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A Southasian vision

by beenasarwar, 2 October 2013

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Himal Southasian: Under the Bollywood Tree – latest issue, launched at the Bangalore Literature Festival recently

My article in The Friday Times last week (thanks to Raza Rumi for pushing me to write this, despite the tight deadline):

A Southasian vision

For regional peace, development and prosperity, it is imperative to improve India-Pakistan relations

Beena Sarwar

I like how the Nepali journalist Kanak Mani Dixit refers to the Indian sub-continent: Southasia. One word. Kanak explains why, in the respected magazine Himal Southasian that he edits, that I am proud to be editorially associated with since its launch in 1997. As a magazine “seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space – without wishing any violence on the existing nation states – we believe that the aloof geographical term ‘South Asia’ needs to be injected with some feeling. ‘Southasia’ does the trick for us, albeit the word is limited to English-language discourse.

Who will go furthest in Southasia? Cartoon by Kunda Dixit and Beena Sarwar, May 1998

Who will go furthest in Southasia? Cartoon by Kunda Dixit and Beena Sarwar, May 1998

As a Nepali, Kanak has long dreamt of a peaceful Southasia. But this vision has remained hostage to tensions between India and Pakistan since the idea of regional co-operation was first discussed soon after independence from British rule in 1947. Various regional meetings over the years led to the formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985. And at every SAARC meeting, it becomes clear that India-Pakistan relations hold back regional development and cooperation.

It was at regional seminars in the 1980s and 1990s, focusing on women, environment and development, that like-minded Indians and Pakistanis initially connected. The South Asia Dialogue started by the late Eqbal Ahmad among others involved retired foreign secretaries, ambassadors, governors, government secretaries, ministers and judges, besides lawyers, journalists, doctors, educationists, artists, businessmen and women, trade unionists and students.

As at the governmental, SAARC level, these citizens’ meetings also noted that things had to be sorted out at the India-Pakistan level before there could be any progress at the regional level. This realisation and the contacts developed led to the emergence of initiatives like the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD, 1994), the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA, 1999), and others.

Until a few years ago, tensions were exacerbated by Pakistan’s insistence that Kashmir top the agenda in any bilateral exchange. Since Pakistan has stepped back from that absolutist position, India has become intractable, insisting that Pakistan ‘do more’ to eliminate terrorism before moving forward. All Member States ratified the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism by August 1988. Cooperation between India and Pakistan on matters like intelligence-sharing and apprehending culprits may help Pakistan, reeling from terrorist attack after attack, to meet this threat.

April 7, 2005: Pakistani passengers wave as they board the first bus heading to Srinagar from Muzaffarabad, the first bus service to link divided Kashmir in nearly 60 years. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

April 7, 2005: Pakistani passengers wave as they board the first bus heading to Srinagar from Muzaffarabad, the first bus service to link divided Kashmir in nearly 60 years. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Despite setbacks, India and Pakistan continue to inch forward in the right direction even if it often feels like the proverbial two steps forward, one step back. Forward steps include developments unimaginable a decade ago, like the 2003 ceasefire at the Line of Control (where casualties have been reduced drastically despite the occasional skirmish), the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus launched in 2005, and the resumption of cross-border trade across the LoC. Proposals to increase the bus frequency from fortnightly to weekly and to expand services to include Kargil-Skardu and Jammu-Sialkot are being discussed.

It is only when people meet that they discover commonalities and realise that the politicians’ pronouncements and media projections of hostility are false. Numerous instances bear out the belief that people-to-people contacts are the most powerful perception changer. Some examples:

When the Delhi’s Ramjas College students visited Pakistan soon after Kargil, one of them, who was from Kargil, told me that he used to wonder ‘what kind of people these were’ who caused him and his people such pain. He left with the realization that people are people everywhere and that Pakistanis want peace too.

When Pakistani Rotarians visited Delhi in December 1999 to prepare for the first International Rotarians’ Peace Conference in Pakistan, the initially hostile atmosphere changed “when we met people and discussed issues from the bottom of our hearts,” Conference Secretary Faiz Kidwai told me.

