No peace without civil society

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

The `detente from below' launched exactly 10 years ago through an India-Pakistan people-to-people dialogue has been a critical, if unacknowledged, input into the peace process now under way. This vital civil society initiative must be sustained and expanded.

AFTER an estimated 140-plus exchange visits during the past year across the India-Pakistan border by parliamentarians and officials, artistes and musicians, scholars and social activists, and journalists and schoolchildren, many people have began to regard the current process of thaw and dialogue as something "natural" and "normal". But not many acknowledge, or are aware of, the role played by civil society groups of the two countries in pioneering a citizen-to-citizen dialogue in the 1990s. Today's thaw could hardly have come about without the people-to-people dialogue launched exactly 10 years ago by citizens' groups.

To recount, on the 47th anniversary of the Independence of the two neighbours, a motley group of activists gathered at the Wagah border to light candles to express friendship and solidarity with one another. Tens of thousands of Indian citizens participated under the banner of Hind-Pak Dosti Manch (India-Pakistan Friendship Forum), led by Kuldip Nayar and singer Hans Raj Hans. Reciprocating their festive celebration from across the border each year are different citizens' groups from Lahore and other Pakistani cities. The celebrations, which bear a marked contrast to the contrived display of ritual hostility at the retreat ceremony every evening, have drawn greater and greater popular participation and support. This past Independence Day, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury took part in them.

Just three weeks after the candle light ceremony of August 14/15, 1994, a group of 15 Pakistanis and eight Indians met in Lahore and decided to launch a Pakistan-India People-to-People Dialogue on Peace and Democracy. The objective was to counter "threats to peace and democracy in the subcontinent by growing militarisation, nuclearisation, religious fanaticism, communal violence and policies of intolerance" practised by governments and major political parties in the two countries, and to begin a citizens' dialogue on "critical issues of peace and democracy". By early 1995, this took formal shape - the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) - after a joint convention held in Delhi on February 24-25, attended by more than a hundred delegates from each country.

The forum has since held six conventions, alternately in India and Pakistan, with increasing participation in each meeting. It is without doubt one of the more successful citizen-level initiatives in any strife-torn region of the world. The PIPFPD has tried to grapple with contentious issues such as Kashmir, communal nationalism and religious intolerance. It has advocated peace and tranquillity across the Line of Control (LoC), restraint in military spending and nuclear preparations, and greater trade and economic cooperation. Despite flaws and setbacks, including stagnation at the level of ideas and bureaucratic or opaque methods of working, the forum survived and sustained itself with some panache through one of the ugliest phases in India-Pakistan relations. This phase was marked by intensified jehadi infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir, increased repression there by the state, the nuclear blasts of 1998, the Kargil War of 1999, the failed Agra Summit of 2001, and the 20 month-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of 2002.

It is thus altogether appropriate that Admiral L. Ramdas and I.A. Rehman, who have both been joint chairpersons of the PIPFPD, should have been given the Magsaysay Award for International Peace and Understanding. The award is not just an honour for two courageous individuals who chose to swim against the tide of national chauvinism. It is a rich tribute to the collective efforts of conscientious citizens in both countries to keep the hope of peace and reconciliation alive - years before Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf discussed the possibility of reconciliation and agreed to a ceasefire and a comprehensive dialogue.

THE Dosti Manch and the PIPFPD were not the only initiatives of their kind. Others, including the Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA), the Association of the Peoples of South Asia, the South Asian Human Rights Association (SAHRS), the South Asia Free Media Association, and even the Soldiers for Peace, joined the same effort. Equally noteworthy were joint conferences of the Pakistan Peace Coalition (PPC), formed in February 1999 in Karachi, comprising a broad range of peace and nuclear disarmament activists, and the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), established at a convention in New Delhi in November 2000, attended by 700 Indian delegates and 50 Pakistani delegates.

A landmark event was the Pakistan-India People's Solidarity Conference of July 2001, jointly organised by the CNDP and the PPC in New Delhi. Its declaration called for nuclear weapons abolition, democratisation, defence of human rights, free movement of peoples, and for the transfer of resources "from bombs to books, from submarines to schools, from missiles to medicines, from frigates to food, from runways for bombers to railroads for people". The declaration was supported by over 250 citizens' groups and people's movement organisations in the two countries.

It is on this infrastructure of goodwill and hope for a better common future that many other organisations - literally dozens - representing varied social constituencies, from feminists and labour unionists, and diplomats and MPs, to mediapersons and film personalities, have been built over the past year. Suddenly, as the Noor case showed, and the bonhomie on the cricket ground so vividly demonstrated, many barriers, that seemed insuperable only some months ago, have fallen. The most important of these is the idea of the permanence and inevitability of India-Pakistan hostility.

THIS is perhaps the greatest contribution to the peace process from civil society initiatives. But it is not the only one. The view that mutual coexistence is possible, achievable and desirable, has permeated the mainstream public discourse of both countries (although there have been a few bumps on the road to dialogue). One only has to take a cursory glance at the Pakistani and Indian media to note commentators and analysts advocating confidence-building measures (CBMs) in place of moves by both states to stalk each other and score points. Although the number of journalists allowed to be posted in each other's countries is still shamefully limited to two each, an increasing number of Indian writers are now regularly published in the Pakistani press (including this writer), and to a lesser extent, the other way around. Joint articles by Indian and Pakistani activist-experts on nuclear issues have also been published - for the first time ever.

