If Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stopover in Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on 25 December, 2015 came as a surprise, the subsequent militant attack on the Pathankot airbase in India’s Punjab barely a week later on 2 January, did not.
Given past patterns, many had been expecting an unfortunate incident to mar the bonhomie between Pakistan and India that Modi’s Christmas Day visit had generated. Some expressed their apprehensions privately, some on social media. Indian intelligence officers revealed that they had been tracking information about an anticipated attack on the airbase in Pathankot for a few days before it took place. According to reports based on telephone intercepts and other evidence, the attack was launched from Pakistani soil.
This was soon followed by another tragedy in Pakistan on 20 January, 2016 when gunmen attacked Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, near Peshawar, killing 21 students and staff. The university is named after the Pashtun nationalist leader and freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as ‘Badshah’ (king) or Bacha Khan. A devout Muslim who stood for a tolerant version of Islam that the Taliban oppose, he led a non-violent red-shirted army of Khudai Khidmatgars (servants of God) against the British Empire. He was also known as the Frontier Gandhi due to his insistence on non-violence and close friendship with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The university was commemorating his 28th death anniversary on 20 January with a mushaira.
Usually, it is the rightwing that makes the loudest protests when there are moves towards peace but when the rightwing is in power and attempts to mend fences, the liberals, who have always rooted for better ties will not oppose the rapprochement
Bacha Khan had initially opposed the creation of Pakistan but pledged allegiance to the new nation after 14 August, 1947. He spent the rest of his life in and out of jail for opposing several policies of the Pakistan government. When he died in Peshawar in 1988 while under house arrest, India declared a five-day mourning period. Bacha Khan was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in accordance with his wishes. Despite the security establishment having portrayed him as a ‘traitor’ for years, hundreds of thousands of mourners attended his funeral.
Relations between Pakistan and India had been improving slowly, as the meeting between the two Prime Ministers in Ufa, Russia in July 2015 suggested. Discussions centred on bettering communication and a meeting between the National Security Advisors (NSA) of both countries was fixed. However, the cordiality was not repeated in September at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where they did not interact. Before this, the scheduled meeting in August between the NSAs was cancelled because “the two sides dug in heels, not leaving any room for flexibility” on the subjects to be discussed, as the Indian Express reported. But at the sidelines of the Climate Summit in Paris, on 30 November 2015 the meeting between the two premiers made quite a few headlines. A brief video that shows them speaking intently to each other was widely circulated. (A few creative souls used the inaudible recording to make their own versions of the conversation with voiceovers in different accents and languages.)
Following this, on 6 December, 2015 NSAs Nasir Khan Janjua of Pakistan and Ajit Doval of India held a ‘secret meeting’ in Bangkok and agreed to take forward the ‘constructive’ engagement. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj attended the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad on 9 December arriving “with the message that ties between the two countries should be good and move forward”.
This was the background state of affairs when Modi posted his apparently casual tweet on 25 December while on a state visit to Afghanistan: “Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi”. He had apparently rung Sharif from Kabul to wish on his birthday. Sharif mentioned that his granddaughter was also getting married and invited him to drop by on his way back. Hours later, the world was treated to a highly photogenic visit – the two Prime Ministers beaming, hugging, holding hands. The scene gave a glimpse of what is possible when spontaneous visits are allowed unencumbered by the restrictive visa regime between the two countries.
Of course, Modi’s visit was not expected to usher in great changes overnight in terms of the official relations between the two countries. But it definitely set the ball rolling for future communications. As opposed to earlier instances, the wheels already set in motion did not come to a grinding halt after the attacks on Pathankot and Bacha Khan University. The meeting of foreign secretaries expected to take place in mid-January was only postponed to February, rather than being cancelled. Moreover, on 30 January Sharif asserted that Pakistan will do its best to investigate the allegations that the terrorists who attacked Pathankot airbase were operating from Pakistan. “Pakistan will soon complete its investigation into the Pathankot terror attack, which had a negative impact on talks with India,” Sharif said.
