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Home > Citizens Action and Concerns for Peace in South Asia > If winter comes, can spring be far behind? Ask the peace caravan

If winter comes, can spring be far behind? Ask the peace caravan

by Jawed Naqvi, 19 January 2009

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It’s curious that while millions of Indians have to produce a dozen proofs to get a passport or a driving licence, and brace the ordeal of getting elusive police certificates, gazetted officers’ signatures and the neighbourhood politician’s goodwill, Pakistanis who are caught on the wrong side of law in India are readily identified by the wrapper of the chewing gum found in their pockets, or a matchbox made in Karachi, or a cigarette packet from Lahore.

There is of course the ubiquitous SIM card and occasionally a telephone diary found conveniently in his shirt pockets if the Pakistani happens to be declared a terrorist who was shot dead in an encounter. The media gave up the practice of using alleged, suspected and so on long ago, which helps widen the eligibility gap between Indians and Pakistanis for official recognition and identification. I believe Indian passport seekers must demand parity with their Pakistani counterparts to ease the peculiar identity crisis they otherwise face.

Some 20 odd Pakistani peace activists are due in New Delhi this week, which is just as good an occasion as any to ask these and other similar questions, not only of the Indian establishment but with focus on matching absurdities in their own patch. There was a slight improvement in the ‘identity crisis’ between the two countries last week. The lone survivor from the gang of terrorists that attacked Mumbai was finally acknowledged by Pakistan to be one of its citizens, though not before Islamabad fired its national security adviser, (who incidentally had gained considerable credibility with India), for saying precisely what his government admitted weeks later. But the problems of identity between the two are not waning anytime soon. There is still a question mark, to quote one example, about the identity of an Indian who was, or perhaps still is, languishing on the death row as a convicted terrorist in a Pakistani jail. The Indian media says he is innocent and calls him by a different name to the one the judge used to condemn him.

Of course the caravan of peace from Pakistan, which consists of leading activists like I.A. Rehman, Salima Hashmi and Asma Jehangir will have a wider canvass of issues to address than to pose commonly unasked questions. True to form, they will yet again explore the truth, if there was any, in the claim of former Indian foreign minister Jaswant who famously said after the collapse of the Agra summit in July 2001, that though the caravan of peace had ‘stalled’, it had ‘not overturned’. The fact is that the current foreign minister (from the avowedly more agreeable political party) has all but declared the entire dialogue process with Pakistan a virtual failure. The sweeping assessment could make it that much more difficult for the peaceniks to quote Shelley’s usually encouraging lines If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

As questions go, there are several more that could or should be raised if there will be time during the packed visit to accommodate them. These pertain to the strange demeanour of both sides in the present crisis. Questions should also be asked on points of fact that are obfuscated in the din of the standoff. A simple question that could be asked relates to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s description of Mumbai, during a visit to the city last week, where he glorified it as a symbol of pluralism and secularism, in fact the very heart of Indian nationhood. The fact is that there are very few places left in India that can be described thus, and Mumbai unfortunately may not be among them. Yes, Mumbai has some of the greatest exponents of all the qualities the prime minister admired. But they are having a hard time. The Shiv Sena rules the city.

Ask the people from Bihar or the migrants from Uttar Pradesh about pluralism of Mumbai. Yes Mumbai was a secular place. It was and perhaps still is in some pockets. But ask the Pakistani actor who was thrown out of a film studio the other day for belonging to his country if Mumbai is the symbol of India. And why don’t they hold cricket matches against Pakistan there? And what did we hear Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar say only the other day — about being denied a house because of their religion, a religion whose priests disown the two for being apostates. That’s some quandary the couple is in. This is more or less true of Karachi and its dangerously volatile ethnic fault lines. These are the building blocks of terrorism, not symbols of vibrant democracy by any stretch of imagination.

Unless we recognise our weaknesses, we cannot be strong. It is tempting to believe that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has now got a better idea of the distance that exists between the promise of India’s democracy and its actual spread among the people. Very few Indian MPs have slept in a village cot in a Dalit household as Miliband did in Rahul Gandhi’s rural constituency during his recent visit to India. There will be cynics who see the experience as a gimmick. Similar questions were raised when I saw Princess Diana holding the stump of a leper’s hand oozing with puss when she visited Nepal three or four years before her death. But how many of these cynics will sleep in a Dalit’s home or hold an oozing stump? Anyway, just as important as his visit to Amethi were Miliband’s ideas on Kashmir and a new definition for the so-called war on terror. Peace activists can’t solve the problem of Kashmir or change the direction of the war on terror. But they can ask good, hard-hitting questions. And Miliband raised some of these.

In a sense some of Miliband’s ideas that riled Indians were in fact an implicit yet stinging critique of the fawning, even obsequious relationship that the current Indian government has had with President George W. Bush. Naturally, the Indian foreign office ticked off Miliband as intrusive. One unnamed official told The Hindu: “He’s a young man and I guess this is the way he thinks diplomacy is conducted…In both his meetings, his posture and style of talking were a little too aggressive. The (prime minister) and (the foreign minister) are much older and this is not what they are used to.”

One of the ironies that peace activists between India and Pakistan represent as well as face is that they are entirely beholden to the host country for their grudgingly granted visas. This is something that should bother everyone who needs to visit the other side to make their case or meet old comrades. The state of play as it exists inhibits a free dialogue. (And everyone is not Miliband to say it as it is) Poor Sheema Kirmani came to New Delhi with an excellent play, one which she has staged here several times in different parts of the country. It questions the communal division of India. However, this time she was prevented from going to Lucknow as someone in authority warned the group that they either posed or faced a law and order issue. We know that Sheema wants to come back to India with other plays and ballets. So she kept her disappointment to herself instead of venting it to the media. A meeting of senior editors from India was to take place in Pakistan to discuss the recent upsurge in bad journalism on both sides. That meeting has been scrapped, I understand, because visas were not granted.

And, by the way, the Mumbai attacks seem to have produced another gem of an irony. No, not all Indians face problems getting passports issued. The raging story doing the rounds, though it has been shunned by the otherwise alert electronic media, is that a fisherwoman who saw the six (or was it all 10) men, landing from their boats at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, was whisked away to America for several days grilling. Another key material witness, the nanny of a Jewish infant whose parents were murdered by the terrorists, was flown off to Israel even before the siege of Mumbai was over. The Mumbai police have not come up with a cogent explanation. What’s going on? Of course, these are not the kind of issues that serious peace activists usually bother to get involved with. Fortunately, the questions are not going to go away simply because they may remain unasked. Never mind if it’s winter. We’ll wait for spring.