On the edge of peace

Print edition : September 01, 2001

The August 14-15 candle-lighting ceremony at the Wagah border confirmed the unprecedented surge in the popular sentiment for India-Pakistan reconciliation.

Like a couple caught up in a particularly ugly divorce, a process that neither side is really able to complete - the [two sides] grip each other by the most repulsive means. They torture each other, addicted to the craving for revenge, and so they devastate their lives in a feud that itself becomes, ever so slowly, the very reason to live (if such a life can have a reason).

FORTY-FOUR years after their Independence, India and Pakistan remain strong candidates for this far-from-edifying description of the current state of Israeli-Palestinian hostility. Some of its features could soon begin to apply to them with fearsome accuracy. That is indeed the direction in which the two South Asian rivals are being pushed by many of their leaders, who too are caught (to return to the initial description) in "a mad, dizzy spiral of violence.... In the lunatic logic of this conflict it is possible, of course, to justify every murder by citing the murder that preceded it. If you don't respond with full force to the blow you suffered, the other side will interpret it as weakness and strike at you again even more painfully. The result is that each side is doomed to hit its antagonist, and then to cringe in fear of the counter-blow. The rhythm of life, the rhythm of consciousness, even contacts between people, everything is conducted according to the tick of this deadly metronome..."

And yet, this is not inevitable. India and Pakistan could have a different, extraordinarily bright, future - if they together attempt to build it. Despite post-Agra setbacks, there are positive signs that things could change for the better. Some of us discovered these signs as we prepared to join the Hind-Pak Dosti Manch at their annual candle-lighting peace celebrations on August 14-15 at the Wagah border.

Most of us - students, teachers, writers, theatre-people, feminists, other social activists - were going to Wagah for the first time, inspired by the enormous success of the broad-based July 12-13 Pakistan-India People's Solidarity Conference held just before the Agra Summit - and inspired despite the Summit's inconclusive outcome.

On the Indian side of the Wagah border on August 15.-AMAN SHARMA/AP

Many people who are usually sympathetic to the idea of India-Pakistan reconciliation were sceptical of our plans. One of them asked: "Will Pakistani peaceniks reciprocate your gesture? Will their government allow them to reach Wagah?" The question was in order. The Pakistan government had repeatedly stopped them in the past. Others were openly, scornfully, dismissive. We were "totally misguided", we were told, to imagine that there could be rapprochement between India and Pakistan, leave alone their peoples. The two nations were born in hostility; the very ideology of Pakistan and its growing internal crisis would ensure that the rivalry continues "for a thousand years".

Besides, the ordinary Pakistani hates India, the super-sceptics said. That is why the Wagah event is like "unrequited love", a nostalgic indulgence on the part of some geriatric Government College (Lahore) Old Boys. The winds of hostility will blow out their candles. What we need is better fences, not more peaceniks. "In any case, your Pakistani counterparts won't be there."

IN the event, not just hundreds but some 40,000 Pakistani citizens turned up at Wagah, most of them spontaneously hoping to be allowed to reach the inner fences when the main gates are opened at dusk. (Each dusk-and-dawn ceremony is an elaborate display of military machismo: rooster-style marching and symmetrical gestures of aggression - a tribute to cooperation and rehearsed synchronisation even in mutual hostility!) The 40,000 peace-seekers were mistaken, though. The Pakistan Rangers panicked at their number - too big for the area around the border post. They dispersed most of the people with a baton-charge. But 5,000 people stayed on.

To greet them were 2,000 Indians, a fraction of those who wanted to make it for the border ritual, but could not. Like the two busloads of us from Delhi, including 20 students from Lady Shri Ram College, who got delayed on the way. Soon, however, some 15,000 people collected. Many came from Amritsar, 30 km away, and a good number from more distant places, one group even from Nagpur. They were treated to stirring, evocative, enchanting, Sufi music by Hans Raj Hans, and to speeches resounding with sentiments of peace, friendship, harmony, and emphasising people's real agendas: food, jobs, education, social justice, freedom from prejudice... There was electricity in the air.

Among those on the dais were the Vice-Chancellor of Amritsar's Guru Nanak Dev University, affluent doctors, famous freedom-fighters, and impoverished activists. Evidently, peace is an idea whose time has come even for the elite. Predominant in the audience were young people, convinced that the gates of hostility would break down one day. This was no geriatric crowd.

Pakistani Rangers face some of the 40,000 peace-seekers who had gathered for the peace celebration organised by the Hind-Pakistan Dosti Manch.-AMAN SHARMA/AP

At midnight, our carping critics were proved wrong again. Now it was the Indian authorities who refused us permission to go to the border - for the first time in seven years. They also roughed up one of the many TV camerapersons present. We were disappointed, but not demoralised. Many of us will return to Wagah - aware of its limitations as a symbolic event, but enthused by the positive mood that charged the midnight event.

AUGUST 14-15 at Wagah promises to become a landmark for more and more civil society organisations, political parties, and peace groups such as Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia, Pakistan Peace Coalition, and Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy - part of the 250 that endorsed the Declaration of the July 12-13 People's Solidarity Conference in Delhi, which evoked a strong response from constituencies as diverse as the Left parties and large-scale industry.

