The first tentative steps to peace have been taken. The ice is melting. The twins separated at birth are reaching out to each other. Now that India and Pakistan have both confirmed that they are talking to each other, let us dust off all the clichés about peace and dialogue in the subcontinent. For the time being till we hit a speed bump again.
The beginning came with the news about the ceasefire at the LoC and then the stories about what led to this change of heart. The trickle of information began from the Indian side and was considerably detailed by mid-March. Pakistan entered the media fray much later to get their point of view out in the public nearly a month later. That India tends to get its side of the story out first is in itself a full-length piece if someone would care to write it.
Now a piece in Dawn and an earlier report in Al Jazeera provide considerable detail on the thinking on Pakistan’s side. Predictably, there will be discrepancies between the accounts emanating from the two sides but this is hardly something new.
Neither is the idea of a dialogue. The leadership in Pakistan – civil and military – have since the late 1990s consistently and openly been in favour of talking to India and finding peace. Nawaz Sharif in his second and third term, Gen Pervez Musharraf, Asif Ali Zardari and now Imran Khan. In fact, it is also important to remember former army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani’s statement to a group of journalists – including one Indian – during a trip to Siachen in 2012. This constant translates into consistent state policy, if one is willing to recognise it as such.
In fact, we would do well to remember that all of the parties which contest for and are in a position to win elections in Pakistan’s Punjab, including the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) in its heyday, are known to be in favour of a better relationship with India.
An election campaign in Pakistan does not require lashing out at India to secure a victory. In fact, it includes an unspoken but rather obvious desire and policy for peace – it is unspoken because the vague notion of peace is more acceptable than what the reality of such a peace would look like. And when we do speak, we say peace with our neighbour would be a hard sell in Pakistan’s biggest province. Is this just a khula tazaad (open contradiction) or a nuance too complex for a sub-editor?
Indeed, once in power and/or behind closed doors, most politicians agree that peace with India is the best option if Pakistan is to prosper but few are willing to stick to this position once their rival is in charge, or be this honest once the doors are opened and the camera lights switched on. Then, of course, sanity is replaced by political expediency and cheap rhetoric. And every stakeholder is equally guilty.
The efforts to reach out and subsequently talk are usually scuttled because of Pakistan’s domestic faultiness, especially the civil-military divide – another constant in Pakistan’s policy and politics, as consistent as the consensus to aim for peace.
This time around, there is little fear of this because of the “one page” but the opposition – having been forced into a different reading space altogether – is not in a supportive mood. Already there is muttering about why a similar effort by Nawaz Sharif led to ugly accusations against him. And the media outcry has already caused a U-turn on the decision to import sugar and cotton from India, which does not bode well for the coming days.
Add to this the public mood, fed for years on impossible dreams of changing territorial boundaries, which is easily whipped up to stall any statesmanship. And this includes not just the “masses”, a word we continue to use without any irony but also those who are part of the policymaking circles.
From Nawaz Sharif to Pervez Musharraf to the present leadership, it is hard to think of a single moment when anyone in charge has reached out to India and earned accolades. Over the years, any such overture has always been described similarly – “ill-advised” is rather popular. The delusions are far more widespread than we realise.
The reaction is negative also because any hint of talks with India, and the debate immediately and suddenly focuses on every end of this process. Ambitious in Pakistan’s thinking, a mere beginning or the first tentative step takes it to the disadvantages of a – possible – “resolution” of Kashmir or other outstanding issues and India’s intransigence. We expect a big bang right at the beginning. No wonder then that the reaction or the backlash is just as strong. Perhaps, this is because the leadership also begins by thinking big. No one wants to dream small.
But Pakistan needs an unambitious leadership. So unambitious that it does not want to solve Kashmir or bring peace overnight to the region. It may do well to focus on matters so small that they fly under the radar – though even this seems impossible at times – and attract little praise or criticism. Ideally, they would attract no attention, whatsoever. Can this perhaps set the foundation for something sustainable and more ambitious in the future?
The recent discussions and debates – heated and otherwise – remind me of what someone once said. That Kashmir would have to become irrelevant for the subcontinent before it can be resolved. These may seem like harsh words but they are not. (Irrelevance does not mean that the people of the valley are abandoned but the opposite). And in them lie a possible path for the future. But can we dare to dream this small?
This article first appeared in Dawn.