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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 14 New Delhi March 26, 2016

Time to Breach the Wall

Monday 28 March 2016, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

The last few months have witnessed the deterioration of Indo-Pak relations to the point of almost eye-ball-to-eyeball confrontation. Tempers have been stoked high and the fiercest propaganda bombardment has been going on between two neighbours born out of the same motherland.

The measure of this high-pitched tension was provided on the one side by Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s frenzied diatribe against India over the Kashmir issue, and by the disgraceful conduct of the authorities in Bombay forcing the cancellation of the Pakistan Consul General’s official reception on the National Day of our neighbourning country. The plea that the responsibility for the shocking incident lay with the Shiv Sena does not in the least exonerate the conduct of the Maharashtra Government unless it confesses that it has handed over the fate of the metropolis to a gang of political goons.

The disconcerting fall-out of that shameful incident has been the Pakistan Government’s decision to close down its Consulate in Bombay. If responsible quarters in the Capital feel, as they informally indicate, that this move on the part of Islamabad is to prepare the ground for reciprocal retaliation by forcing the closure of the Indian Consulate in Karachi, then one gets an idea of the enormity of mutual animosity that has been permitted to develop between the governments of the two countries.

It is precisely this dangerous state of the present phase of Indo-Pak relations that underlines the urgency of active intervention at the level of the public that has become imperative. It will be short-sighted to be content with the thought that since both the countries are today ruled by elected governments, they know what’s best to do to meet the situation. The flaw in this argument lies in the fact that unlike other foreign-policy theatres deciding on the country’s international relations, the Indo-Pak relations are unique and there is no parallel really with our relations with any other country. In fact Pakistan, by objective logic, is hardly a foreign land for us. Apart from the common bonds of history, social and cultural mores that bind the two peoples, the fact of the matter is that there are hundreds of thousands upon thousands of Indian citizens who have got near and dear relations in Pakistan. And the same is true of an equal number of those living in Pakistan.

And how do we treat the near and dear ones of the citizens of this country? Over the years the authorities in both the countries have spent their energy, resources and ingenuity in building up a structure of mutual quarantine. For the citizens of the two countries, a special type of visa is issued which imposes the strict condition on the visitor to report regularly to the local police, and movements restricted only to the particular town or district specififed in the visa itself. Tourists from no other country have to put up with such ignominy; only suspected criminals are to adhere to such restrictions.

What is amazing is that the government of the two countries have mutually consented to impose such restrictions knowing fully that a very large percentage of those who come with such a visa do not care to report or go back and it is humanly impossible to trace the truant because of their ethnic and cultural identity with our population. And exactly the same predicament prevails on the other side of the frontier, in Pakistan. Moreover, it is common knowledge that all along the frontier, stretching over thousands of miles, smugglers trespass with impunity.

No Maginot line nor Berlin Wall can keep the people of the two neighbouring countries in total incommunicado and yet the barriers that have been set up by the common consent of the governments of the two countries betray almost a diabolical determination not only to keep the people of both the countries physically apart with the utmost minimum of communication, but also to ensure that they are kept in the dark about the life and living, the perceptions of such ignorance about each other Newspapers from one country are not transmitted to the other, though in both the countries one gets journals from distant parts of the world. Very few newspapers in India get papers from Pakistan, and vice versa. Some of the newspapers keep correspondents in Pakistan—the number has dwindled to an almost token presence today—but their despatches are confined mostly to items about Indo-Pak official circuit or those that inflame passions against each other. By and large, a reader of the Indian press comes to know very little of what the public in Pakistan is thinking about their own problems, about the internal developments that beset the Pakistani people, about the issues relating to other countries as seen from Pakistan. The electronic media has been spreading the same poison and only the foreign satellite channels provide us with occasional glimpses of one another. In other words, the authorities in both the countries have done their best to build up the image of their immediate neighbour as a monster—a Frankensten, Dracula and King Kong, all rolled into one.

What is intriguing is that the two governments at times decide to relax the rules. Several times decisions were taken that newspapers of the two countries should be available to each other, and yet nothing has been done. Books of scholarship, exploring into the early history of the two countries—their common history—are hardly available to even scholars. While seminars and conferences are held in which participants come from both India and Pakistan, the number of such get-togethers is far less than those held with participants from, say, the USA or the UK. Perhaps the only wholesome item that has still been retained in this drive to preserve goodwill towards each other is the holding of mushairas. No doubt wholesome, but how few of this subcontinent are covered by such a gathering of poets?

In this unhealthy environment of mutual antipathy, it is the third party that gets the upper hand. There was a time when Pakistan’s friendship with China was a subject of unrelieved suspicion in India. Perhaps the same was true for the Pakistan public about India’s close relations with Moscow. And after the disappearance of the Cold War, both the countries seem to be looking up to the USA, each trying to plead with it against the other. We get het up whenever there is news of Pakistan receiving more arms from abroad, and it must be the same within Pakistan with regard to India in the perception of the public in general. It is but inevitable that if the two neighbours, so intricately bound to each other by history and geography, prefer to wallow in distrust and anger bordering on insanity, in such a situation, there is nothing surprising if any third party tries to exploit it to its advantage.

The time has come to break this vicious state of ignorance and hatred that blocks our common path. Even for breaking the chronic ill-temper at the official level, it is imperative that concerned citizens at all levels come forward and start a nationwide campaign for more news, more understanding of each other’s problems, more interaction, more interface. There has to be an emphatic assertion at the level of the citizen for such contact, such interaction.

Yes, Kashmir is no doubt a sore point. But it will do both us and Pakistan a lot of good if we know how each of us looks at the problem. The situation in Kashmir or in India or in Pakistan will not be worse if we seriously try to get over the barriers that divide us. There is no real defence for either of us by massive military build-up. The real defence lies in changing our mindsets. Nowhere is it more true than in the case of our two countries, that conflicts and wars begin in the minds of men. And it is there we have to turn the focus of the concerned citizen at all levels—the media practitioners, academics, professional groups, the NGOs in hundreds.

The time has come to pierce the dam so that the flood will help to sweep away the bitter deposits of hatred and bloodshed—let us live as two countries governed by the same destiny.     

(‘Political Notebook’ in Mainstream, April 9, 1994)