This Declaration succinctly sets out the case for India-Pakistan rapprochement and demands a nuclear freeze, extended people-to-people contacts, and other confidence-building measures. (The Declaration has been signed by over 10,000 eminent individuals; and there is a mass-scale signature campaign around a shorter version. For the Declaration, visit: www.pakindpeace.com)

Wagah is not the only example of the unprecedented sentiment for India-Pakistan reconciliation and demilitarisation of mutual relations now growing amidst us. Another is the public's overwhelming disappointment at the Agra Summit's failure to produce a Declaration. (According to an India Today-ORG-Marg survey, those who want Vajpayee to visit Pakistan far outnumber those who do not - despite negative developments in Kashmir and steadily growing official hawkishness.) But your columnist would like to mention other events: an August 4-6 peace conference organised by the All India Rachanatmak Samaj (Gandhian constructive work association) in Chennai, attended by 10,000 delegates; and an August 8-9 conference in Mumbai, attended by hundreds of youth, on nuclear disarmament.

The Chennai meeting made the headlines for the simultaneous presence of the Dalai Lama and Kashmir's All-Parties Hurriyat Conference leaders, but the real story was intensive interaction between activists from widely divergent backgrounds, belonging to all major States. The Chennai conference, organised at the initiative of Nirmala Deshpande, represented the Gandhian-Sarvodaya movement's attempt to overcome its long-term decline and relate to the border peace sentiment. Through participation in WIPSA, CNDP and Soldiers' Initiative for Peace, the Gandhians have become an integral part of today's rainbow-coalition for peace.

The Mumbai youth meeting was truly remarkable. Held in ultra-austere surroundings, it brought together 450 activists with underprivileged social backgrounds from rural Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh for two days. The sole subject for discussion was nuclear weapons and the feasibility of disarmament. The activists, linked to Youth for Voluntary Action, were exposed to ideas about nuclear matters largely through pamphlets, video films, articles in Marathi and Hindi, essay competitions and so on. I found their enthusiasm unparalleled, their critical faculties undulled, and their hunger for new, radical, ideas insatiable.

What we have in all such initiatives is a confluence of different concerns, interests, and styles of activism, rich in variety, expansive in spirit and charged with great energy. These are ingredients of a large-scale peace movement which radically questions not just the war-like hostility between India and Pakistan, but the structures and belief systems that sustain it. One premise of this movement is that nuclear weapons are especially repugnant and pose a unique danger. Fighting them is an effective way of building peace.

Yet nuclear weapons cannot be abolished while leaving everything else unchanged. As the introduction to a new book - Out of the Nuclear Shadow (eds. Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian; Rainbow Publishers) - says, nuclear abolition will need "confronting and transforming the fundamental structures of injustice within and between states that are the causes of insecurity, conflict, and war." The peace movement is organically related to the struggle for justice, equality and freedom.

Activists of this emerging peace movement are not naive. They are under no illusion that India and Pakistan or their peoples are exactly "the same". They recognise the fact that the Pakistani state has compounded the Kashmir problem, and that there are institutional obstacles to peace. As someone who has visited Pakistan half a dozen times, I for one could never equate India and Pakistan socially or politically. The two societies have evolved divergently, as have their political cultures.

For all its flaws and shortcomings - which this Column never hesitates to highlight - India remains a relatively more open and plural society unburdened by religion-based state ideology (which in Pakistan can punish untenable 'blasphemy' charges with death). Indian politics, warts and all, is solidly rooted in democracy although it is rapidly deteriorating in quality and increasingly menaced by elitism. Pakistan's misfortune is that it did not get a chance to consolidate democratic institutions. The grip of political Islam has tightened and the abject failure of party leaderships has for the time being killed the political process.

Yet the two societies face similar problems - widespread deprivation, inequitable exploitative social structures, rapacious elites, decreasing human security and a temptation to "externalise" internal problems through the "foreign hand". Both live at two levels: in the modern world, which favours openness; and a retrograde sphere besieged by fear. Mutual rivalry is one of the greatest obstacles to their development towards a humane, civilised future. Rivalry also buttresses unhealthy domestic trends, in particular communalism and aggressive national chauvinism.

Kashmir and nuclear weapons have now given India-Pakistan's hot-cold war - the longest such war between the same two rivals anywhere - a horrifying dimension. If Pakistan nurtures the illusion that military means (via support to jehadi secessionism) will solve the Kashmir problem, India deludes itself that naked repression - which L.K. Advani wants to elevate to the level of policy by granting immunity to its perpetrators - will crush popular aspirations of the Kashmiriat.

THE nuclear danger in South Asia is so serious that the only way of reducing it is to prevent the deployment of these horror weapons and agree to a nuclear freeze. The most reckless idea conceivable today is that of the winnability of an India-Pakistan war. There has never been a more compelling negative message in favour of peace. The positive message comes from the likely peace dividend: the evolution of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) into a major trading bloc, and the freeing of India and Pakistan from the bonds of constricting ideologies so they can address unfinished social agendas.

South Asia is at a crossroads. Either we struggle for peace; or we take the path of paranoia, insecurity and militarisation, and descend into an abyss with a gruesome potential for reducing millions of people to specks of radioactive dust. This could well become our fate.

For this fate to change, our growing peace movement must transform itself: from working with small numbers intensively, it must make a quantum jump to mass-level activity and imaginative forms of organisation and agitation. Activists must broaden their vision and take a leap into the unknown to relate to the great surge in the peace sentiment. They must aim to influence policy. If they succeed, we can reverse the post-Agra damage, and open new avenues to sanity and prosperity. If they fail, we could have disaster on our hands.

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