Bollywood formula films, in which vicious anti-Pakistan posturing became a whole new profitable genre in the late 1990s, is now inventing another formula: of cross-border romance and friendship. The language of confidence-building and peace has even intruded into the usually cynical minds of the "strategic communities" of the two countries. Talk of building a peace park or nature resort at Siachen, where India and Pakistan have fought the world's highest-altitude - and strategically its most preposterous - war, is no longer considered outlandish.

Had popular mindsets and perceptions not changed, the thaw of the past year could not have led to greater and more exuberant people-to-people interaction across the border. First-hand visits by citizens to each other's countries have in turn helped demolish prejudices and feelings of "otherness". You suddenly have Indian businessmen and traders, untouched by any liberal influence or by awareness of the connections between communalism, militarism and India-Pakistan hostility, singing the praises of ordinary Pakistanis who overwhelmed them with their hospitality during the Lahore cricket match. It was remarkable that an Indian Airlines pilot spontaneously diverted a Bangalore-bound flight to Hyderabad to save the life of a Pakistani child who developed a serious health problem on board.

These friendly sentiments have permeated through the otherwise over-cautious bureaucrats of the two countries, as they are bound to. Their diplomats, who would be routinely subjected to surveillance and harassment, now feel relaxed. Their social acceptability has grown. India-Pakistan official-level exchanges have not yet produced a breakthrough; they have largely restored the pre-2002 status quo. But they have been cordial and constructive. They have generally spurred forward movement. All this is bound to trickle up to the policy-making level. A vital input here is the growing recognition of the handsome potential for economic cooperation and trade between India and Pakistan, including transit of goods such as oil and gas.

MARVELLOUSLY welcome as this change is, it is not irreversible. Indeed, there is a distinct possibility of a slippage. If the current dialogue does not produce concrete progress, especially on Kashmir - where the Indian and Pakistani positions differ the most, and which issue Musharraf insistently says is "central" - then India and Pakistan could return to the earlier state of hot-cold war. There are signs of discomfort in Islamabad with the direction and pace of the talks. Pakistan wants to see some tangible progress on Kashmir before it agrees to any more CBMs, including the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus. Its policymakers feel that Manmohan Singh has not shown the same commitment to the peace process as Vajpayee. The Indian Army says that militant infiltration from across the border has increased in recent months.

Apart from a serious investment in the dialogue process from the topmost levels of policymaking, and tremendous flexibility on Kashmir, public opinion will play a vital role in ensuring that the official level talks succeed. Public opinion, the key to a desirable outcome from the dialogue, is itself linked to civil society intervention. But that intervention must also explicitly target policy makers in both countries on the same range of issues that the talks cover. This means that groups such as the PIPFPD, the WIPSA, the SAHRS, should launch a concerted effort at advocacy and lobbying, on nuclear risk-reduction, demilitarisation of India-Pakistan relations and reduction in their defence budgets, steps towards resolving the Kashmir problem, breaking the Siachen impasse and so on.

This will entail moving beyond generalities and "first principles" - for example, agreement on the evil character of nuclear weapons and the need for rolling back post-Pokhran-II developments. Civil society groups would have to make specific and concrete proposals of a transitional kind, which fall short of disarmament. For instance, Pakistan and India should immediately agree not to deploy nuclear weapons and not to conduct missile test-flights for a period such as two to three years - without compromising their security or closing the option of reaching other restraint, arms control and disarmament measures.

Similarly, on Kashmir, citizens' groups would do well to look at broadly similar problems involving rival territorial claims. An instance is the Trieste question, involving a long-standing dispute between Italy and Slovenia. (Italy and the former Yugoslavia reached an agreement to grant exceptional autonomy to the Trieste region and to guarantee it mutually.) There are other regions worth looking at, including South Tyrol, Corsica and Northern Ireland, for examples of both success and failure. None of these can be a model for resolving the Kashmir problem, but each has some lesson to offer.

Citizens' groups will have a good impact if they develop creative alternatives to jaded and conservative ways of thinking and passionately argue for these. They should use both the mass media and forms of intervention focussed on engaging with the establishment making and shaping policy. To do this, they must reach out, open up their membership and level of democratic participation, and set up working groups on specific issues, which can draw expertise from outside their own ranks.

They must proceed on the assumption that where ideas are concerned, they will play a role that very nearly substitutes for government. Officialdom, especially in South Asia, has rarely matched the originality and worth of good ideas and projects proposed by civil society organisations. Our governments function as closed, opaque and impermeable systems. They formulate policies without wide consultation and thrust them down our throats. Even Parliament does not debate policy in our system.

This is not how it should be in democracy. But that is the Indian/Pakistani reality. Here, we citizens are called upon to intervene, especially on the bilateral disputes that have sustained the two countries' ruinous rivalry for half a century. These issues are too important to be left to politicians and bureaucrats alone. Civil society initiatives acquire a new meaning in our context. They are part of the broader democratic agenda of bringing policy-making down to earth, by making it more responsive and accountable to the people.

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