Mohali: peace in our ‘mohallah’? - Irfan Husain - Saturday 2nd April 2011

I HOPE the Pakistani delegation to Mohali didn’t make as many blunders as our cricketers did in the crucial semi-final World Cup match.
But with Rehman Malik present, I would expect him to make at least as many fumbles with his mouth as Kamran Akmal does with his gloves.
And as a Pakistani, I was distinctly uncomfortable to see him seated next to Sonia Gandhi at dinner: who knows what pearls of wisdom he uttered to the powerful Congress leader?
Although our team lost — and it’ll take some time for the pain of the unnecessary defeat to subside — at least it provided an occasion for the prime ministers of the bickering neighbours to meet.
It’s a sad comment on the state of the relations between India and Pakistan that excuses have to be made for talks: what if India and Pakistan didn’t meet in the semi-final? Would the meeting have been deferred until the next World Cup?
Sometimes I get so frustrated with the boneheaded leaders on both sides of the border that I dearly wish I could knock some sense into them. Or, as is done in the Vatican to select a successor to a departed pope, lock up all the major players in a hall, and only let them out when they announce a breakthrough. In Rome, the agreement over the new pope is signalled by releasing a plume of smoke. But given the slippery nature of politicians and diplomats, I won’t settle for less than a legal document signed in blood. And to hasten the process, perhaps food supplies should be cut off: nothing imparts a sense of urgency like hunger pangs.
Given that the well-being of hundreds of millions of people in the subcontinent is on the line, you’d think that our leaders would put aside their hubris, and the collective baggage of decades of animosity. Alas, they are far too immature to rise above their fixed positions. They simply lack the stature to overcome the rigidity of their security establishments, and to take a historic decision in the interest of their people.
Although the recent meeting between the interior secretaries of the two countries seems to have gone off well, relations remain hostage to jihadis in Pakistan. The truth is that one more major incident like the Mumbai attack in 2008 will derail the fledgling peace process once again.
Most Indians fail to see that just as their state cannot control the Naxalites, the feeble Pakistani government is unable to crush the hydra-headed monster the extremist movement has become. Organisations like the Jaish-i-Mohammad and the Lashkar-i-Taiba no longer take orders from the intelligence agencies, their erstwhile sponsors. Whatever clandestine official links there may be are said to exist via retired army officers.
While David Headley’s interrogation about his involvement in the Mumbai attack by the FBI revealed his alleged cooperation with mid-level intelligence officials, the conclusion drawn was that the top echelon of the ISI was out of the loop. This is scant comfort to the victims of the atrocity. But it does underline the possibility of rogue operations derailing the peace process.
Clearly, the jihadis are opposed to any peace moves between India and Pakistan, and will do everything in their power to disrupt the process. For this reason alone, we need to overlook any provocation these violent men launch. Perseverance in the pursuit of peace is the best way of marginalising these groups.
The arrest and release of a low-level member of the Pakistan high commission staff in New Delhi on the day the two leaders met in Mohali is a reminder of the opposition Manmohan Singh faces in his own country. As a WikiLeaks report shows, the Indian prime minister is isolated within the Indian establishment in his quest for peace. Despite the presence of Sonia Gandhi in the VIP box at the Mohali match to indicate her support for her beleaguered prime minister, Indian intelligence agents picked this moment to signal their opposition to the Indian initiative.
If the Indian leadership’s ability to extend a hand of friendship to Pakistan is so strongly resisted by the security establishment, imagine how limited the weak Pakistani government’s freedom of action is.
In the early days of his tenure, President Zardari proposed a ‘no first-use’ nuclear doctrine that was swiftly slapped down by the army high command. Time and again, he has spoken of the need to resolve all outstanding issues with India. But he has been unable to translate his wishes into concrete action because he has little power to override the army’s concerns.
These are the harsh realities on both sides of the border. Entrenched bureaucracies in New Delhi and Islamabad feed off each other’s insecurities and rigid mindset. Military dogma has calcified into a religion.
Neither side is prepared to consider the pressing socio-economic needs of their citizens, hundreds of millions of whom are living in abject poverty. Neither country has political leadership with the vision and the will to cut this Gordian knot.
A brief window had opened up under Musharraf when the military dictator had the desire to make a deal, and the clout to deliver. But his initiative was allowed to be frittered away by usual foot-dragging in New Delhi. In India’s fractured polity today, it seems unlikely that the Congress-led coalition can be persuaded to take the steps needed to overcome the vested interests that currently block the road to peace.
And yet, despite Indian perceptions, there is a strong constituency for friendship with their neighbour here in Pakistan. While some TV commentators and channels might strike a stridently hawkish note, ordinary people have no problem with the notion of a peaceful subcontinent. Kashmir has been pushed to the periphery of our concerns.
Few, apart from those on the lunatic fringe, now talk of flying the Pakistani flag on the ramparts of Delhi Fort. Economic and military realities have sunk in, and there is a general acceptance of the status quo.
On his return to Pakistan after his team had lost to India in the semi-final, Shahid Afridi was asked about relations between the two countries. His reply indicated how much he has matured: “We watch Indian movies; our marriage ceremonies originated in India; we love Indian music. So why shouldn’t our countries live in peace?”
Why not indeed?

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