Nothing could be nobler than the pursuit of peace in South Asia, which remains plagued with the chronic conflict over Kashmir between India and Pakistan born out of the partition of the subcontinent. No sooner had the curse of colonialism been lifted with the departure of the British than the curse of hatred and war descended on the region. The consequences have been horrendous.
More than two-thirds of the 1.5 billion people that inhabit South Asia live in squalor; UNESCO's Education for All Global Monitoring Report, 2010, says over half the total 759 million illiterate adults in the world live in just four countries, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and China; life expectancy is low with healthcare simply finding no place on the priority list of governments; communal and ethnic strife is rife; nationalism has become a fetish feeding upon self-pride and the fear of self-perceived enemies; and India and Pakistan choose to remain locked in a costly arms race which is slowing their economic growth. All this surely looks like we are hastening down the path of mutual destruction. If ever there was need for us to change course on these matters, it is now and it is urgent.
Seen against this background, the Aman ki Asha peace initiative undertaken by two leading media organisations of Pakistan and India – the Jang Group and the Times of India group – is both encouraging and refreshing. That this initiative has drawn a robust response from a large number of people on both sides of the border is understandable, given their yearning for peace. Peace between Pakistan and India has been taken prisoner by warmongering. But two big challenges must be met to bring this initiative to fruition.
The first key challenge is to change the public mindset that has been so firmly moulded in insecurity that altering it would require dogged perseverance. The media in both countries need to wean the public away from this mindset. It can achieve this by building and then expanding a peace constituency not of people just wishing for peace but of people who are devoted to peace. This constituency should comprise people who understand the importance of political activism for realising their goals and who can see through their governments' sabre-rattling and propaganda. The Indian and Pakistani media will have to expose fibs spun to mislead the public and justify military adventures in the name of national interests. Doing so is of immense importance. For we have seen the general public of even the mature democracies of the United States and Britain being snared in a web of lies and then misled into the Iraq war in 2003. The media in those countries either looked the other way or were co-opted into consolidating the case of that imperialist war, which has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead.
The second big challenge the joint peace initiative is going to face will come from their establishments' security paradigms. Having fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir, they are invariably suspicious of each other's intentions. India keeps increasing its defence budget and Pakistan feels compelled to follow suit. The fact that Indian foreign policy is not the domain of the military alone and is debated in parliament does not make it a pro-peace foreign policy. In fact, India has arrogated to itself the right to police the region as it pleases on account of its massive military might. Since the terror strikes in Mumbai in November 2008 it has spurned several calls from Pakistan for the resumption of the Composite Dialogue.
It has attached preconditions to restarting the process of dialogue. Pakistan itself is a victim of terrorism and militancy which have crippled its economy and left thousands dead. But instead of being supportive at this critical time, India wants Pakistan to first convince it of the seriousness of its actions against the terrorist network on its soil. But the need for peace is pressing; India's procrastination will only aggravate the situation.
The problem with the security establishment of Pakistan is more complex. It is always apprehensive of India's regional ambitions. New Delhi's increasing influence in Afghanistan, for instance, is giving Islamabad a headache. The Pakistani military alone decides the country's foreign policy, particularly on matters of defence and relations with India. We cannot begin to hope it will significantly change its way of thinking unless parliament is given a greater say in deciding what foreign policy will benefit the country and how peace should be made with India.
While the establishments of both countries are believed to have given the green light for Aman ki Asha, several developments in the past suggest they may rather focus on or react to what their counterpart is doing. What has followed the launch of the joint peace initiative at the start of this year betrays their lack of interest in, if not outright opposition to, any peace efforts.
Incidents of firing across the Line of Control in Kashmir have increased and apprehensions have grown stronger over Indian army chief Gen Deepak Kapoor's highly irresponsible statement that India is capable of fighting a limited conventional war under a "nuclear hangover" against Pakistan and China at the same time. Of late, the blame game over who is responsible for rising tensions has intensified. Even cricket, which has helped reduce tensions in the past, has fallen victim to the worsening ties between the South Asian neighbours. The IPL snub has come as a shock and diminished any chances of reviving cricketing ties in the near future.
It is also important to remember that the peace processes have suffered several setbacks at the hands of the security establishments. Years of peace efforts, including Track II diplomacy, culminated in the signing of the Lahore Declaration on Feb 21, 1999, by then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee. All those efforts went down the drain owing to the military misadventure of Kargil. Ironically, the architect of that folly, then-army chief Pervez Musharraf, boasted of his "landmark" success in putting the Kashmir issue on the international radar. Peace was thus put on hold for the next five years until Jan 6, 2004, when both nations decided to start the Composite Dialogue. The Mumbai attacks happened dealing a severe blow to the peace process as India suspended the talks. And now Gen Kapoor has coughed up a real gem in the shape of a limited war strategy.
So, while creating an environment conducive to talks is essential, it is equally important that conditions are created which will ensure any spoiler of peace efforts is brought to account. The two nations have had enough of the Musharrafs and the Kapoors.
Peace constituencies in both countries will need to eventually become pressure groups with the capacity to tailor public opinion strong enough to guard against any attempt to derail the peace process once it is resumed. Galvanising the people into action will be possible only through creating political awareness, which is the soul of any meaningful change in society. The role of the media simply cannot be denied in this respect.
Many thought the restoration of judges sacked by Musharraf in 2007 was impossible because both the army and government of the time were opposed to it. Nonetheless, a peaceful but determined civil society movement led by lawyers and helped by the media played an important role in making that possible. Of course Musharraf punished the media by blacking out the transmissions of private TV channels. Geo News suffered huge losses as its blackout lasted longer. Peace is also possible provided the civil society in both countries show the same kind of determination.