New Age Islam
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Current Affairs ( 1 Sept 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Indo-Pak Bonhomie: Comedy of Manners

By Shashi Tharoor

Sep 02, 2011

Few things in international affairs are more agreeable, all round, than the non-official dialogues diplomats refer to as “Track-II”. New Delhi played host this month to a visiting delegation of Pakistani parliamentarians, brought here by an enterprising Islamabad NGO called PILDAT (the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency). The high-powered delegation, which included a vice-chairman of the Senate, a deputy speaker, former ministers and a serving information secretary of the ruling party, was in fact reciprocating a visit to Pakistan by Indian MPs in January. On our side of the parliamentary border, the meeting was co-chaired, in a commendably bipartisan spirit, by Mani Shankar Aiyar and Yashwant Sinha. I was what the Americans so delightfully call “the skunk at the garden party”.

Don’t get me wrong:

 I’m all in favour of Indo-Pak peace and bonhomie. I’ve seen a lot of it in my decades abroad — many is the time a Pakistani cab driver in New York has attempted to decline my money for the fare, saying that I was a brother (this of course always won him a bigger tip, but the spirit was genuine). Indians and Pakistanis overseas are almost always the best of friends, since being in foreign lands enhances their consciousness of what they have in common, which vastly exceeds what divides them. I would love to see a time when Pakistanis and Indians can cross each other’s borders with the insouciance of Americans and Canadians, work in each other’s countries, trade freely with each other and contribute equally to each other’s films, music, clothing and creative lives, just as they did before 1947. I would be happy if that time came sooner rather than later. But I am only too aware that it’s not now.

The problem with Indo-Pak Track II dialogues of the kind I witnessed in the capital this month is that they are essentially built on denial. They focus on making the visitors feel welcome, emphasise the feel-good aspects of their presence in our midst, celebrate the many things we have in common, and try to brush the real problems under a carpet (not a Kashmiri carpet, since that might provoke disagreeable thoughts). In other words, they are a self-fulfilling exercise in self-vindication. Their success depends on denying the very disagreements that make such dialogues necessary in the first place.

The event began with a somewhat odd opening panel discussion, where members of the audience rounded on the moderator, News X’s Jehangir Pocha, for moderately raising some real questions, when his job had apparently been intended to be to orchestrate a paean of pious homilies to peace and brotherhood. So when I took the floor late in the next morning’s session, I had been fairly warned. But after listening to several bromides from parliamentarians of both nationalities, I felt a dose of candour was necessary. So I pointed out that there were some genuine obstacles to be overcome if the peace and love we were all affirming was in fact to take root, rather than briefly blossom in the illusory sunshine of Track-II. And those obstacles all lay in Pakistan.

First, India has long been in favour of placing the Kashmir dispute on the back-burner and promoting trade, travel and the rest; it is Pakistan that has taken the view that there cannot be normal relations with India until Kashmir is settled, on terms acceptable to Islamabad. So inasmuch as there is hostility that such dialogues attempt to overcome, the hostility starts with Pakistan, which wants a change in the territorial status quo, and not with India, which is perfectly content to leave things as they are. Unless the Pakistani MPs present were willing to advocate a policy of across-the-board engagement with India despite the lack of a solution to the Kashmiri dispute, our words would be just so much hot air.

Second, the Pakistani side’s tendency to equate the two countries’ experience of terrorism — “we are bigger victims of terrorism than you are,” one visitor said; “if you can cite Mumbai, we can point at Samjhauta,” added another — omitted the basic difference that no one from India has crossed the border to inflict mayhem on Pakistan. Indians can and should sympathise with Pakistani victims of terrorism, but their tragedies are home-grown, Frankenstein’s monster turning on its creator; whereas Indians have died because malign men from Pakistan, trained, equipped and directed by Pakistanis, have travelled to our country to kill, maim and destroy. There is no moral equivalence, and to pretend there is builds the dialogue on a platform of falsehood.

Third, friendship has to be built on a shared perception of the danger — of a sincere acceptance by the Pakistani military establishment that those who attacked the Taj in Mumbai are just as much their enemies as those bombing the Marriott in Islamabad. This would require more than fuzzy words from parliamentarians — it needs genuine cooperation from Pakistan, including useful information-sharing and real action to arrest, prosecute and punish the perpetrators. The Samjhauta plotters are in jail in India, while Hafiz Saeed is still at large in Pakistan, preaching hatred.

If Islamabad genuinely shared the Manmohan Singh vision that the highest strategic interest of both countries lies in development and the eradication of poverty rather than in military one-upmanship, we could cooperate across the board, not just in trade (which would be of immense benefit to a Pakistan that currently pays a premium for Indian goods imported via Dubai, and which would gain access to the gigantic Indian market) but even in geopolitics. Until then, Track-II initiatives will feel good, but will remain on the wrong track.

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram

Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi