Having been a participant as a soldier (as was my late father before me) to the consequences of bad relations between India and Pakistan, one cannot remember greater expectations than for the Musharraf-Vajpayee talks scheduled for July 14 to 16. Given the historical track record, one would normally approach any negotiations with our great neighbour with some skepticism but even the most die-hard cynic has been caught up in the fervour that has been generated by the impending event. There is much expectation in the air, a genuine belief about resolving our differences amicably, the readiness to go the extra mile for peace.
Before embarking for India, Gen Pervez Musharraf has chosen to engage in a series of briefings cum consultations with the broad spectrum of the intelligentsia comprising media persons, politicians, religious leaders, Kashmiri representatives, entrepreneurs, etc. He had already broad consensus among the military hierarchy in the search for a mutually acceptable solution. Being invited to one such session, one expected at best a one-way monologue and self-justification on the newly anointed President’s part at taking this historic initiative. It was a revelation to find that a self-confident Pervez Musharraf was interested in genuine dialogue, that his mind was open to ideas and suggestions and that he had no ego problems. The result was, discounting the odd flattery from the traditional flatterers, a comprehensive debate between very interested participants where a virtual plethora of ideas were mooted and analyzed in open discussion, without rancour. What the President got in return was quite a few converts and a tremendous consensus. Making believers out of such disparate groups and individuals is no mean achievement. As a public relations exercise, the consultations series was outstanding, the resultant welding of the mandate behind the President nothing short of brilliant. Musharraf goes to India that much stronger. The bottom line was simple, everyone came “on board” with respect to peace with India but not at the cost of Kashmir, this remains the core issue for all Pakistanis.
What is the consensus among the people of Pakistan, among the intelligentsia as well as the masses, about Musharraf’s visit to India? Do the Pakistani people have any hopes and aspirations vis-a-vis possible future inter-action with the people of India? As one of those who repeatedly cautioned the President about lowering the threshold of expectations so that any disappointment may only be a temporary setback and not lead to an emotional backlash driving the two countries further apart, maybe permanently, one must acknowledge being caught up in the fever of expectations. In varying degree, Pakistanis are deeply emotionally involved with the plight of the Kashmiris and their fight for freedom. A great majority of our people believe that there can be no peace between Pakistan and India while Kashmir stays as a bleeding ulcer in the psyche of the two countries.
Massive funds being spent on defence can be diverted to much needed social infrastructure such as potable water, roads, hygiene and sanitation, health services and medicine, education, transportation, housing, etc. And God knows that the 40 million in Pakistan and the 400 million in India beneath the poverty line need these basic necessities. Make no mistake, Pakistan was a historical necessity for the Muslims of India, and while the name may not be East Pakistan anymore, Bangladesh does constitute the other sovereign entity as envisaged by the 1940 Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League. But given this need to preserve the identity and sanctity of Islam under separate sovereignty, there is a genuine bond between the people of India and Pakistan that transcends religion and ethnicity. Human inter-action has been only sporadic and infrequent over the past fifty years. For more than a millennium, since the advent of Islam into South Asia, the two great religions have lived together till 1947, sometimes in confrontation but mostly in harmony. Islam teaches us to respect the other’s religions, and not become (or remain) prisoners of fear spread by the ignorant for their own narrow ulterior motives, is the same true reciprocally for Hindus?
Tracing most problems to economic mores, there will be great benefit to the opening of trade between India and Pakistan. More than the European Community, more than ASEAN, in fact more than any other economic entity, South Asia is the most contiguous economic unit on earth. Pakistanis drink tea by the gallons, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh can provide that tea at less than half what it costs from Kenya. Our wheat and rice are just right for the impoverished of South Asia. Similarly Pakistani cotton has many takers through South Asia. If South India can be the powerhouse for IT development, can Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka be far behind when compared to the rest of the world? The roads through Pakistan lead to vast markets in Central Asia and Middle East for all of South Asia, reciprocally cheap gas, vitally necessary for development of India’s western states, can be piped across Pakistan. There should not be any tariff between the South Asian countries, on the contrary, there should be a plan for a dual currency ie. A South Asian Rupiah to go along with the Indian Rupee, the Pakistani Rupee, the Bangladeshi Taka, etc. Goods and commodities being available in abundance as well as the economy of vast scale, prices will come down drastically. From an era of confrontation we will transit to an era of mutual prosperity.
One cannot discount the cultural exchanges, the intellectual discourses, the proliferation of print and electronic media, etc but above all the people-to-people contact of thousands of years that has been lost over the last fifty. All this can happen but it needs to start somewhere. One has the feeling, despite a host of misgivings created by years of apathy and suspicions, that the logjam has been broken. While it may not sound otherwise correct, the fact remains that only with the participation of die-hards on both sides can peace be achieved, is it a coincidence that in both countries those without whom no peace is achievable between the two countries, the Pakistan Army and the BJP are in power? The talks initiative has been a giant step forward and we in Pakistan have great expectations that something will materialize, that South Asia may begin to be a better place to live in after July 16. In the meantime, other than those who cannot see beyond their feet and their own narrow parochial interests, the great mass of people in Pakistan want peace with India, but not at the cost of Kashmir. A great consensus has silently built up behind Pervez Musharraf. Elections notwithstanding, the President has the mandate from those it counts, the people of Pakistan. Over the past weeks, more Pakistanis have begun to believe that Pervez Musharraf must be supported to the hilt. For us the die is cast, it is Musharraf, right or wrong. The question is, does Vajpayee have enough of freedom to respond to such a mandate? A gradual resonance has built up that Pervez Musharraf will not let us down in New Delhi, that if India is really serious this time, we will have peace in our time.