While the move is unlikely to lead to any great policy change, it is time the citizens of both countries came together to encourage the resolution of all bilateral issues through dialogue.
Amid festering tensions between India and Pakistan, a joint resolution for peace between the nuclear armed neighbours has catalysed a larger cross-border movement – the Peace Now and Forever Campaign Between India and Pakistan, launched simultaneously in India and Pakistan on July 1.
The move grew organically out of a discussion on a small WhatsApp group that I am a part of, bringing together Indian and Pakistani journalists, political activists, retired government and military officials, writers, artists and youth activists. As bilateral relations plummeted, the group, called ‘Peacemongers’, floated a joint resolution calling for the two countries to resolve all issues through dialogue.
Endorsed by over 1000 prominent thought leaders from both countries and others through the personal efforts of group members, the resolution’s supporters are listed alphabetically online. They include luminaries like Gulzar, Noam Chomsky, Shubha Mudgal, Aruna Roy, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Asma Jahangir, Mubarak Ali, Romila Thapar, Ayesha Jalal, Admiral L. Ramdas, General Talat Masood, General Mahmud Durrani, Jean Dreze, Nayantara Sahgal, Mahesh Bhat, Nandita Das, Naseeruddin Shah, Salima Hashmi and Amin Hashwani, to name a few.
The resolution is now online at change.org. Volunteers in India, Pakistan and elsewhere are also obtaining endorsements for it on the ground. The seven-point statement calls for India and Pakistan to:
- Develop an institutionalised framework to ensure that continuous and uninterrupted talks between India and Pakistan take place regularly no matter what. Make dialogue uninterrupted and uninterruptible.
- Ensure that political leaders, diplomats and civil servants from both countries conduct talks on the sidelines of all international and multilateral forums.
- Recognise that the Kashmir dispute above all concerns the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people, and work to resolve it through uninterrupted dialogue between all parties concerned.
- Implement the 2003 ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan.
- Renounce all forms of proxy wars, state-sponsored terrorism, human rights violations, cross-border terrorism and subversive activities against each other, including through non-state actors or support of separatist movements in each other’s state.
- Support and encourage all forms of people-to-people contact, and remove visa restrictions and discrimination faced by citizens of both countries. This must be further taken forward to allow visa-free travel between India and Pakistan.
- Increase trade and economic linkages, sports and cultural exchanges between India and Pakistan.
It speaks for the urgency of the situation that many have put aside their reservations about one or other points to endorse the joint statement.
K.R. Venugopal, the former secretary to the prime minister of India and former special rapporteur to the Human Rights Commission of India, had reservations about the fifth point for “equating the parties, as state promoters of terrorism,” but emphatically supports the call, adding his name “in the interest of peace and human security in the sub-continent.” He terms points one, four and seven as “the most vital requirements of the peace process”.
Reservations by Javed Jabbar, a member of the Pakistan Senate Forum for Policy Research and former federal information minister of Pakistan, form an interesting counterpoint to Venugopal’s comments. Jabbar objects to “How easily discourse has adopted terms like ‘cross-border terrorism’ and ‘non-state actors’” – terms that are almost always used for Pakistan although the “Indian state agencies have been continuously involved in both those realms,” he says.
Endorsing the resolution for the sake of the larger cause he said “it is important that such a collectively expressed will for peace-building is publicly shared.”
Asma Jahangir, a Supreme Court of Pakistan advocate, chairperson emeritus of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a UN special rapporteur, wanted a point added about recalling troops from “Siachin where soldiers of both sides are suffering under a hostile and inhuman climate.” Jahangir is a Magsaysay awardee and one of Pakistan’s most prominent human rights activists, respected across the political spectrum for her principled stands and for taking up cudgels on behalf of even her opponents.
