The recent news of backchannel dialogue between the governments of Pakistan and India came as optimistic news for advocates of a peaceful South Asia. However, a critical angle missing from the conversation is that of the people of the region.
Despite all propaganda attempts to turn citizens against each other based on nationality using the suspension of visas and travel, banning TV channels and artists, and threats of military aggression, a large number of people in both countries have remained connected – through the internet.
This was all the more conspicuous when #PakistanStandsWithIndia and #IndiaNeedsOxygen became top trending hashtags on Twitter in both Pakistan and India upon the tragic surge of Covid-19 cases in the country and the resultant shortage of oxygen.
Thousands of Pakistanis, out of humanitarian concern, started calling on the Pakistan government to give India medical help. Subsequently, two offers were made from Pakistan: first from Pakistan’s largest charity the Edhi Foundation that offered a fleet of 50 ambulances and supplies, requesting visas for their staff to be able to drive over and second, from the Pakistani government itself that offered ventilators, digital X-ray machines and personal protective equipment as a gesture of solidarity.
Such gestures are a win for the people of Pakistan and India, where arguably it was social media pressure that led to action by the Pakistan government. Though the offer was not accepted, it certainly serves as a warm people-led confidence-building measure, which we need more of.
Cultural exchange between Indians and Pakistanis has also been consistent on the internet despite bans on each other’s TV channels. Whether it is witty memes, hilarious content creators, or more serious issues relating to the pandemic – the overwhelming similarities between the two sides in terms of language, culture, and history have continued to bring us together.
The “Pawri” meme is one case in point, where a three-second clip by a Pakistani content creator Dananeer Mobeen became a viral hit on both sides of the border, with brands using different renditions of it for advertising, politicians using it at rallies, musicians creating their remixes and citizens on both sides creating their own takes on it.
Dananeer also advocated for better relations between the political arch-rivals as her video brought their people together.
On the political front, the short-lived announcement by Pakistan’s temporary Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Hammad Azhar of resuming trade with India which the government later backtracked on also highlighted the need for trade to continue.
Pakistan can learn from its closest ally China, which despite having had a short, armed confrontation recently with India, had a trade volume of more than $87 billion in 2020 with the latter country. Compare this with China and Pakistan’s trade volume of $17 billion in 2020, it goes to show that successful foreign policy does not let the economy suffer despite the military rivalry.
As far as the issue of Kashmir is concerned, Pakistan continues to advocate for the rights of the Kashmiri people in line with United Nations Security Council Resolutions, something that the Modi government has reneged on by scrapping Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
It is also important to consider the benefits to Kashmiri people of the opening of trade and visa regimes. In 2003 when relations thawed between the two South Asian countries, Kashmiris on both sides could visit relatives and friends on the other side and trade goods and services, albeit under strict border controls.
In 2008, an unprecedented joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry was set up with representation from both sides of the Line of Control, in an attempt to foster trade, an initiative lauded by Pakistan’s current adviser on national security, Moeed Yusuf, in a paper written in 2009.
In 2012, Pakistan’s current Human Rights Minister, Shireen Mazari, had highlighted potential cooperation between Pakistan and India in civil nuclear energy generation. These two instances show that the Imran Khan current cabinet is composed of minds that have seen the possibility of cooperation between the two countries, something that we will hopefully see come to life if the latest overtures of cordiality by both sides are sincere.
The Indus Water Treaty talks were held between the water commissioners of India and Pakistan in March after two years to discuss the future of hydroelectric power plants being constructed by India in occupied Kashmir, as Pakistan has the right to raise objections on the design of the dams built by India on the rivers designated to it for unrestricted use.
The matter has yet to be resolved but hope lies in the continuation of the talks. This came after the welcome announcement of the militaries of both sides to recommit to the 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control.
However, the Pakistani state appears to be vacillating on its stance. Is this because the civilian government is not in control of the India policy? One policy statement is being contradicted by the next (as evident from the announcement about the resumption of trade with India being taken back the next day), with reports of meetings between intelligence chiefs of both sides taking place in Dubai.
It is also important that Pakistan’s relations with Bangladesh also improve, with the impetus provided by the quiet diplomacy between the two as of last year, along with talks at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit.
Let the pandemic be a lesson on the need for South Asia to invest more in healthcare rather than bombs that cannot help us breathe. Instead, it is time for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – whose progress is obstructed by tense Pakistan-India ties – to be revitalised and for its member countries to cooperate with one another.
Let the people’s online voices of peace materialise; allow them the opportunity of tourism and collaboration, and accrue economic benefits from the close proximity. Peace must be people-led and inclusive, or it will not sustain. The signs are there but it will require bold decisions by both sides to take the initiative.
This article first appeared in Dawn.
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