Love thy neighbour. It’s time
Shobhan Saxena, TNN | Apr 22, 2012, 06.46AM IST
Suspicion makes people see things. Last December, when a monkey from India strayed into Pakistan, the visa-less simian was arrested and charged with espionage ! A year earlier, police in our own Punjab had held a pigeon and placed it under armed guards for "spying for Pakistan" . Since everything is viewed with distrust at the Indo-Pakistan border, strange looks normal there. Just look at what happens at the Attari-Wagah post every day. As soldiers of the two countries waggle at each other like peacocks and bang their boots on the ground, spectators on both sides of the border scream with joy. To an outsider , it's a tragic-comic show of hopelessness.
But, of late, hope has replaced doubt. A new Integrated Check Post has been opened at the border to boost trade between the two countries; the two governments have decided to set up the India-Pakistan Business Council, and have agreed in principle to ease visa rules. More importantly , Pakistan has moved closer to granting most-favoured nation status to India.
In a globalised world, where market is more crucial than political polemics, a boost in business between neighbours comes as no surprise. What's really startling, however, is peaceful gestures being made by the Pakistani army, an arm many see as the biggest obstacle in warmer relations between New Delhi and Islamabad. On Wednesday, during a visit to Siachen, Pakistani army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani shocked the media by talking of "demilitarization" of the glacial region and "peaceful co-existence" with India. New Delhi was quick to welcome Kayani's statement as it was hard to miss the import of what he had said. "Gen Kayani's overtures mean much more than if the statement had been made by President Zardari or Prime Minister Gilani because it is the Pakistani army that dictates the country's India and Kashmir policies, and it is the army that decides whether the rapprochement is to be allowed to go forward," says Brig (retd) Gurmeet Kanwal, adjunct fellow with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.
India and Pakistan fought their first war within months of independence from colonial rule. The second one happened in 1965. The third - in 1971 - changed the map of the subcontinent. It was followed by a battle in the frozen heights of Kargil in 1999 just as the ties were thawing. Since then the cold has largely persisted, with even cricket between the two arch-rivals being called "war minus shooting" .
Until now, that is. Suddenly, a lot of things seem to be moving in the right direction with an overall and insistent scale-down of animosity by leaders both here and across. Recently when Asif Ali Zardari came to India on a "private" visit, there was hardly any murmur of protest in his country. There were no black flags in India either.
No doubt, Hafiz Saeed is a big irritant, but that hasn't stopped the two countries from trying. This week, India cleared a proposal to open all domestic sectors except a few like defence to foreign direct investment from Pakistan. It was a clear sign that the two countries are willing to take their relationship to the next level. "We should realise that there is no use fighting. Why should we not engage in a dialogue and move ahead? Trade is a binding force. We will move ahead in a lot of areas through trade. The remaining issues can also then get sorted out," Pakistani commerce minister Makhdoom Amin Fahim said this week during an official visit to India.
It may just be a coincidence that Zardari and his main rival, Nawaz Sharif of PML (N), are both businessmen who understand the role trade can play in normalizing soured relations. Of late, Pakistani leaders have been talking of the way India and China are doing business with each other despite a bitter border dispute. "Pakistan's decision to accord MFN status to India apparently flows from the realization that without reaching out to India, fixing and turning around the economy would be difficult," says Pakistani columnist and writer Imtiaz Gul.
But it's not just money that is driving the two governments towards peace. An improvement in relations will be a boon to a lot of families on both sides of the border in addition to giving a boost to people-to-people contact. In fact, it's the exchange of singers, writers, and actors that has helped to create a positive mood among the people - something neither governments could ignore. These days, Pakistani singers and actors are a regular feature in Bollywood, and Indian flicks are now shown in Pakistan. Writers cross the border quite frequently for literary festivals. Why, even former army officers have been meeting regularly to find peaceful solutions to longstanding problems. "Our organisation has been working steadily for peace over the past decade. We have exchanged visits by groups from both sides. Our recent attempt to send a small group of officers to Pakistan has not materialized because of visas not being issued. But we are hopeful that this would be overcome in the near future ," says Admiral (retd) L Ramdas, patron of the India Pakistan Soldiers Initiative for Peace.
Even the Aman ki Asha campaign for peace launched by this newspaper with the Jang group of publications of Pakistan - an initiative that has seen an unprecedented exchange of visits by writers, artists and businessman since 2010 - has done its bit in bringing cheer that is now so apparent in both the countries.
Now, peace is more than an absence of war. "While the Pakistan army's quest for peace is mostly tactical - to enable it to tide over current internal security difficulties - gradually the view is gathering momentum among its leaders that conflict over six decades has not paid any dividends and it is time to give peace a chance. The stirrings of a change of heart at the strategic level are beginning to emerge and must not be ignored by India," says Kanwal, who was in Bangkok this week to participate in Track II talks between former defence officials and diplomats of the two countries.
To begin with, maybe India can ask its border guards at the Attari border to tone down their high-kicks . For sure, Pakistan will follow suit.