People to people dialogues, if allowed to develop to their full potential, can not only resolve tensions between states, they can also lead to fruitful cooperation between them for the mutual good of their populations.
Such dialogues are based on some positive assumptions:
1. That tension and confrontation between two countries, such as Pakistan and India, cause diversion of their scarce resources from investment in their peoples’ uplift to defence-related projects.
2. That people to people interaction can help the two sides to share what they have achieved in the areas of learning, art and culture and discover possibilities of further progress in these areas.
3. That a people to people dialogue creates knowledgeable pressure groups on both sides that can develop stakes in one another’s countries and help them to eschew actions, policies and postures that could lead to friction and conflict.
4. That the groups formed to promote goodwill between the two countries can jointly produce workable plans to resolve differences between them and help them evolve mutually beneficial policies.
These assumptions have been tested in practice and experience has justified them. I can offer evidence of this from the initiatives with which I have been associated.
After experimenting with promotion of India-Pakistan peace and understanding through closed door meetings of eminent citizens and subject specialists from both countries, a joint group of goodwill promoters decided to launch Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) in 1994 and took five decisions of strategic importance.
1. That they will bring significant numbers of Pakistani and Indian citizens from various walks of life together at regular intervals to work out plans for realising the organisation’s objectives.
2. That these joint conventions will be public events and their proceedings will be published and widely disseminated.
3. That the Forum will discuss all disputes and differences that divide the two countries as well as the obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in these states, and that no cause of tension between the two countries would be swept under the carpet.
4. That the organisation’s mission will be carried out on either side by a democratically constituted national chapter and its branches in provinces/states and major cities.
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5. That the expenses on PIPFPD’s activities will be met through members’ contributions and donations by indigenous supporters. No foreign or government funding was to be sought.
At the very first joint convention, over 150 delegates from each side identified four issues that caused tension between the closest South Asian neighbours or affected their progress towards a genuine democracy.
These issues were: Armaments race; Governance; Fundamentalism; and Kashmir. More than 300 delegates from the two countries called for a halt to the arms race between Pakistan and India, movements for more representative governments on both sides, a resolute struggle to overcome the rising menace of religious extremism and intolerance in both countries, and a solution to the Kashmir issue in accordance with the wishes of its people.
Creation of a consensus on these key issues was undoubtedly an achievement for PIPFPD and the people of both countries. Subsequently, the Forum tried to build bridges between Pakistan and India through joint working groups of lawyers, trade union workers, women’s rights activists, etc.
These efforts did not fail to generate a movement, on a limited scale though, for normalising India-Pakistan relations, PIPFPD branches started working in all provinces of Pakistan and in cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Multan and Faisalabad; and in the Indian states of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, UP and West Bengal, and in New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
The official prejudice against civil society peace activists started receding. Both governments could be persuaded to give visas to large groups of delegates and they were allowed to walk across the Wagah border.
When the convention was held at Kolkata, Chief Minister Basu generously extended help and in Delhi the President of India hosted a reception for the delegates. When an Indian official cancelled the Pakistani delegates’ railway booking, another official restored it. An Indian citizen went to the High Court of Karnataka to prevent the arrival of scores of Pakistanis in Bangalore on law and order grounds but the IG police told the court he apprehended no problem and the petition was dismissed.
But soon enough PIPFPD started running out of luck. The media hype over Kargil extended the inter-state confrontation to the popular level. The blame-game both countries played by accusing one another of terrorist incidents on either side curtailed the space for voices of peace and sanity. And the retreat of secular and democratic forces under pressure from quasi-religious extremist groups in both countries made talking of peace and amity hazardous.
To some extent, the flag-bearers of the organisation, too, contributed to their difficulties by their inability to meet the new challenges they faced. Now the PIPFPD work is at a standstill because the two governments are collaborating with one another to prevent people from travelling to one another’s country and putting their heads together for the common benefit.
Despite the hurdles faced by the promoters of people to people dialogue, their achievements are by no means insignificant. Thanks to their efforts, travel between India and Pakistan by ordinary citizens did increase for some years at least. Students and businessmen’s exchanges became possible. Fear of one another and hatred between the citizens of two countries declined. Two examples of success of these groups may be recalled.
After Kargil, relations between India and Pakistan touched the lowest ever level. Talks between officials were abandoned, and exchange of non-papers even was stopped. The efforts of peace activists in both-countries, backed by the business community of India, helped clear the way to the Agra Summit between General Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpaee. That the chance of normalising relations was blown away by fear-driven politicians is another story.
Again, India-Pakistan relations reached a breaking point after terrorist attacks at several places in Mumbai. Asma Jahangir took a civil society delegation to India to defuse the situation. An Indian delegation led by Kuldip Nayar paid a return visit to Lahore. The efforts of the two delegations did not go waste.
What are the obstacles to people to people dialogue today? The greatest block on the way to normal, friendly and cooperative relations between India and Pakistan is the rise to ascendancy of religious extremists on both sides. Besides, both the governments are not prepared to shed their contempt for their ordinary citizens. They are afraid of their own people. Further, a large number of professionals have been feeding themselves on confrontation between the two neighbours. Finally, both love their distant patrons more than their friends across the common border. Perhaps they do not know what mutual suicide means.