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India-Pakistan dialogue beyond official talks

  By Vijay Darda | 14-03-2016

We are all conditioned to an atmosphere of ‘enmity’ when it comes to Pakistan. If anyone has any doubt about it, then it is erased by any exposure to a media debate on an issue related to India and Pakistan – like the recent terror attack on the Pathankot air base. The noise levels are such from our side, and the arguments from the other side so convoluted that together they can convince us that there is simply no point in wasting our energies in befriending Pakistan, because when it will come to a crunch they shall go back to being enemies.

The speed with which our government calls off official level talks with Pakistan after every terror incident, also convinces us folks that engaging with our neighbours is a futile process. Simply put, the mood is one of holding the view that the Pakistanis are not worth our time.

However, beyond this official and media constructed reality, there is a real world populated by men and women on both sides, who have an unwavering commitment to remain engaged in a continuous dialogue process.

For years, I have now been a part of this process that has been facilitated by two groups – the Islamabad based Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) and the New Delhi based Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). It brings together influential voices from the world of politics, media and government from both the countries to discuss issues of common interest in a free and frank manner, devoid of the routine constraints of tit for tat diplomacy that is our usual norm.

Apart from serving as a forum for the exchange of ideas and information, such interactions offer the participants to know their neighbours as persons. I had been a part of the Indian delegation that went to Pakistan for one such dialogue in 2011, and since then the bonds have strengthened. There have been periodic exchanges with visits from their side, as well as informal travels. This year a PILDAT delegation came for a week-long visit that took them to Chandigarh and Jaipur as well. If in Delhi they spoke about media and policing, then in Chandigarh and Jaipur they shared ideas on agricultural practices and tourism promotion. The most important thing that strikes you at such exchanges is the fierce desire to be friends, and the sheer frustration at the state of affairs. The obvious question on everyone’s lips is how long are we to remain condemned to this ‘enmity’?

At the Delhi dialogue this year, the moving spirit from the Indian side was the ever optimistic Mani Shankar Aiyar whose formulation that the dialogue process should be uninterrupted and uninterruptible is now finding almost universal acceptance, including from my good old friend Javed Jabbar from the Pakistan side with whom I have fond memories going back to several decades.

Javedbhai is a veteran of the track-2 dialogue process and is always bubbling with ideas. This time after a diligent analysis of the media scene in both the countries and their role in influencing the relations across the border, he has come up with a suggestion that there should be a joint venture between Indian and Pakistan partners to set up a Dubai based South Asian television channel. I am in total agreement with the proposal, considering the need for such a channel to have a balanced and fair voice in the public discourse. At least, this would take away the ‘enemy’ component from the India-Pakistan discourse.

If media is the most visible element in the public discourse between India and Pakistan, then there is the unseen element of policing that controls the visa regime and other aspects when it comes to the knitty-gritty of the people to people relations. With a lot of former police officers and security personnel from both sides participating in the debate, it opened several practical ideas on these crucial questions.

This dialogue may not have any official status, but then it is not totally ignored by the government as well. The official spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs Vikas Swarup did attend the session briefly and the official channels on both sides would be informed about the deliberations in the right perspective. To be realistic about such events, we have to accept that their contribution in shaping the relations between the two countries at the official level is incremental. But at the people to people level, and in terms of promoting the understanding that shapes popular perceptions these exchanges go a long way.

When it comes to the media coverage of both the countries, a very useful insight emerged during the course of the debate that fringe elements that are neglected in their home country get too much prominence across the border. Besides, the usually noisy channels that seem to be fighting the war within the four walls of their studios are not even available across the border. So, if one of the purposes of these TV debates is to send the message across the border, then mercifully it is not served. In addition to this, the consensus is that on both sides of the border there is a lot more to report than mere disputes and terror attacks. The lives of the people, their daily struggles and routine successes against odds are human stories that are waiting to be told. The process of letting people travel across the border has to become less cumbersome and more open. The internet can cross the border, but then as they say there is nothing like seeing and then believing. Indians and Pakistanis need to see more of each other, enjoy their shared cultural heritage, and dip into the pleasures of their common cuisines. I still fondly remember the Moong Dal halwa we had at the residence of the then former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and his desire to have better relations with India. Now is the time for both Miansaab (as the Pakistani prime minister is referred to by his admirers) to take the necessary steps to get rid of the scourge of terrorism and build relations with India on the basis of a strong commitment to peace. Prime minister Narendra Modi has already moved several steps forward in that direction.

Before I conclude…

So far, the budget session of the Parliament has been free from the complete paralysis that was witnessed in the last two sessions. This does not mean that there is any decline in the acrimony between the Opposition and the government. On the contrary, there have been sharp and critical exchanges. But then the political climate in our country is almost as uncertain as the rain that has played the spoil sport at Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s mega cultural festival. So, let us hope that the favourable weather in the budget session continues.


Pakistani delegation

The Pakistani delegation joining the dialogue in New Delhi included senators Lt. Gen. (retd.) Abdul Qayyum (Punjab, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz – PML-N); Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo (Balochistan, National Party – NP); Nauman Wazir Khattak (KP, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – PTI); Saud Majeed (Punjab, PML-N); Muhammad Afzal Khan, MNA (Punjab, PML-N); Parliamentary Secretary for Finance; Ms Munaza Hassan, MNA (Punjab, PTI); Shehryar Afridi, MNA, Kohat, KP, PTI; Asad Qaisar, MPA (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, PTI); speaker of Provincial Assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; Ms Mahtab Akbar Rashdi, MPA, (Pakistan Muslim League – Functional – PML-F); Mian Mehmood-ur- Rashid, MPA, (Punjab, PTI); leader of Opposition, Provincial Assembly of the Punjab; Dr Najma Afzal Khan, MPA, (Punjab, PML-N); Ms Arifa Noor, resident editor (Islamabad) of Dawn; senator (retd.) Javed Jabbar, former Federal Information Minister, member, Senate Forum for Policy Research; Muhammad Ali Nekokara, former SSP, Pakistan Police; Dr Muhammad Shoaib Suddle, Former IG Police, Sindh & Balochistan, Pakistan; Mujeeb-ur-Rahman Shami, editor-in-chief of Daily Pakistan; president of Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE) and Saleem Safi, television anchor and columnist, Geo TV.

Indian participants

Rajya Sabha member Mani Shankar Aiyar, Rajya Sabha member Pavan K Varma of Janata Dal (United), Bihar, chairman of editorial board of Lokmat Media and Rajya Sabha member Vijay Jawaharlal Darda, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLAs Madan Lal, Saurabh Bhardwaj and Somnath Bharti, AAP spokesperson Ashutosh, member of National Security Advisory Board A S Dulat, readers’ editor of The Hindu A S Panneerselvam, senior programme officer of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative Ms Devyani Srivastava, senior journalist and consulting editor of The Telegraph K P Nayar, former civil servant Dr K S Subramanian, former Indian Police Service officer Dr Kiran Bedi, founding editor of The Wire Sidharth Bhatia, senior journalist of The Hindu Ms Smita Gupta, former director of Indian Institute of Mass Communication Sunit Tandon, research scholar Ms Vandana Seth and former commissioner of police, Delhi, Ved Marwah.


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India-Pakistan dialogue beyond official talks


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