Beyond a peace mela

At the fifth Joint Convention of the Pakistan-India Peoples' Forum for Peace and Democracy, everyone's eye was on a young Karachi-based journalist, Nasir, his wife and two minor daughters, honorary child delegates to this gathering in Bangalore When he had first sounded them out about going to India,6-year-old Zoya had innocently piped up,"Hamara India!"…

Formal schooling had yet to make Zoya self-conscious about such an unpatriotic slip, and she was easily forgiven for parroting the refrain from an advertising jingle heard constantly on Zee's satellite transmissions. For, the Indian television channel's footprint takes in all of Pakistan.

What would Zoya remember of that week of April in Bangalore? Perhaps her childhood memories would include the sentimental cry of "Ek Mata Do Santan" (one mother,two children) rendered by some delegates. More likely, however, it would be the more imaginative articulationto be found in Brothers of Chichibaba, an anti-war children's storybook released at the Forum which Zoya took home. Written by scientist D P Sen Gupta, the tale is of right-handed Guruk and left handedTuruk, two brothers from the land of Chichibaba. They have a falling out and become implacable enemies, raising armies against each other till both acquire bombs"so hot that the earth will melt like butter". The children of what has become two countries, Chinchin and Chinchun, frightened of meltdown, push through a hole in the wall separating them. In the end, Guruk and Turuk are transformed, and vow to destroy all weapons and live in peace.

Of course, real-world India and real-world Pakistan will not as easily come to terms with each other, given the remarkable fit on both sides of state ideology based on hostile relations, the national security obsession, and popular acceptance of hate politics. Nevertheless, this it will inexorably loosen up as long as the people-to-people dialogue continues to engage in ever-more complex arenas and goes beyond the hail-fellow-well-met phase. When that happens, and it is no longer a question of ´if, the people who talk of peace between India and Pakistan and in the South Asian region as a whole will be as successful as the daring children of Chin-chin and Chinchun.

Subversive sentimentalism
A look around the conference chamber at the United Theosophical College in Bangalore was proof enough that the constituency for peace has widened considerably. Not here the establishmentarian individuals one finds in the so-called ´track-two´ South Asian political and security conclaves. Instead, the discussions were enlivened and made down-to-earth by activists (sometimes derided by those in the mainstream media as ´romantics´) from women´s groups, environmental organisations, social and human rights coalitions, and labour unions, as well as professionals, scientists, academics, journalists, retired bureaucrats and military officers. The objective of the convention was to foster new broad-based coalitions capable of democratically reordering national and regional priorities.

Of course, in Bangalore there was no doing away with the groundswell of sentimentalism among delegates for "what might have been" between the two countries. This emotionalism is a natural outcome of contact between real people. The fact that it reinforces the superficial impression of the participants as unrealistic peace missionaries, committing themselves to wishful declarations, is a natural hazard. Besides, the facile dismissal of the delegates as "bleeding hearts" obscures the sinewy strength of the Forum as a potent idea, symbolising that there is nothing essentialist in India-Pakistan hostility as the state sponsored orthodoxy would have us believe. A ´hundred years war´ is not inevitable. Former ministers, cabinet secretaries, admirals, major generals and thousands of concerned citizens from India and Pakistan, have discovered that even on the burning topic of Kashmir there are more areas to agree on than to disagree.

The Forum´s strategy is simple though no less subversive for being that. By bringing together thousands of citizens of India and Pakistan, it undermines the very logic of the shaitaan-ising of the other side. "The more people talk to each other, the more they are exposed to each other´s writings, and the process of demonising will come apart," the Forum´s co-founder Nirmal Mukarji said at the historic first Joint Convention in Delhi in 1995. Six years and five conventions later, this unique breed of vocal and willing-to-stand-up-and-be-counted citizens have not only demonstrated the surviv-ability of the idea of a regional thaw, but testified to the emergence and resilience of a cross-border peace constituency. A constituency, which setbacks like the Kargil war have been unable to crush, and chauvinistic governments and their media pools have been unable to deny.

The continuous war hysteria of the last year had made it urgent that the convention be held at all costs. The symbolic value of the meeting was lost on no one, given all that had happened over a year — Kargil, the military takeover in Pakistan, and loose talk of a ´winnable´ limited war between the two nuclear powers.

This time, too, India´s Ministry of External Affairs issued non-reporting (doing away with the requirement of Pakistanis to show up at police stations) and multiple-city visas to the 200 delegates from the other side of Wagah-Atari. While the Pakistani delegates had to cool their heels and wait for the twice-weekly Samjhauta Express (because they were not allowed to walk across the Wagah-Atari border point), in Bangalore the local organisers had their hands full. Several potential patrons had pulled back financial support, and there was the irritant of a court case filed against the convenor of the Karnataka chapter of the Forum, accusing him of fostering anti-national feeling. The case was dismissed.

The result of the bilateral tensions was unprecedented security, although it was unclear who was protecting whom —delegates suspected of being ISI agents or local anti-social fascist elements. For the first time since New Delhi, the Forum venue was swarming with police and intelligence agents. Delegates, who in Calcutta had had a free run in the city, now found themselves boxed in the conference venue. It virtually defeated one of the objectives of the people-to-people dialogue —letting people discover for themselves false myths and prejudices.

