Aman ki Asha and the bad times in Indo-Pak relations

Aman ki Asha and the bad times in Indo-Pak relations
Imran Khan at the Economic Conference 2012, Lahore: trade for peace

People-to-people contacts are necessary to keep the ball rolling but what is really needed is top level interventions, like the Aman ki Asha strategic seminar series and economic conferences that have the real potential to make a bigger impact
By Saeed Ahmed Rid

Saeed Ahmed Rid

Saeed Ahmed Rid

Are bad times here again in the cyclical India-Pakistan love-hate relationship? There’s talk of Pakistan International Airline’s New Delhi flights being suspended as PIA has has been told to “dispose of” its office in Delhi since the purchase was “unauthorized”. Violations of the 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control and the working boundary between Pakistan and India have become routine. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talk of “boli nahin, goli” (not dialogue, bullets) and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s offensive-defence doctrine indicate that the Modi government is on the offensive with Pakistan, as many had feared before last year’s elections.

The euphoria generated by Modi’s invitation to Nawaz Sharif along with other SAARC leaders at his swearing-in ceremony has evaporated. In Pakistan, several factors have led to Nawaz Sharif being cut to size, though his congratulatory letter to Modi for India’s 66th Republic Day on Jan 26, wishes “the people of India progress and prosperity” and reiterates Pakistan’s commitment to “developing friendly relations with India on the basis of sovereign equality, mutual respect and commonality of interests”.

The peace process has in the past survived worse situations than the current stand off – the 1998 nuclear detonations, the 1999 Kargil crisis, the 2001 Indian parliament bombing, the 2006 Samjhota Express bombing, the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Jingoism and the war discourse get more attention, as media tend to focus on bad news.

It is in such trying times that the peace lobbies in India and Pakistan become even more relevant. This is when the peace lobby must work to make its presence felt and keep the peace discourse alive, as the Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) has done in the past along with other peace groups.

Since its launch on January 1,2010, Aman ki Asha (AKA) has led this discourse supported by, and supporting, other peace groups.

On November 26, 2008, the heads of the Jang Group and the Times of India met at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai to discuss AKA, the joint peace initiative that they planned to launch on Jan 1, 2009. The launch was delayed by a year due to terrorist attacks in Mumbai later that night, including at the Taj Hotel.

The Mumbai attacks derailed the India Pakistan peace process at the government level, as the attackers no doubt intended. The loud media hype and outrage in India against Pakistan overshadowed any talk of peace. Although thousands came out on December 12, 2008 to form a human chain for peace across Mumbai, tensions between the two governments remained high. Aman k iAsha’s launch a year later greatly boosted efforts at normalisation.

Arguably AKA’s most important contribution towards improving relations has been its promotion of business and trade by bringing the top level business community heads on one platform and helping them set the main contours of agreements on business and trade which later became the main thrust of the new rapprochement. AKA brought together the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and the Pakistan Business Council (PBC), the two top most representative bodies of the business community in India and Pakistan and made them partners in peace.

In fact the roots of the India and Pakistan governments’ pragmatic policy on enhancing bilateral trade and investment during 2011-12 lay in AKA’s first business meeting and the accompanying and subsequent discussions.

AKA Strategic Seminar, Delhi, 2012: C. Raja Mohan makes a point

AKA Strategic Seminar, Delhi, 2012: C. Raja Mohan makes a point

AKA also organised several other events during those critical times, like two strategic seminars, a water conference, a conference of media groups, peace hankies, a series of cultural, music and art performances, and campaigns like ‘Milne Do’ (against visa restrictions) and “in the name of humanity” (for prisoners). The strategic seminars specially helped to bridge the gap at the top leadership level and prepared the ground for the new trade regime between India and Pakistan.

AKA and peace groups also helped the two governments to avert rising tensions in the wake of the alleged beheading of Indian soldiers along the LoC that led to serious violations of the 2003 ceasefire in January 2013. These tensions halted progress on Pakistan’s bestowing the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status on India while in India Hindutva groups managed to get the government to stall the newly agreed liberal visa regime. Renewed activity by peace groups and several joint statements by Indian and Pakistani peace groups condemning the incidents and calling for immediate implementation of the MFN and the visa agreement helped de-escalate the conflict gradually. However the MFN status for India and the visa agreement are still awaiting implementation.

Another significant role AKA plays is to bring various peace groups on one platform, sending a strong message to the two governments and the opposition parties. In Jan 2013, AKA volunteers took the lead in organisingan unprecedented “India Pakistan Peace Now” global vigil that individuals and peace groups in India, Pakistan and in more than a dozen countries joined in.

The role of the peace constituency has been recognized at the top level, when, addressing party leaders at a public gathering on January 18, 2013, Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh acknowledged the existence of Pakistan’s peace constituency. Responding to those urging him to send a strong message to Pakistan after the alleged beheading of the Indian soldiers, Mr. Singh said the Indian government has to take the peace process forward keeping the Pakistani peace constituency in mind.

In the last five years, no major crisis has emerged between India and Pakistan although border skirmishes have continuously hindered progress in the peace process. The current running tensions, far more complex in nature compared to the mini crises over the last five years, may well be the first real test of AKA. This time, the conflicts are not restricted to firing incidents along the LoC or a particular terrorist event. Now, it is more about policy changes at the government level in both countries. This will require more robust and long-term efforts on the part of the peace lobby.

Given that the current impasse directly involves the top-most decision making levels in both countries, middle range, grassroots people-to-people contact events may not help improve the situation. They are necessary to keep the ball rolling but what is really needed is top level interventions, like the AKA strategic seminar series and Economic conferences that have the real potential to make a bigger impact. Through this article I urge the Jang Group and the Times of India to plan more events along these lines.

That is what is in the larger interest of the people and economies of both countries. Those who believe that India can forge ahead without resolving their disputes with Pakistan, and feel smug at seeing Pakistan grappling with terrorism and other internal challenges are badly mistaken. The fate of both countries is so intricately interwoven that one cannot prosper at the cost of other. As the former Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh said, “We can choose our friends but not our neighbours”.

The writer, a faculty member at Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, did his PhD on “People-to-People contacts between India and Pakistan” from the department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK. Email: [email protected]

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