A Subcontinental consensus?

This summer's thaw in Pakistan-India relations has breathed new life into track two processes between the countries. The region's pacifists have risen with recharged spirits, with visits and exchanges following the recommendations that evolved in countless earlier seminar discussions. The most recent such visit was undertaken by a group of Indian parliamentarians led by veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, an independent member of the Indian upper house. Organised by the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy, the visit (to Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi) was in reciprocation to a journey in May by a delegation of Pakistani legislators led by Ishaq Khan Khakwani of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam).

Speaking in Karachi, in the last week of June, Nayar and his compatriots sent out a strong message of peace and friendship to an appreciative audience. There is a "Subcontinental consensus", said Nayar, that war was not the answer to our problems. "We have to ask ourselves two questions: are we ready for peace; and are we ready for a commitment to peace?"

There are, however, two disturbing features in these latest visits. One, neither delegation included representatives of the right wing parties, either the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of India and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal of Pakistan. And, two, despite the rhetoric of profuse fraternal affection, both delegations validated their respective governments' views on the 'hurdles' to peace. The Pakistanis and Indians, thus, stood by their respective government positions on the "core issue" debate, the one insisting it was Kashmir, the other pointing to cross-border terrorism.

Track two diplomacy between Pakistan and India, a phenomenon linked with civil society's growing consciousness of and confidence in itself, has developed since the late 1980s. Through escalations of tension, as manifest in the 1998 nuclear tests, 1999 Kargil conflict and the exchange of nuclear threats in the summer of 2001, practitioners of this track of diplomacy have tenaciously held on to informal talks. The Neemrana dialogues, which began in 1991 with American support, have facilitated exchanges between educators, ex-military men, ex-bureaucrats, artistes, businessmen, parliamentarians and members of the media.

While the sincerity of these conflict resolution practitioners has never been in doubt, the Pakistan-India track two runs the risk of being only occasionally relevant to track one, which refers to the official diplomatic exchange between the governments of the two states. The tension, apparent in the most recent exchange of legislators, between representing a state and representing an ideal arises from the typical limitations of track-two diplomacy. Notwithstanding these limitations, it is imperative that track two representatives resolve the tension with the state if their efforts are to bear the fruit of peace. Ordinarily, this would begin with influencing the minds and agendas of the ruling establishments in each country, but if we accept that the national power elites have an entrenched interest in sustaining a slow-burn conflict, that is easier recommended than done.

Peaceful survival
There has been, however, a curious development which gives some hope to the peace constituency in Pakistan and India. In the post-11 September global reality, where right-wingers once again find themselves in a strong position, every aggressive word and deed by a state actor can easily be justified in the name of national security. We could rationally have expected, going by past behaviour, that this would embolden the ruling establishments to drop the peace-and-reform mantra. Strangely though, Pervez Musharraf and Atal Behari Vajpayee at present seem to be taking great pains to sustain dialogue and reinstate the track one peace process. The two gentlemen could not possibly have taken the 'going down in history' sentiment so much to heart. What, then, is the reason behind this fresh track one resolve for peace?

After General Musharraf's October 1999 coup, the military in Pakistan learned that despite its continued control over the country's power structure, it could not afford a repetition of military rule in the style of Zia ul-Haq. General Musharraf, therefore, embarked on an ambitious facelift for his role. In the name of reforms, he adopted most if not all the socio-economic and political agendas that had hitherto been the ideological property of the civil democratic parties. He nurtured, for the sake of the outside world, the image of a 'liberal' soldier.

In India, the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party at the helm of the current coalition government also seems to have begun a careful rethink of its image and policies soon after the 1998 nuclear tests. Apart from the inherent challenges posed by the partners in its coalition government, the BJP realised that if it wished to lead India onto the free-market bandwagon, it would have to live up to the republic's secular-democratic ideals.

Thus it was that the hard-boiled and the hard-nosed in Islamabad and New Delhi, who so far had invested in perpetuating the conflict, initiated a careful shift in their political paradigms, spurred primarily by global political and economic pressures. This development should have been a kind of a wake-up call for the secular democrats of the two countries, for they signified the onset of an increasingly concentrated political space in which contending forces claim the similar political agenda. But the liberals conceded the space, and now right-wingers, who are using it for political survival rather than promoting it out of a genuine desire for peace, have taken up their agenda.

A common perception is that pressure from the West, more precisely the United States, is the strongest factor in the evolving Sucontinental equation. This cannot be entirely correct in the light of the political survival argument. If indeed it is for political survival that the banner for peace is being held up in Islamabad and New Delhi, the pacifists who are being edged out of the political space must carefully consider two points. First, how has 11 September empowered the very actors that have waged a war of hatred for the past half-century or so? Second, given their newfound empowerment and legitimisation, why have these elements decided to tread the path towards peace?

These questions may sound retrogressive in the midst of the euphoria in the editorials and opinion pages. But they have to be raised keeping in mind the future of political liberalism, secularism and democracy in the two countries after a peace deal has been clinched by those very people and institutions that have fought against it for decades.

Difficult though it may be, the pacifists need to break the shackles of 'ground realities' and move the dialogue beyond the official line on the 'constraints' on peace. In the negotiable space that is politics, the liberals of both countries must reclaim the initiative of peace in order to ensure their own political survival for the sake of the people. In Pakistan, the argument goes: if it takes a general rather than a civilian government to clinch this deal, why fight it? But what that would entail for the future of democracy in Pakistan is anybody's guess. To a journalist's question in Islamabad, Nayar said: "Let us face it, whatever agreement India is to make with Pakistan, it has to be with General Musharraf".

What the pragmatic approach of a right wing party such as the BJP might mean for the future of secular politics in India is again a line of questioning Indian liberals and pacifists seem loathe to pursue.

This, then, is the crux of the dilemma for the liberals in Pakistan and India. Having laid down the groundwork through decades of perseverance, they risk being unable to claim their efforts in the open political arena. Or they risk derailing the peace process by challenging the legitimacy of those that at the moment seem to be taking it forward. It may be that there is now a realisation of the utilitarian gains of peace; the question that no one seems to want to answer is what are the costs of such a peace. Considering that leadership of the BJP refused even to meet the Pakistani delegation, perhaps Nayar should have asked whether the right wing establishments that have embraced peace today will be committed to the process if tomorrow peace is no longer politically or economically expedient.

There may be a lesson lurking outside the Subcontinent: while Tony Blair's "new" Labour gave him the blessings to wage war in West Asia, Pakistani and Indian liberals have given their blessings to their adversaries for the greater good that peace would bring!

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Himal Southasian