people in both countries.

They plan to move pragmatically "to reach out and pluck the low-hanging fruit in the beginning before they aim higher." Issues of trade and commerce, investments, financial infrastructure, cultural exchanges, religious and medical tourism, free movement of ideas, visa regimes, sporting ties, connectivity, reviving existing routes, market access, divided families and each other's prisoners constitutes their initial agenda. All these issues are already part of the Composite Dialogue, thus providing complementarity to both Track One and Track Two approaches.

The sponsors of the "peace initiative" are aware of the complexities involved in the troubled India-Pakistan equation, and the hope they can generate on both sides of the border through enough public awareness of the need for peace and prosperity which has eluded the two countries ever since they became independent. The purpose is "to provide a mutual platform for debate on the major sticking points in the hitherto fickle peace dialogue on both sides of the border -- whether it is Kashmir, the water dispute or security.

The mission statement commits the two media groups "to a movement that will bring the people and civil institutions of the two countries together in fostering an honourable, genuine and durable peace." This is a noble mission and needs to be pursued with all seriousness of purpose. While the ultimate aspirations of Aman ki Asha are admittedly lofty, the sponsors claim to have taken good care in factoring in realistic and deliverable means to ensue the sustainability of their peace endeavour.

In its essence, the Aman ki Asha project involves an expansive media diplomacy seeking "to resolve amicably all outstanding issues that serve as hurdles to peace, and campaign for collaboration on economic, cultural issues through a media-led civil society movement." In the India-Pakistan context, we have seen "media diplomacy" at work in different forms in recent years. Notably, Panos South Asia and the Kathmandu-based Hemal magazine have been organising a series of roundtables and retreats since 2002 for senior media practitioners to explore the modalities of reinforcing the peace process.

One conclusion flagged in those discussions was that no foreign policy without popular support and consent can be sustainable or survive domestic political changes in the two countries. Indeed, the India-Pakistan peace process has never been immune to domestic and external factors and has always been vulnerable to occasional hiccups. We have seen that whenever the dialogue process, initiated in June 1997, appeared to be making headway, some bizarre incident took place derailing and then stalling the process.

The latest is the November 2008 Mumbai tragedy, after which we were back to square one. The dialogue remains suspended despite two summit-level meetings, one in June last year at Yekaterinburg, Russia, and the other in the following month at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. India and Pakistan seem to have inextricably tied themselves together in a straitjacket with each looking in the opposite direction. They do need help. The US is doing what it can to nudge both sides. But domestically, in the absence of popular momentum, both are held back by the extremity of their traditional trust deficit.

The media is perhaps the only force that can now catalyse the public opinion to bring about requisite pressure on both governments to come out of their negative mode and move ahead. The joint Times-Jang groups' initiative is a timely effort towards generating the needed "surge of goodwill and flexibility" through Aman ki Asha in civil society and the media across the borders and might indeed evoke the requisite popular will in support of peace and normalcy between the two estranged neighbours. But a word of caution is also needed.

There is no room for over-optimism in the India-Pakistan context. There is nothing wrong in being optimistic, but given the volatile history of India-Pakistan relations and complexity of the issues involved, one would be better off being cautious and realistic, not drawing euphoric conclusions or raising unrealistic hopes. This has been a troubled relationship, marked by "conflict and confrontation." In fact, the underlying problems behind this legacy are rooted in their history and the long-standing tradition of mutual distrust and suspicion that they inherited on their independence.

And at the core of all their problems is the Kashmir issue, which has kept the relations between the two countries bedevilled, perpetuating mutual tensions and animosity. The clash in 1948, the 1965 war, the Siachin dispute, the Kargil crisis, the volatile Line of Control, frequent warlike military deployments, the water disputes, including Wullar Barrage and Baglihar Dam, and Pakistan's strategic fears and apprehensions are all directly related to Kashmir.

The Kashmir dispute invokes intense feelings in the peoples of both India and Pakistan, as well as the Kashmiri people themselves. Their historical experiences, cultural diversities, religious fervour, scars of partition, wars and conflicts, liberation struggle in Kashmir and resurgence of violence and terrorism in recent years, all come together in a curious convergence in the unresolved dispute of Kashmir. Even in the most optimistic scenario, Kashmir would remain an overarching factor in any India-Pakistan peace process.

This is not a territorial dispute. It is a question involving the right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people pledged to them by both India and Pakistan and the international community through solemn resolutions of the UN Security Council. Both sides will have to involve the Kashmiri people in the dialogue process. They are the arbiters of their own destiny.

At the same time, mistrust and apprehensions on both sides are deep-rooted and will not evaporate simply by the flames being blown out. India and Pakistan will have to extinguish the fire at its source. Dialogue and constructive engagement are today the only acceptable means of resolving disputes. Progress in this direction could perhaps be facilitated atmospherically by Aman ki Asha project, but eventually high-level political engagement between the two countries will be required.

In the ultimate analysis, however, the success of this process would depend entirely on the freshness of political approach that both sides would themselves be ready to bring in with sincerity of purpose. What should be clear to them by now is that, in today's world, there will be no military solution to their problems. Given the unique political history of South Asia and the particular social and cultural proclivities of its inhabitants, this region needs stable peace, not confrontation.

India-Pakistan rapprochement becomes reality it will benefit not only the peoples of the region but also the world at large in terms of economic opportunities. Durable peace between the two countries would not only be a factor of regional and global stability but would also enable them to divert their resources to improving the lives of their peoples and eradicating poverty and backwardness from the region.

Depending on progress on Kashmir and in mutual confidence-building through nuclear and conventional restraint, the two countries in due course could also explore a no-war treaty with a mutually agreed mechanism for conflict- prevention, conflict-resolution and peaceful settlement of disputes. This would be the sum total of visionary statesmanship that we need in our region to enable our two peoples to live together in peace and harmony. Meanwhile, the newly arrived India-Pakistan "non-state actors" for peace deserve our full support.

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