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Pakistan - India: Citizens groups speak up for Peace

by Praful Bidwai, 1 February 2009

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The News, January 31, 2009

An unfortunate consequence of vitiated India-Pakistan relations immediately after the Mumbai terrorist attacks was the relatively muted response of civil society organisations (CSOs) in the two countries. Earlier, they had campaigned for peace while braving hostility from both establishments.

But the shock from the world’s worst-ever case of extremists ruthlessly mowing down 180 innocent civilians in public places—as distinct from using bombs—didn’t leave them unaffected. Nor did the hysterically chauvinist and bellicose media coverage.

Indian CSOs undoubtedly combated the pro-war hysteria at home, but were too stunned by Islamabad’s weeks-long denial of the attackers’ Pakistani identity to muster the will to join their Pakistani counterparts in demanding that both governments renounce war and retaliation and cooperate in bringing the attacks’ perpetrators to book..

Similarly, CSOs in Pakistan did hold small demonstrations in the early weeks to demand that the culprits be brought to justice. Many individual activists and writers appealed for sanity. But it wasn’t till early January that a broad-based group from Pakistan’s human rights community, women’s movement, labour unions and intellectuals issued a comprehensive statement.

This admonishes the Pakistan government for its "state of denial" and demands "an effective strategy to overcome the menace of terrorism". It set the tone for more interventions, including a Joint Signature Campaign against Terrorism and War-Posturing and to Promote Cooperation and Peace. (

Hundreds have signed this. It calls for "zero tolerance" of extremism and terrorism "in the interest of the very sustenance and prosperity" of India and Pakistan. It recognises that the roots of terrorism in the two countries are "qualitatively different" and urges their governments to set up a joint investigative agency. It passionately declares that "war can never be a solution". It calls for strict adherence to all terrorism-related conventions and resolutions of the United Nations and SAARC.

Since then, a breakthrough of sorts has happened with the visit to Delhi of a 20-strong Pakistani Aman Karwan (Peace Mission) on January 21-24, including peace and human rights activists, feminists, political leaders, journalists and scholars.

The visit was organised by South Asians for Human Rights and South Asia Free Media Association, and coordinated by ANHAD and more than 20 other Indian organisations. A much-needed return visit by Indian activists is being planned.

The mission included well-known figures such as Asma Jehangir, IA Rehman, Salima Hashmi, Imtiaz Alam, Jugnu Mohsin and AH Nayyar and Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and Awami National Party leaders. It met numerous Indian activists, intellectuals and CSOs, Congress, Communist parties’ and Samajwadi Party leaders, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, retired diplomats, and not least, the media.

The mission’s message was simple and direct. Pakistan’s civil society and political parties condemn the Mumbai attacks unequivocally and categorically, and express solidarity with the Indian people. The Mumbai attack, it said, is part of the "rapidly growing militancy in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan... Governments must cooperate in dealing with this dangerous menace and the government of Pakistan [must] play a key role".

Mumbai isn’t "an isolated incident", the mission said. Similar incidents have occurred in South Asia, "including several in Pakistan". Terrorism threatens "our entire region.. not only … one country… Therefore, it is important to … build trust … and ..act collectively".

The mission said the voices it heard in India overwhelmingly express "a strong need for peace and understanding …. [A] military answer… not only destroy Pakistan’s newly emerging democratic process, it would also set back all our societies economically and make us vulnerable to global power politics. Moreover, it would… give victory to the authors of Mumbai… We … call upon our governments to [cooperate]. We call for a renewal of the peace process."

This reasoning isn’t pious sentimentalism. As this column has repeatedly argued, any military option which treats Pakistan as a homogeneous entity and tries to "punish" it or compel it to act against terrorists is fraught with the danger of a nuclear holocaust. There’s no conceivable scenario in which a limited conflict won’t assuredly escalate to full-scale war and a nuclear exchange.

The New York-based Natural Resources Defence Council has just published a report with hair-raising conclusions. It estimates that if 10 nuclear bombs are dropped on 5 Indian and 5 Pakistani cities, the death toll will be 2.86 million plus 1.5 million cases of severe injury.

As many as 1.69 million Indians will die a cruel and degrading death. So will 1.17 million Pakistanis. In another scenario, if 24 nuclear weapons are detonated close to the ground, 22.1 million people would receive lethal radiation doses in excess of 600 Rems in the first 2 days, and another 8 million a near-fatal dose of 100 to 600 Rems

Any build-up of tension at the India-Pakistan border will provoke redeployment of the Pakistan Army away from the Afghanistan border. This will play straight into the Taliban-al-Qaeda’s hands. Contrariwise, a creative diplomatic approach is likely to be far more productive in getting Pakistan to act against terrorists.

Logically, India should take Pakistan’s offer of joint investigation into the Mumbai attacks with the utmost seriousness. That would help confront the Pakistani state with truth and reason, zero in on the attacks’ masterminds, pursue their links with other agencies, and generate more evidence. If Pakistan doesn’t cooperate, India can bring greater international pressure to bear on it. India has nothing to lose by accepting the offer. Even more fruitful would be Track-II diplomacy.

India began the peace process with Pakistan in 2004 out of choice, because it stood to gain from defusing rivalry, stabilising Pakistan, and developing closer economic relations and people-to-people contacts. Atal Behari Vajpayee, who comes from a political tradition that’s viscerally hostile to Pakistan, made a bold move by launching it.

Manmohan Singh, who was born on Pakistani soil, comes from a secular tradition, and who declared the peace process "irreversible", should be even bolder in engaging Pakistan and strategically allying with moderate elements who are keen to prevent Talibanisation.

There’s a special reason to welcome civil society initiatives. Our establishments are steeped in mutual rivalry and have built elaborate structures of suspicion, enmity and unending hostility—to the point of jointly choreographing and rehearsing the grotesque flag-lowering ceremony that occurs every evening at Wagah.

Mutual suspicion runs so deep that India edited out portions of the Mumbai dossier, shared with a dozen other countries, while giving it to Pakistan. Nothing could have been more childish. After all, the relevant evidence remains firmly in India’s possession.

Despite 5 years of the peace process, the two governments continue to deny tourist visas to each other’s citizens, and have failed to reopen the Mumbai and Karachi consulates. The Pakistani ambassador can’t even go to Gurgaon to play golf, without prior permission. Nor can the Indian High Commissioner leave Islamabad.

The truth is, the only productive ideas on India-Pakistan relations to emerge in the past 2 decades have come out of interactions between social activists, scholars and peaceniks.

Pakistan must act decisively against terrorism. And India must signal its willingness to dismantle structures of rivalry, intensify civil society contacts and opt for cooperative solutions. That will also send the right message to President Barrack Obama as he crafts a new South Asia strategy.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in New Delhi