Then there was Kamran, an engineering student who, out of curiosity, volunteered to help during the Indian women’s peace delegation’s visit to Lahore in March 2000. He was earlier so vehemently anti-India that he wouldn’t even let his friends and family watch Hindi films on video. After meeting the Indian women, he told me, “They are ordinary people, just like us”.

Nirmala Deshpande, with director Mahesh Bhat and Pakistani actress Meera, kicking off the India-Pakistan peace march in New Delhi, March 25, 2005. Photo: S. Subramanium

Nirmala Deshpande, with director Mahesh Bhat and Pakistani actress Meera, kicking off the India-Pakistan peace march in New Delhi, March 25, 2005. Photo: S. Subramanium

As participants of the peace march from Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah in New Delhi to Hazrat Bahauddin Zakariya’s in Multan in 2005 walked through villages, ordinary people along the way cheered them on and joined them.

When the Delhi University Students for Peace cycled from Kaniyakumari in India’s southern-most tip to the Attari border in July-August this year, they encountered no hostility even after the killing of five Indian soldiers at the LoC, despite their slogan of ‘We love our neighbour, Pakistan’.

In 2005, at least some of the Indian activists were given visas and allowed to continue to Multan. But in 2013, the Indian cyclists had to end their journey at Attari, unable to cycle on to Lahore and Islamabad with their peace petition bearing over 5,000 signatures from ordinary Indians they met along the way.

When in early September a group of Indian students visited Pakistan, followed by Pakistani students visiting India, they encountered only love and hospitality. The students were among over 3,500 others from 17 schools around India and Pakistan who shared photos, writings and even video with each other for over a year, connected through Exchange for Change, an initiative launched in September 2010 by the Karachi-based Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), and Delhi-based Routes 2 Roots.

In an ongoing youth exchange programme, Indian and Pakistani high school students have found families across the border, staying for a week to ten days at homes on the other side. There are tearful farewells when the visiting students leave. This is an exchange organised by Rotary International in collaboration with Aman ki Asha, the groundbreaking peace initiative jointly launched by the Jang Group in Pakistan and The Times of India group in India on January 1, 2010, that I work with.

AKA LogoPranab Mukerjee and Shahrukh HasanAman ki Asha focuses on India-Pakistan relations, but implicit in the initiative is the dream of regional peace. One way of doing this is through boosting bilateral trade and economic relations. At the very first of Aman ki Asha Indo-Pakistan economic meetings in New Delhi, May 2010, participants discussed ideas including:

- A South Asian energy grid, an integrated electricity network allowing cross-border trade in electricity, as well as oil and gas pipelines running through South Asia (Pakistan being the transit country linking Central Asian oil and gas resources and Tajik and Afghan hydropower to South Asia)

- A South Asian multi-modal transport corridor linking Central Asia to Southeast Asia, connecting all the regional economies

- Leveraging India’s capital markets and private-sector-led global footprint for the rest of South Asia

- Liberalisation of key service sectors, including education, health and information technology

MilneDo logoThe joint declaration noted with concern that South Asia remains the world’s least economically integrated region, and urged India and Pakistan to take steps to realise the tremendous potential of regional trade and commerce.

“The reality is that Pakistanis are friendly and full of warmth. We should not let radical groups shadow the future of 1.4 billion people of India and Pakistan,” commented Mumbai-based businessman Rajendra Pratap Gupta after the second Indo-Pak economic meeting in Lahore. “Together, India and Pakistan can bring a new dimension to the politics of South Asia.” (The date for the third in the series of meetings is currently under discussion).

Dr Mubashir Hasan, Lahore, 2013: A Southasian vision. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Dr Mubashir Hasan, Lahore, 2013: A Southasian vision. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Despite strict visa restrictions (read and sign the Milne Do online petition) neither government “wishes to or is strong enough to stop citizen-led initiatives”, which in fact provide a safety net to both governments, offering them a way out of their public positions and postures, notes Dr Mubashir Hasan, a strong proponent of the Southasian vision.

One of the founders of the South Asia Dialogue and the PIPFPD, he believes the region should be moving towards a South Asian confederation, with independent but interdependent states.

“Do away with the visa restrictions, and the tensions will end,” he predicts.

If France and Germany, which were sworn enemies for centuries can be part of the European Union, why can India and Pakistan not be part of a South Asian Union? f


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