Mar 15, 2010

"We have the capacity to come together"

By Zaman Khan

Rita Manchanda is General Secretary, South Asia Forum for Human Rights (Delhi) and Research Director of SAFHR (Nepal) project. Earlier, she was Gender Expert, Commonwealth Technical Fund in Sri Lanka. At SAFHR, she founded and developed the programmes such as Women Conflict and Peace-building and Media and Conflict. For many years, Rita has worked as a professional journalist in both the print and electronic media. She has written extensively on security and human rights issues. Among her many publications is the book entitled, Women War and Peace in South Asia: beyond Victimhood to Agency. Her research study on Naga Women in the Peace Process is a benchmark contribution in the field studies of gendered war narratives. She has also written extensively on minority rights. Her professional experience in India’s Defence Ministry’s think tank, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, has motivated her to explore alternate ways of looking at issues. Her writings on Nepal in Frontline Magazine and Economic and Political Weekly are widely commended for their insight and prescient value. Married to journalist and peace activist Tapan Bose, she has been a peace activist. Rita was in Pakistan for a week. Zaman Khan was able to talk to her in Lahore. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday: What brings you to Pakistan?

Rita Manchanda: There is a research project I am involved in. I am also looking at Pakistan and what kind of research is possible here. But I also came to take a stock of what is happening in Pakistan — the peace process between India and Pakistan. The need of the moment is to re-energise or to rethink some of our peace strategies.

TNS: How do you look at the peace process between India and Pakistan?

RM: I think one needs to see what is happening at the official level and what is desirable as far as peoples’ efforts are concerned to strengthen the peace process. As far as governments are concerned, it is quite evident that this is a process that is being driven reluctantly. Negotiators are being pushed to the table because of the third party and that is the US. It is the worst reason to move forward to make peace. If peace is driven by these considerations it cannot really achieve much. Nevertheless, any effort to start the dialogue is welcome.

TNS: But people to people contacts seem to have lost momentum, why?

RM: There have been many efforts and initiatives since the time it first took off — in the early nineties — and at that time too the circumstances were very difficult. We were talking about war clouds, nuclear war clouds. Even then the initiative was taken and an effort made. It is quite clear that governments on both sides seem to have a different attitude towards granting visas to people who are engaged with each other, especially in the cultural context. But when it comes to groups that are interested in talking politics that have people to people agenda the two governments seem to be very reluctant to grant visas. This certainly constrained the possibilities of development of the people-to-people contacts. And, certainly, I know we are waiting for a Pak-India Forum delegation to join us but I don’t think they are going to get visas. And yet you can see other groups that are getting visas, other groups that are more focused in the cultural context.

TNS: Don’t you think we should be more creative in looking for ways to keep the peace process moving?

RM: Certainly, that means we need to concentrate on within our countries. We have to do a great deal to change public opinion. Recently, the India chapter of Pak-India Forum launched a new chapter in Bhubashnaer in Orisa and it was in fact very heartening for me when I went there to participate in the launch of this new chapter because you could see the people who came from Eastern India. They have a very different perception of the dialogue. To me, the strength of Pak-India Forum is its capacity to develop linkages. Why is it that so many forums are part of Pak-India forum? It is because they can see the connections, something very direct. It is, in fact, the capacity of the forum to develop these kinds of linkages; to make people understand that confrontational relationship in India and Pakistan has actually undermined the basic issue of democracy. And other rights which are sacrificed because of the raise in the defence expenditure. This, in turn, keeps this hate and intolerance alive. Even if the governments are determined to keep us apart, text books, which have been a major agenda of the forum, can make a difference. We need to revive some of that work. There is no reason why we can’t work together, even if it means separately. We have the capacity to come together.

TNS: Pakistan government has been alleging that India is helping insurgents in Balochistan besides playing a negative role in Afghanistan. At the same time, India talks about non-state actors and accuses Pakistan of supporting them. In this milieu, how can the peace process achieve results?

RM: It is quite interesting that our home minister has said that there is no difference in state and non-state actors. A lot of this is played out for the media. I think many of these statements, speaking from India, raised the confrontational level. The statements are made because there is an active lobby against any movement towards the peace processes and that includes the section of the army to some extent and that also includes the BJP. Such an attitude has very little to do with the determination to resolve an issue. As I have already said these moves are US-driven. I have no idea what the Indian government is doing in Balochistan, or not doing in Balochistan. So far, we don’t have any evidence of the nature of India’s involvement. The issue of Balochistan was included in the Sharm al Sheikh statement and that came as a bit of a shock. It was for the first time you had the official acknowledgment that there was something to discuss. What is interesting is that no evidence has come forward. But if there are troubled waters, there would be many agencies fishing.

TNS: You must be aware of the view which says that India wants to turn Pakistan into a desert by denying the country its share of water?

