Jan 11, 2010

Who will take the plunge?

If the PPP is worried about appearing 'soft' vis-a-vis India, then it is always going to be at the mercy of the hawks in the media

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

As the media leaps from one "crisis" to the next, it becomes ever more difficult for those committed to the public interest to identify and then induce action on issues of real importance. It is now clear that the military establishment is trying to show up the elected government's 'soft' stance on India, but this was always to be expected, and sensationalising the burgeoning contradiction does the cause of peace no favours. What should be highlighted are episodes such as the one a couple of weeks ago when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced the release of 100 Indian fishermen from Pakistani jails.

Both Indian and Pakistani fishermen have been languishing in each other's jails for decades. The start of this particular 'cold war' between the two sides can be traced to the 1965 war after which poor fishing communities started to be used as pawns by both security establishments in an unending clash of egos. Every few days there are reports of fishermen being rounded up by coast guards for trespassing into the other side's territory. In recent years, these poor and defenceless fishermen have been charged under anti-terrorist legislation and denied any kind of legal counsel. Their families are rarely informed that they have been arrested and years pass without contact.

Neither side has bothered to lobby for their own citizens, and neither has been willing to unilaterally release the fishermen even though it is abundantly clear that the latter represent no threat whatsoever to anyone's security and are simply the victims of power politics. In this context, the Prime Minister's announcement of a few weeks ago might be viewed as a good positive step. However, this is not the first time that such 'confidence building measures' have been taken.

In fact, both governments have released fishermen from the other side on numerous occasions over the past two decades or so. But it has been clear on every such occasion that the objective is to score diplomatic points rather than completely clear the air and demonstrate a serious commitment to lasting peace. The only way that Prime Minister Gilani or his Indian counterpart can genuinely distinguish themselves on this front is to release every one of the other country's fishermen without condition and subsequently call a halt to future arrests.

The mistrust and posturing that dominates the relationship between the two countries was made clear when after PM Gilani's announcement the Indian authorities refused to accept the released fishermen and the latter were quickly shunted back into jail. Some days later the exchange actually took place but rather than bringing the countries closer together the incident simply underlined just how far apart we really are.

All of these developments deserved much more public debate than took place. Given the access that the media has to virtually every corner of the country, it is mind-boggling that no major media outlet has done a human interest story on the plight of the fishermen. It would be easy for our TV hosts to meet the families of Pakistani fishermen who are desperate for their jailed relatives to be released as well as the incarcerated Indian fishermen in our jails. But none seems to be bothered.

Meanwhile, assuming that there really is a tug-of-war going on between the elected government and the military establishment on 'national security' questions, it is imperative for the former to go ahead and take bold decisions like unilaterally releasing all Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails. If the elected government is truly convinced that the nexus of military-media-mullah (and some would even add judiciary) is out to undermine democracy, then only the working masses are left as a countervailing power to undemocratic forces. That is to say if the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is worried about appearing 'soft' vis-a-vis India, then it is always going to be at the mercy of the hawks in the media and other 'opinion-making' institutions. The PPP should instead openly espouse the cause of peace and rally the support of ordinary working people to pursue this agenda. And that is possible only by taking initiatives which prove, as the release of Indian fishermen would, that the interests of the Indian and Pakistani people are anything but diametrically opposed.

Indeed, is it really possible to draw borders in the water? Have historically embedded subsistence communities such as coastal fishermen ever recognised borders? Should they have to? The modern nation-state may be the political shell which has overseen the tremendous expansion of the productive powers of capitalism, but as the foremost political identity of the past century it has also sanctioned unquantifiable destruction.

Ultimately it is likely that the PPP will neither fully break with the national security paradigm nor fully propagate it. And this is consistent with the history of the party and its ambivalent relationship with the establishment. The Congress government in India is itself unwilling to take a 'soft' stance vis-a-vis Pakistan with right-wing Hindu nationalists waiting in the wings to take advantage. In short, hundreds of fishermen will continue to suffer even though they have nothing to do with any of the national, regional, or global power games in which they are being used as instruments.

There are many progressives who continue to believe that the various contradictions that have erupted with the coming of the 'war on terror' to Pakistan will necessarily produce a rupture in the structure of power that exists in this country, and that whatever follows will represent some measure of forward movement. I do not disagree with the analysis that the objective conditions for change exist, but I do believe that the subjective forces necessary for change to be actualised are either conspicuous by their absence or unable to agree on the required political strategy. If the PPP continues as it has done to date (by putting all of its eggs in the American basket), and no other progressive force emerges to take the bold stance required -- against imperialism, the military, right-wing media, mullahs, and in favour of peace with India and other neighbours -- more and more working people in this country, and indeed the subcontinent, will join the ranks of the long-suffering fishermen.

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