Some signatories hesitated to endorse a document they thought was initiated by Aman Ki Asha (that I edit), the peace platform launched by the Jang Group of Pakistan and the Times of India in 2010. Both media groups have their share of denigrators, some with valid reasons for their criticism. But the media groups are also convenient scapegoats – especially in Pakistan where the dirty tricks brigade (DTB) freely dishes out the false propaganda, especially against anyone propagating democratic, secular views and calling for peace with India.
The launch of Aman Ki Asha provided the DTB an opportunity to aim for two birds with one stone – a powerful, inconvenient media group as well as a vocal peace constituency. A barrage of propaganda – fake blogs, fake social media profiles and fake news (long before President Trump popularised the term) – posit that Aman Ki Asha is sponsored by India’s Research and Analysis Wing.
On both sides, what appears to be a rising tide of religiosity linked with hyper-nationalism pillories peace activists as ‘traitors’ and ‘enemy agents’. A plethora of fake profiles, belligerent online bullies and trolls and shrill television anchors dominate the public narrative. In such an atmosphere, it takes courage to stand and claim space for peace and dialogue.
Meanwhile, millions deal with real issues like trying to fend for their families, ensuring shelter and two square meals a day. It is for their sake that the two South Asian giants must normalise relations.
This realisation lies behind the ongoing efforts of peace activists who include vocal proponents of democracy, women’s rights and human rights, as well as anti-nuclear activists, increasingly joined by youth activists and students.
The region’s largest people-to-people lobby group, the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy since 1995 brought together dozens of Indians and Pakistanis at annual joint conventions. As the governments stopped giving visas about ten years ago, the rise of social media platforms provided alternative avenues to bring people together.
Youth groups as well as veteran activists continue to organise on ground initiatives in their own countries like seminars, cycle rallies, walks for peace and signature campaigns like the current one. What is the point? Does any of this make a difference?
Retired Indian police officer Sanjiv Bhatt, known for his principled stand following the 2002 Gujarat carnage, believes there is. “Because if we settle for the past as some would like it scripted, we threaten the meaning of our present, and endanger our future.”
He sees efforts for bilateral peace as being not just about political battles but also about “the meaning of citizenship” and “the relationship between citizen and state.”
“It is about challenging state impunity. These are battles for collective memory against forgetting because it is ultimately the battle for the idea of a peaceful and prosperous subcontinent,” he says.
From Kolkata, brand consultant and poet Ruchhita Kazaria finds “no alternative” to supporting peace, “especially for the future which is yet to be born”. She slams “passive terrorism” that enables the hate mongering and violence.
These campaigns do make an impact, she believes. “Till yesterday, there were many who were indifferent, passive. Today, I see them more aware. If nothing else, such campaigns are forcing people to think and build bedroom and boardroom activists” – that is, people joining from the comfort of their homes or offices while expressing their opinions on social media.
Kazaria doesn’t expect them to “take placards and hit the road” but at least they are “introspecting, brooding and even indulging in dialogue.”
Signatories at the Peace Now campaign launch at the Karachi Press Club on July 1 included senator Raza Rabbani of the Pakistan People’s Party. It was the PPP’s Benazir Bhutto who famously said that there is a little bit of India in every Pakistani, and a little bit of Pakistan in every Indian.
In India, former Chief of Indian Navy Admiral “Ramu” Ramdas in Hyderabad launched the campaign along with fellow Magsaysay awardee Jayaprakash Narayan and many other prominent citizens and civil society representatives. Ramdas is among several Magsaysay awardees and retired high-ranking military officials who support the peace campaign.
Launches were held in several other Indian cities on July 1 – Ahmadabad, Amritsar, Ayodhya, Bangaluru, Bhopal, Bhubaneshwar, Chennai, Calicut, Dehradoon, Goa, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Mumbai, Puducherry, Ranchi, Shillong, Shimla, Srinagar and Vijayawada. Bengaluru even had a flash mob.
The campaign will continue till August 15. Organisers plan to compile the signatures and present them to the prime ministers of both countries.
While it’s unlikely that the move will lead to any great policy change on either side, in the 70th year of our independence, not trying is not an option. Neither is despair.