When the Indian prime minister and the Pakistani generalissimo met to talk in Agra, the leaders, spin-managers and commentators on both sides forgot one critical point: that both countries are nuclear-tipped nation- states just a trigger-pull away from Subcontinental Armageddon. The failsafe mechanism hangs by a telephone hotline between the two capitals, and other than this, there is no "confidence-building measure" should there be a rapidly spiralling crisis. South Asia is a very dangerous place indeed, and de-nuclearisation might have been the right place to begin the talks.

Instead, at Pakistan's insistence, Kashmir held everything else at bay. Pervez Musharraf was unwilling to call off the mujahid infiltrators and Atal Behari Vajpayee would not acknowledge the militarisation that keeps the Valley sullen but subdued. As always, the Agra summit was guided by the politico-bureaucratic elite (India) and politico-military establishment (Pakistan). With similar worldviews and psycho-social upbringing—they even speak English with the identical northern accent—these elites ignore the interests of the silent majorities of their own countries, as also of the rest of South Asia.

In Pakistan, the Punjabi-dominated military is in the cockpit, and it will not make space either for the mercantilist therefore cosmopolitan demands of Sindh's Karachi, or for the more insular instincts of Balochistan or the North West Frontier Province. In India, the Delhi-centricism of the power structure speaks firstly for the Hindi belt, and it is worth considering whether there would have been more flexibility shown on Kashmir had the summit been held, say, in Calcutta or Madras rather than Agra-on-Jamuna.

Even more than Pakistan with its handful of provinces, however, India tends to forget its own physical size and demographic diversity. The powerful of New Delhi fail to realise that India's continent-sized territory and myriad identities can hardly be moulded with the American-style schlock patriotism now sold on satellite programming that everyone watches from Quetta to Kathmandu. Whereas some of the other smaller countries of South Asia may find their national unit-of-governance to be functional, India is a different cup of chai altogether. It is many "regions" masquerading as a "country" ruled from New Delhi centre, and the historical "Indianness" is actually a heritage of the surrounding nation-states as well.

It is the inability to accept this conception of South Asia that makes it so hard for some to accept Kashmir's semi-detached identity, that Kashmir is already deemed to be "different" by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, or that a concession to KaShmiriat would not break up the Union. At the same time, Kashmir provides an opportunity, as the place where the 'Centre' would begin the process of genuine devolution to smaller units. This would also hold true for Pakistan as well, for it is not possible for either country to remain this tightly centralised forever, denying the cultural diversity within and the overarching linkages without. Porous borders rather than fencing and barbed wire are the only kind of frontier that will work for South Asia, to make it once again a loose cultural region with numerous internal eddies. Indeed, cultural affinity—visible in language, accent, rituals, thinking, and the very gestures and mannerisms—will overcome all kinds of religious and geo-political divides. Lahore and Amritsar will benefit from porous borders the way the comfortably powerful of Islamabad and New Delhi will find hard to concede.

There will come a time when South Asian summiteers—either at bilateral meetings or at SAARC conclaves—will realise that the Subcontinent was never meant to be this jigsaw of sharp-edged nation-states. It evolved as a penumbra of identities extending in one continuous, but ever-changing, stretch from Balochistan to Manipur, and from Skardu to Kanyakumari. The national boundaries, the hallowed capitals and their bureaucratic paraphernalia, and a measure of central rule will of course have to remain. But within these nation-states and between them (for example the two Punjabs and the two Bengals) we must allow more give for civilisational identity. Only with the release of the cultural genius of the people will there be the regionwide social and economic surge that we have waited for in vain for over half a century.

If this nature of the South Asian historicity were better understood, there would be more flexibility in negotiations all over. Upcoming summits would see India wholeheartedly agreeing to Kashmir as a "problem" rather than an "issue", and Pakistan would be shamed into blocking the cross-border infiltration by jehadis. Once the negotiators accept the true shape of the South Asian future, they will find it easier to agree to disagree on Kashmir, and move on with the numerous other tasks pending.

Just for starters, they would immediately begin work on getting the Iranian gas pipeline to reach the Indian heartland via Multan. If anything can help usher peace in a stroke, it will be when Delhi households begin to get cheap piped gas, the way they do in Lahore and Dhaka. With Islamabad required to provide iron-clad guarantees for the pipeline's safety, the economic gains from the advent of Iranian gas would become the greatest incentive not to go to war over Kashmir. The economic advantage of such a bilateral thaw may not impact on the Indian economy as a whole, but consider the gains for the people of the Pakistan- proximate regions of Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and Delhi—the very repositories of distrust against Pakistan.

At their next meeting, be it in New York at the General Assembly sidelines, at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu, or in the reciprocal visit by the Indian prime minister to Islamabad, the two sides must of course agree to de-terrorise and de-militarise the Valley. At the same time, they must proceed with the work of future-building in South Asia. For example, convert the killing glaciers of Siachen into an international peace park as proposed by Bombay mountaineer Harish Kapadia, who stands by his vision even after his soldier son fell to the jehadi's bullet in Kashmir last year. Or, come to an honourable agreement not to use the ISI-RAE bogey to cover up for respective inadequacies. Or, persuade cinema producers not to demonise the other country in a way that distorts one's own domestic politics. Or, most critically, begin to de-escalate their preparations for nuclear war.

As Eqbal Ahmad, the late South Asian statesman from Islamabad said not so long ago, "To become prosperous and normal peoples, we must make peace where there is hostility, build bridges where there are chasms…" These sentiments must be the guiding spirit of the diplomatic "sherpas" planning the upcoming summits, that is if they want us South Asians to emerge as "normal peoples".

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian