Leading Thinkers in India, Pakistan Are Trying to Build a Bridge to Peace

Without expecting overnight transformation, over 500 eminent signatories from both countries are hoping to create a ripple effect that changes how citizens and governments view each other.

A recent citizens’ resolution urging South Asian giants India and Pakistan “to take all steps possible towards improving relations” aims to counter the prevailing atmosphere of hostility between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

Is it possible that the endorsements from significant, leading thinkers will create a ripple effect of a “pebble thrown in a pond”, as one political leader said? The fact that he did not publicly endorse the statement while supporting it privately speaks to the reluctance of mainstream politicians to take positions perceived as unpopular in the public realm. Going against the tide created by political rhetoric and media hype requires courage, given the risk of being pilloried as a ‘traitor’.

However, the 900 endorsements garnered in days by a loose coalition of activists and journalists – peacemongers – after the resolution was circulated privately shows that many are willing to take that risk. They include those who are not the ‘usual suspects’ – top ranking retired military personnel, parliamentarians and diplomats. In fact, the endorsements read like a who’s who of intellectuals, artists, journalists, filmmakers, lawyers, historians, physicians, businesspeople, economists and students in the region and beyond.

Peppered through the alphabetically ordered list are names 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 – there are far too many heavyweights to list them all. The endorsers include defence analyst Ahmad Quraishi, who is not known for his sympathetic stand towards peaceniks.

The resolution does not mention specifics. However, it comes on the heels of a series of events over the past months that mark a new low in relations between the neighbours. These include a Pakistani military court sentencing to death captured Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav soon after a retired Pakistan army colonel went missing in Nepal (who Pakistan believes is in Indian custody).

Soon afterwards, an ostensibly private visit by Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal to Pakistan’s prime minister created a media hype that scuttled any hopes of a possible breakthrough. Then came the murder and beheading of Indian soldiers at the Kashmir border that India accused the Pakistan army of and used as a pretext to send back 50 Pakistani schoolchildren, 11-15 years old, who had arrived in Delhi on an exchange programme. The children’s original visit, originally planned in October 2016, was earlier cancelled following the Uri terror attack and India’s “surgical strikes” into Pakistan.

Such developments illustrate the resolution’s comment that every time there is a move towards improving relations, “some form of disruption takes place ranging from jingoistic statements to militant attacks. The traditional response to such disruptions only strengthens those who want continued tensions between our two countries”.

“In the 70 years since independence and Partition, the people of India and Pakistan have seen too many conflicts and the loss of many valuable lives. Enough of the distrust and tensions. Those who suffer particularly are ordinary people denied visas and those in the conflict zones, especially women and children as well as fishermen who get routinely rounded up and arrested for violating the maritime boundary,” says the statement.

Titled ‘Resolution for peaceful relations between India and Pakistan’, the statement’s subtitle, “Make dialogue uninterrupted and uninterruptible”, uses a phrase popularised by the veteran Indian politician Mani Shankar Aiyar, who is among the signatories.

The over a dozen retired senior armed forces personnel from either side among the signatories include founding members of the India Pakistan Soldiers’ Initiative for Peace (IPSI) launched by the late Nirmala “Didi” Deshpande as well as IPSI’s current presidents in India and Pakistan, General Tej Kaul and General Humayun Bangash respectively.

The endorsement of Mohini Giri, chairperson, War Widows Association, India, speaks for the pain of soldiers’ families who face the brunt of unnecessary hostilities. Signatories include the college student Gurmehar Kaur who was two years old when her father, an Indian army captain, was killed in the aftermath of the Kargil “war-like situation”. Hypernationalists attacked Kaur for her courageous, thought-provoking assertion that it was “war and not Pakistan” that killed her father.

Pakistan’s long-time denial of involvement in Kargil ended with General Pervez Musharraf’s 2006 memoir In the Line of Fire, in which he revealed that Pakistani battalions had participated in the transgression. Islamabad has since honoured many army regulars who fought in Kargil.

“We need to speak the truth, no matter how uncomfortable,” says Pakistan army Lieutenant General (retired) Mahmud Durrani, who has been lobbying for better relations between the two countries since 1999. Durrani has come under fire in Pakistan for publicly conceding that Mumbai attacker Ajmal Kasab was Pakistani.

Many young activists have endorsed the resolution, especially on the Indian side. Praveen Singh has since 2013 led an annual cycle rally for India-Pakistan friendship across India; Devang Shah has organised college debates featuring visiting Pakistani students; Chintan Girish Modi runs an online platform, Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein. Members of the cross-border youth group Aaghaz-e-Dosti (Start of Friendship) and the Red Elephant Foundation are also signatories, as is young writer Anam Zakaria, author of Footprints of Partition.

The resolution contains a pledge to “act responsibly and stop broadcasting hate speech and creating public hysteria aimed at the other country and/or vulnerable communities.” Signatories include dozens of top journalists, some of them household names, like Rajdeep Sardesai and Hamid Mir.

Calling to implement the 2003 ceasefire agreement and recognising that “the Kashmir dispute above all concerns the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people”, the statement urges policy makers to “work to resolve it through uninterrupted dialogue between all parties concerned”. There really is no way forward except for dialogue, as the senior Indian journalist Prem Shankar Jha, also a signatory to the statement, stressed while talking to Geo TV recently.

Both countries must, as the resolution suggests, “develop an institutionalised framework to ensure that continuous and uninterrupted talks between India and Pakistan take place regularly no matter what” and 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”.

The statement condemns “all forms of violence regardless of its objectives”. Highlighting the importance of people-to-people contact it urges Pakistan and India to “remove visa restrictions and discrimination faced by citizens of both countries”. They should in fact, go further, “to allow visa-free travel between India and Pakistan”.

Pakistan and India, the region’s most populous and largest economies, should “increase trade and economic linkages and cultural exchanges” says the statement. The current bilateral trade, less than $2 billion a year, belies their enormous trade potential of about $20 billion and makes South Asia one of the world’s least-integrated regions.

Endorsements by prominent signatories from countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan underscore the impact of Indo-Pak relations on the region. The signatories’ list is being updated daily online by volunteers at various websites including Aman ki Asha.

Signatories have no illusions that they will change policy overnight. Creating ripples in the pond is merely a step aimed at contributing to the eventual goal of attaining peaceful relations between India and Pakistan. Bridging this chasm is critical for sake of future generations in the region and beyond.

Beena Sarwar is the editor of Aman ki Asha (Hope for Peace).