RM: Yes. Today I read an editorial in a Pakistani newspaper which used the term ‘water terrorism’. It came as a bit of a shock. There are groups in both India and Pakistan that have been expressing concern at the Indus Water Treaty. In Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah is on record saying that the Indus Water Treaty has betrayed the Indian interests. On the other side of the border you also have people saying that Indus Water Treaty has betrayed their interests. World Bank brokered a treaty some time back. Now we know that there were very special circumstances that enabled the treaty to be finalized. I can quote Dr. Mubashir Hasan who is an expert in this area. He challenged the perception that there is such a thing as ‘water terrorism’. There is reason to see why this issue has cropped up at this particular point in time. Certainly, these are issues that need to be addressed seriously.

TNS: As a woman journalist, did you feel handicapped in India?

RM: I worked on security issues and I think I was the only woman at that point of time working on these issues. You have advantages of being a woman but you also have disadvantages of not being taken seriously. One of my first jobs was with the Telegraph. It had just started. We had a very dynamic editor, M. J Akbar, and practically an all-female bureau. Some of the names of those bureau people are some of the best journalists of our time. It was a very unusual experiment. It worked very well. Yes, because I was a woman I got a lot of doors opened to me. We had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. I think we had an editor who believed that we could do the hard beat. All the women I am talking about in this bureau did the hard beat.

TNS: What about your research?

RM: We wanted to do something that was worth. While I also worked in NDTV I worked in Press Channel, a new channel at that point of time. I worked in Doordarshan which was a very exciting period. I also did business channels because that was the time of the economy opening up. I have been always sensitive to gender issues. I started looking at a different interpretation of security. I called it feminising security. And I started looking at women’s role in conflict and peace-building. It was an attempt to explore; to make visible what women did in conflict situations and what women did during peace time. The issue is the peoples’ struggle against land alienation caused by corporatisation of land by multi-nationals coming in a big way and taking over peoples’ land. You cannot have development policies that marginalise the majority of population. And that is what our both states are doing. This is a common agenda.

TNS: Pakistan is also giving land to foreigners?

RM: It is not only foreign multi-nationals. In India, we have huge multi-nationals like TATAs and Mitils. These are, in fact, global multi-nationals today. I went to Orisa in East India. PASCO, the South Korean giant, has already been given a contract. There are areas where the land is rich as cash crops are grown there. People grow three crops there. Why would they surrender their land? They also know that despite the promises that they make — that people will be absorbed in the industry — they know that they don’t have the skills. They have been marginalised by the new development policies. It is not that this is something new but there is much greater exploitation here.

TNS: India is developing very fast but at the same time the poverty level is increasing.

RM: The middle class in India is likely about 250 million people. It is a huge population. Of course, India is not silent and today the biggest internal security challenge, as the Indian government itself recognises, comes from Maoists in India. I think 30 percent of the land area of India is affected by Maoists. Maoists have, in fact, become the political force that has been able to channelise the disaffection. India believes that it can continue with growth which is 7-8 percent. The Maoists challenge is a reminder that you cannot ignore the majority of your population.

TNS: Briefly tell us about your books?

RM: I have been working on two areas — conflict and peace-building. In my current research I am looking at the peace processes in South Asia. I am also looking at Pakistan but that will be a research team that will look at Pakistan, the whole federal question. We are trying to explore what is often considered the panacea of society. We want to see what do they mean by democracy and what do they actually need from peoples’ rights for entitlement and inclusive politics. The other area I have been exploring is minority rights and there is a book which came out last year called ‘No-nonsense Guide to Minority Rights in South Asia’. We are looking at multiple ways at addressing the minority rights question. A community that is a minority in one country is a majority in another country. You cannot actually address these questions only within your own countries. You have to look at the framework which is also cross border framework.

TNS: Where do you place women in your studies?

RM: The gender dimension is always very much at the forefront of what I am doing. I argue that civil society is an important element in democratising the peace process and the core of the civil society are the women groups.

TNS: You have been monitoring violations of human rights in the Indian occupied Kashmir. How do you look at the Kashmir issue vis-a-vis women?

RM: As a journalist I have been covering Kashmir since 1990 and it is a conflict I have been involved in both as an activist as well as a researcher. I wrote a chapter in a book called, "Guns and Burqa". It is a gender narrative of women in the Kashmir conflict exploring the possibilities of women’s role in peace-building in Kashmir.

TNS: Do you hope we will be able to resolve the issue of Kashmir?

RM: I will have to be a realist about it. There are great many interests involved in keeping the Kashmir issue unresolved and there is a false sense that Kashmir issue has been contained. In India, we have a whole series of very good committees set up to explore certain dimensions of Kashmir issue. One of the committees was headed by our current vice-president. His report was on confidence-building measures, some of which might have taken us to a big step forward. But the report has been shelved. The recommendations have been ignored. There have to be other ways of addressing the Kashmir issue. We cannot actually leave it to the state. Peace is too important to be left to them.

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