Undeterred, the Forum in Bangalore proceeded with the task of increasing the basis of bilateral understanding on the intertwined four-plus-one themes which must be tackled in order to resolve the India-Pakistan standoff —strengthening democracy within Kashmir, demilitarisation/ denuclearisation, religious tolerance, governance, and globalisation/regional cooperation.

Bangalore checklist
As in earlier conventions, dozens of urgent proposals were discussed in Bangalore — about collaborative rewriting of history, student exchanges, summer residency programmes for scholars, development of a peace education curricuium, and so on. On the newly added fifth theme of globalisation and regional cooperation, joint strategies on multilateral negotiations such as the WTO and plant breeder rights were discussed. Against a backdrop of a 28 percent increase in India´s defence expenditure and the bilateral nuclear arms race, appeals were made to slash expenditures and roll back nuclearisation.

Granted the Bangalore declaration was an omnibus wish-list, but it was a declaration affirmed by a citizen´s assembly. It serves as a checklist of all that can be done to improve the state of the Subcontinent if only one puts people´s security at the centre. As the declaration stated, true security lies in good governance, which can undermine the reigning national security orthodoxy on both sides.

The Chattisingpura massacre had most grimly spotlighted the fact that violence only begets violence. A daring joint declaration was formulated on Kashmir, urging cessation of violence by all, and a move towards a process by which the people of Kashmir would be able to choose their own representatives for a dialogue. The discussion was a passionate one. Would the Forum accept it if, eventually, the Kashmiris democratically chose to secede? Co-chair of the Forum and former chief of the Indian Navy, Admiral Ramdas, did not flinch in his reply: "When Tilak fought for swaraj, he did not fight only for us. Why should we alone have the right?" The understanding of the Indian delegates was that democratic space in India cannot be safeguarded if democratic rights in J&K are suppressed.

Had the Kargil conflict shrunk the peace constituency? As LA. Rehman, the standard-bearer for human rights in Pakistan, put it, "Have the problems of impoverishment, unemployment, intolerance and militarisation shrunk?" His point was that as long as these problems remain, those who were honest enough to strive for peace would remain energised. For, it is the personal experience of the cost of confrontation that inculcates in people the desire for peace.

The large presence of younger Pakistani and Indian delegates at Bangalore underscored the determination of this second post-Independence generation to reclaim the possibility of a future in which the two nuclear powers of the Subcontinent may actually be able to live in peace. After all, the very fact that this generation is willing to countenance a different ´truth´ than that fed by the hate politics of the India-Pakistan divide, is reason enough to pursue peace further. The Karachi Joint Convention is planned for later this year.

Introspection time
The Forum´s Joint Conventions are designed to act as catalysts, fostering offshoot coalitions. It was in the Lahore Joint Convention that representatives of Fishworkers Unions on both sides of the border met and worked out an informal system to assist and rescue fishermen caught in the wrong waters. A chance connection established in the Peshawar Convention led to the release of three Indian minor children locked up in a Pakistani jail. At the Calcutta Book Fair, the West Bengal chapter of the Forum put up a stall and hosted spin-off programmes with visiting Pakistani historians, feminists and cultural activists. An Indian delegate who seemed intent on pure tourism during the Peshawar meet of 1998, was again present at Bangalore in April 2000, but this time enthusiastically conferring with delegates from West Punjab about a joint meeting of the two Punjabs in East Punjab.

Regardless of these outcomes, the organisers have been conscious since the very beginning of the danger that the Joint Conventions, held with such tamasha alternatively in each country, may end up as ends in themselves. It is true that even though the rhetoric waxes eloquent, substantive achievements in the sectoral arenas have been disappointing.

Putting together the massive logistical requirements for the conventions requires hard work in organisation and local fund-raising. These overwhelming demands tend to leave the Forum with little by way of resources and energy for the continuous year-round activities, which are required to make the process genuinely ´people-to-people´. For many of the founder members of the Forum, the Bangalore Convention was a time for hard introspection. Was the Forum to remain just a jamboree, howsoever important and symbolic? Were we evolving as little more than travel and tour operators?

The answer, of course, is no. The Joint Conventions of the Forum are the minimum that is required to bring together the people of India and Pakistan. While they are certainly not enough, the meets will continue to provide a nucleus for additional activities in future. The meets are central to the vision of fostering a honeycomb of cross-border coalitions capable of democratically transforming the India-Pakistan relationship.

This essential goal of the Forum makes it different from the ´track two´ efforts, which tend to be limited to select inter-elite communications. The Forum envisions a broad-based movement evolving in both India and Pakistan, involving the people at large, one which will ultimately be strong enough to force politicians and policy-makers to heed the voice of reason and peace.

As LA. Rehman said in Bangalore, "We have to make the governments admit to the possibility of an alternative to the politics of hate and confrontation, the possibility of other possibilities." Were the governments listening? Before long, and once the people start making demands, they will…

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian