India, Pakistan can go ‘arch-rivals’ Ethiopia-Eritrea way to usher in peace, turn decades of ‘enmity’ into friendship
One doesn’t need to live years abroad to see the light, but perhaps it helps. At least, it did for me. I am referring to the “enmity” between India and Pakistan.
For nearly 14 years, I diligently deleted the phrases “arch-foes”, “arch-rivals” and “have gone to war four times” from wire-service stories on India, Pakistan or Kashmir that I used in my job as a news editor. The intent was to strike a tiny twin blow against news-agency cliches and divisive language.
But surprise, surprise, my effort made no difference when it came to the crunch. How could it when our own governments want us to be defined that way — “arch-foes/arch-rivals”.
In the last week of September, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj laid into the “arch-rival” in her address to the UN General Assembly, saying “our neighbour’s expertise is not restricted to spawning grounds for terrorism; it is also an expert in trying to mask malevolence with verbal duplicity”.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi returned the compliment in kind, albeit in slightly less florid prose. “India has been sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan,” he told the delegates. “It is India that in plain sight operates state terrorism in Jammu Kashmir.”
From the perspective of an overseas South Asian, if any phrase starkly sums up the nature of India-Pakistan ties, it is “plus ca change” – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The routine has become so predictable, it can now be turned into an international rule-book for neighbours cum adversaries: mutual demonisation and visa restrictions, border infiltration and exchange of fire, political rows and recriminations, claims of interference in internal affairs and calls for boycott of films, and so on.
Yet, for the sake of their combined over-1.5 billion population and future generations, establishing good-neighbourly relations should be the two countries’ overarching strategic goal. As New Year resolutions go, few can beat “Strive to achieve permanent Indo-Pak peace”.
Through sustained collective and individual efforts, Indians and Pakistanis should aim for the kind of rapprochement that the Horn of Africa’s “arch-foes/arch-rivals” Ethiopia and Eritrea quietly reached in July this year after 20 years of unremitting hostility. Of course, in the back of our mind, we should always know, as George Harrison said in the context of love, “It’s going to take time, A whole lot of precious time, It’s going to take patience and time.”
None of this is to assume a moral equivalence between the two sides. The claim that the Kargil war of 1999, the Mumbai attack of 2008 and infiltration across the Line of Control make Pakistan an unreliable peace partner is well-founded for sure. And one must spare a thought for Afghanistan too. If the policy of bleeding of India by the Pakistani military-intelligence “deep state” through a thousand cuts is intolerable, the havoc being wreaked by its proxy warriors on defenceless Afghans year after year is unforgivable.
Then there is the deep state’s repression of Pakistan’s own intellectuals, journalists, ethnic and political minorities, outspoken liberals, and indirectly of all Pakistanis who simply want to live among their friends, aged parents and relatives in a secure, stable, economically thriving and religiously tolerant country.
But as psychologists like to say, spotting other people’s flaws can make us forget our own. A cursory look at the news headlines is enough to reveal that the rotten apples of Indian society and politics are steadily catching up with their Pakistani counterparts in religious chauvinism, petty-mindedness and hate-mongering. Equally alarming are the unmistakable and widespread signs of social decay, environmental degradation, desensitisation to Kashmiris’ suffering, and chronic economic underperformance.
At a time when discussions on the loyalties of even a national treasure like Naseeruddin Shah are not beyond the bounds of propriety, it is vital for everyday Indians to understand that their Pakistani brethren are not enemies in combat gear but their neighbours, friends and fellow travellers in the journey of life.
Together, we must strive to change the region’s dynamic for the better if we are to avoid the slippery slope to unbridled religious polarisation.
With no pressure to take their cues from their perennially feuding governments, Indians and Pakistanis get along just fine at a personal level the moment their paths cross outside South Asia. I should know. Nearly every Pakistani I have dealt with in the course of my 21 years in two Gulf countries came across as kind, respectful, trusting, affectionate, hospitable and helpful to a fault.
None of them even vaguely hinted that I should “Go to Hindustan” to make a living. None expressed any apprehension they would get a raw deal, to say nothing of unfair confidential appraisals, from me because of their country of origin. From restoring my job within hours of being summarily sacked by a mercurial Egyptian boss to helping me cope with problems caused by a broker of Indian origin, different Pakistanis have come to my aid at different times in the Gulf. And they continue to be among my closest all-weather friends and benefactors, no matter what the subcontinent’s political temperature.
Given the vast and complex web of vested interests, it may be too much to expect Indian and Pakistani leaders, politicians and military generals to transcend all national, religious and ideological boundaries. But at least in a regional context, they must begin to outgrow the logic of self-destructive rivalry and embrace the wisdom of their humble Ethiopian and Eritrean counterparts, who have gone from being implacable foes to friends on the basis of their common social, cultural, ethnic and linguistic pre-partition roots.
If Ethiopia and Eritrea can bury their famous enmity, so can “arch-foes” India and Pakistan, at least in principle. Of course, it will take patience and time, as George Harrison cautioned. Possibly “a whole lot of precious time”. But the peace dividend will most certainly be worth the wait.