Oct 4, 2010

Break the ice

By Beena Sarwar

'India, Pakistan can't break the ice, even in hour of tragedy' -- Reuters blog, August 22: "An Indian aid offer of $5 million, which itself came after some hesitation and is at best modest, was lying on the table for days before Pakistan accepted it." (http://bit.ly/reutersblogAug22).

Given their historically tense relationship, a more mature response from India and Pakistan would have been surprising.

I was on chat soon afterwards with Aniruddha Shankar, an Indian journalist, who felt that India offered the aid at least partially "because it was embarrassing not to".

"But once the offer was made, it hung fire for days and days," he added. "Then people began to remember how in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, some Indian aid rotted in Wagah, and also that aid marked 'A gift from the people of India' and stamped with the Indian flag was refused -- but there's little hesitation in accepting food aid in bags stamped with the US flag."

It wasn't always like this for what he termed a "subcontinental tragedy": "I remember Pakistan air force C130 airplanes landing in Bhuj with bags of supplies after the earthquake in Jan 2001. Then it was not made into politics. It was just aid. Generously given and gratefully accepted. I remember the pictures vividly."

Nine months later, the world changed. The 'war on terror' altered security paradigms. Knee-jerk responses to 'terror attacks' played into the hands of those who do not want India and Pakistan to cooperate against them. The new security paradigms don't even spare children.

A 14-year old straying across the border can be subjected to "sustained interrogation" making him "confess" to being a "terrorist" (like Nauman Arshad, released recently after months in an Indian prison, thanks to the efforts of Indian and Pakistani lawyers and activists).

Hopes that the Foreign Ministers' meeting of July 15 in Islamabad would address such issues were dashed. An unnecessary press conference soured the atmosphere, and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi made uncalled for remarks about Indian External Affairs Minister Krishna being on the phone to Delhi during their meeting.

Krishna responded like the senior statesman he is. Qureshi is learning. Four days later, he sent a condolence message to Krishna after the train accident in West Bengal. New Delhi reciprocated after the plane crash near Islamabad and later the floods.

"A condolence letter?" asked the host on BBC's World Today, Aug 8. "Was that an adequate response to a disaster of this magnitude?"

"It's better than nothing, given their relationship," I responded.

Perhaps someone in New Delhi heard us. Or as Aniruddha suggested, felt obliged to respond following the UN appeal of August 11 for $460 million emergency aid for Pakistan.

On August 13, Krishna conveyed India's offer of $5 million aid to Qureshi in a telephone call -- their first direct contact since the Islamabad meeting. Then came Pakistan's dithering. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telephoned Yusuf Raza Gilani on August 19 and reminded him of the offer; the day Washington also (coincidentally?) urged Pakistan to accept Indian aid. Pakistan agreed, but asked that the aid be routed through the UN.

Indian hardliners urged New Delhi to withdraw the offer. Their Pakistani counterparts slammed Islamabad for accepting Indian money. Fortunately, good sense prevailed.

On September 21, New Delhi generously increased the aid, pledging a total of $25 million. Perhaps New Delhi was prodded by Kerala's offer of September 13, announcing that it was donating a million dollars to Pakistan from its own meagre budget.

Many Indians want to help but the security agencies in Pakistan make this difficult. Islamabad grants visas for relief workers from other countries, but not Israel and India. "What if an Indian doctor is attacked, or a patient dies?" asked an official when questioned about this policy.

It's difficult, but not impossible, to get the requisite No Objection Certificate from the National Disaster Management Agency (www.ndma.gov.pk) to bring in relief goods from India. The dedicated doctors of the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplant (www.siut.org) managed it, and on September 25, unloaded the first part of a 25-ton consignment of relief goods arriving from Mumbai.

May this be the first of many such consignments! Politics must not be allowed to come in the way of humanitarian aid.

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