Multiple factors contributed to the shift in the governments’ reactions to the terror attacks. Usually, it is the rightwing on both sides that makes the loudest protests when there are moves towards peace. But when the rightwing is in power and attempts to mend fences, the liberals, who have always rooted for better ties, may call out the hypocrisy, but will not oppose the rapprochement. This is the situation at present since the elected governments in power, both India and Pakistan, have rightwing leaders.
Furthermore, chances of peace tend to increase when there are democratically elected leaders on both sides. As elected leaders, both Modi and Sharif have made efforts to distance themselves, even if cosmetically, from their rightwing springboards. Their political parties continue to have links with extremists but being heads of aspiring democracies, they have an image to uphold globally.
Even former President Musharraf who, as the army chief, was responsible for the Kargil ‘war-like situation’, attempted to mend fences when in power. And now, going by a Reuters report, Pakistan’s military also seems to be on board this time, supporting Sharif’s overtures towards India. This supposedly stems from the “ownership” of peace talks by the military and the appointment of recently retired general, Khan Janjua, as the new national security advisor. “This round is different because there is backing from the top where it matters… the army chief is himself on board,” Reuters quotes a ‘top diplomat’ as saying.
The people’s push for peace has been steadily increasing over the last few years, given impetus by new means of communication across the hostile border
Along with all these factors, a popular inclination towards peace has been increasingly visible. For example, the #ProfileForPeace campaign launched a couple of days after the Pathankot attack became a platform for people to make their voices heard. Common people as well as celebrities from both sides of the border participated in this effort, putting up photos on their social media profiles holding placards addressed to the leaders of India and Pakistan, urging them to #KillTerrorismNotTalks – or, as some preferred, #StopTerrorismNotTalks. Prominent among the celebrities were actor Nadia Jamil, directors Mahesh Bhatt and Anand Patwardhan, and musician Taimur Rahman, to name a few.The people’s push for peace has been steadily increasing over the last few years, given impetus by new means of communication across the hostile border. Instances of political mobilisation have also been seen of late. For instance, in an attempt to work together to resolve common problems, in December 2013, the chief ministers of Indian and Pakistani Punjabs signed a joint statement – an unprecedented move bypassing the respective central governments – that called for the free movement of academics, students and interns. The commonalities of culture across the Punjab, divided between Pakistan and India in 1947, include language, food, festivals – and issues like agricultural and water wastage.
Businesses from both sides have expressed a desire not just to work with each other and hire people from the other country, but to invest in each other’s countries in diverse fields such as textiles, energy, information technology, education and skills training, healthcare, and agriculture. Peace groups have long called for both countries to remove the restrictions on each other’s media, ease visa regultions, and telephone connectivity. India and Pakistan are probably the only two neighbouring countries in the world that disallow international cell-phone roaming facilities for each other.
The dividends from such cooperation will, in the long term, be far greater and benefit a far greater number of people than the warmongering agenda being pushed by extremists. At present, much of the trade between the two countries takes place informally via third country ports, mainly Dubai, which, according to some estimates stand at USD 3 billion a year. Reports suggest this could go up to USD 40 billion if relations become better.
In Pakistan there is a consensus among all political parties on the need for peace with India. Every political party that the people voted into power in the democratic interludes between army rule has stood for peace with India, and Nawaz Sharif, thrice elected Prime Minister, is no exception.
Yes, hate-mongering continues as some chose to lay the blame squarely on India for the attack on the Bacha Khan University. But as evident from former intelligence officer retired Brigadier Asad Munir’s tweet, not many are buying that. His tweet reasons: “RAW is not likely to fund an attack on #BachaKhanUniversity on his death anniversary. These murderers are Pakistanis, don’t blame others”.
RAW is not likely to fund an attack on #BachaKhanUniversity on his death anniversary.These murderers are Pakistanis, don’t blame others.
— Asad Munir (@asadmunir38) January 20, 2016
A mess that has taken over six decades to make cannot be resolved overnight or in the tenure of one or two elected governments. But the wheels of peace have been set in motion.
It is important to remember that peace a process, not an event.
~ Beena Sarwar is a Pakistani journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also an editorial advisor at Himal.