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Peacemakers on pacemaker?

Track II diplomacy is a major facilitator of the India-Pakistan peace initiative. But grandstanding, a la SM Qureshi, sets back the efforts of peacemakers on both sides of the border, writes Vinod Sharma.

india Updated: Jul 26, 2010 00:39 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times

Tum utho badh kar girado beech ki deewar ko, dekhna aangan hamara do guna ho jayega: The courtyard we share will be twice as big if you bring down the wall in the middle.”

The couplet captured the essence of the 2004 visits of Indian and Pakistani journalists to Kashmir on either side of the Line of Control. On seeing his colleagues roll aside a boulder to open traffic on the Karakoram highway on their way to Rawalpindi from Gilgit one rainy night, Khalid Chaudhary, a Lahore-based journalist was tellingly metaphorical. He wrote: “Aaj shaam Karakoram highway par Bharat aur Pakistan key sahafiyon ne milkar rastey ka roda hata diya (Journalists from India and Pakistan removed a roadblock on the Karakoram highway).”

Landslides of distrust have again blocked the path to entente. The walls stand taller. Stronger.

There’s no dearth of fair-minded Pakistanis and Indians. But they’ve been running for cover since 26/11. More so when dialogue descended to diatribe in Islamabad.

Are peacemakers on pacemakers? Doves indeed are the first casualties when talks fail or terrorists go on the rampage. They’re vilified and character assassinated; branded traitors or dismissed as naïve, woolly-headed romanticists.

Ultra-nationalists haunt them in the cyberspace. Opprobrium is theirs on jingoistic TV shows styled to grab eyeballs.

My blog on HT’s website seeks avenues of peace with Pakistan. Every week, rude, abusive trawlers of the web question not just my professional integrity but also my parentage. The outlandish insinuation: I couldn’t be pleading friendship with Pakistan unless I was born of a Muslim mother or father.

I don’t take the insults seriously. I only feel sad for Indian Muslims for the implied attack on their patriotism.

Militarists and rabble-rousers have indeed grown in numbers and popularity. The shriller the Pakistani denials of its complicity in the Mumbai attacks, the greater the derision of peace-seekers.

Like its cross-border clone, the anti-Pak Indian bandwagon is an assortment of retired diplomats, intelligence operatives and security and foreign policy experts. They draw sustenance from the very terrorist violence that chokes voices of reason.

The climate is as much vitiated in Pakistan. Such is the oppressive nature of their polity and the omnipresent dirty-tricks outfits that even the doughtiest stand daunted. A few of them were in India recently with the kind of “my side” bias that makes Track-II diplomacy a redundant and wasteful exercise.

Libertarians distinguish themselves from governments by recognising upfront the adversary’s legitimate grievances. That’s how public opinion is educated — and trust built.

Pakistani peace-protagonist Imtiaz Alam had the courage to initially declare 26/11 as Asif Zardari’s Kargil. He also led a delegation of journalists and rights activists to India to convey the sentiments and sympathy of his country’s civil society.

But at another peace conference, I was surprised, nay shocked, hearing Pakistani lawyers celebrated for their peace efforts, talk about India’s “aggregate arrogance” and Kashmir as Pakistan’s “unfinished” agenda. Involuntarily though, their peace activism appeared compromised by their leadership of popular movements against influential individuals and institutions back home.

Over-articulated empathy with India could have helped their detractors brand them as New Delhi’s agents. That one among them is under surveillance became obvious when, on a visit to Pakistan, I overheard a policeman on my tail asking my cabbie whether I’d gone calling on the lawyer under watch.

Indian peacemakers are relatively better off. They are trashed and teased by right-wingers. But unlike their Pakistani counterparts, they haven’t had their lives or liberty threatened, houses burgled and vehicles attacked, as Imtiaz Alam’s was, by extremist groups or their promoters in the establishment.

When dialogue fails, peaceniks anywhere are out on a limb. “It kills hope while our job is to kindle hope,” bemoaned Sushobha Barve of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation. Saddened though by the Islamabad face-off, she isn’t about to give up her faith in dialogue.

The Indian pro-talks lobby is often pitted against hardliners dismissive of dialogue. India-bashers on the other side are also on the rampage when peace efforts fail or are fruitless.

“The choice is between dialogue and continued hostility,” averred Mani Shankar Aiyar. “Relying on others (read the US) to pull your irons out of fire wouldn’t work. It’ll be in their interest, not yours,” he warned.

Is the Diaspora of skeptics listening to Aiyar who has “more friends in Pakistan than enemies in India”?

Formula for peace

Fissures over engaging with Pakistan haven’t surfaced for the first time in the Indian establishment. In 2004, BJP hardliners led by LK Advani wanted the Indo-Pak cricket series scrapped. A terrorist attack on the team, they argued, could ruin the NDA’s chances in elections later that year.

But peaceniks inspired by Atal Bihari Vajpayee would have none of it. They went ahead and played cricket rather than playing safe before the polls they anyway lost. Never before did prospects of peace look so tangible and real.

Waging peace is riskier than whipping up war hysteria in these times of mounting distrust. But whether it’s front-loaded or back-loaded, dialogue’s indispensable.

“And it has to be uninterrupted and uninterruptible,” insists Mani Shankar Aiyar. Interlocutors must be comfortable with each other and have the ability to handle complex questions with a touch of humour, even self-depreciation.

The roadmap proposed by the diplomat-politician draws from the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War and the 1973 Paris accords that wound down the Vietnam War.

The talks in Paris were “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”. The US’s Henry Kissinger and Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho met at Majestic Hotel on an appointed day every week through the years of the War.

Aiyar also suggests moving the dialogue table to Wagah, like at Pan Mun Jom on the Korean border. To date, discussions take place between the Koreas at buildings straddling the military demarcation zone. Have the will. And you’d find the way.

First Published: Jul 25, 2010 23:33 IST