Sunday, August 22, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Bridging Partition: People’s Initiatives for Peace Between India and Pakistan

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Book Edited by Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian with Kamla Bhasin, A H Nayyar and Mohammad Tahseen

Published in Daily Times / Aug 21, 2010

They have been locked in a near permanent state of confrontation for six decades, stopping only to make feeble overtures of peace to pacify onlookers. These 63-year-olds have great reserves of animosity left over from 1947. They renew their peace pledges often but test each other’s patience daily. And they get flustered easily, which makes them the two most predictable nations in the neighbourhood. When they are not exchanging words, they are exchanging fire. If nothing else, cyber armies from both sides have been seen invading ‘enemy’ websites. With their history of violence and a tendency to overreact, many wonder if Pakistan and India can ever break the pattern and maybe, just maybe, consider the merits of peace instead of dreaming about the spoils of war.

Both nations have a rich culture, an admirable stockpile of weapons to wave in each other’s face and unresolved issues dating back to partition. They are similar in many ways with an appalling record of skipping greys when it comes to relating history, a selective memory and an embarrassing tendency to get carried away at arms expos. Each of them has made great strides over the years in developing that stockpile at the expense of the poor while making sincere looking attempts to heal the breach.

Their citizens, on the other hand, have made greater strides in cultivating relationships and devising creative little ways of bridging the divide. People are weary of the perpetual stand off while the world is just plain scared.

This is a thought provoking collection of essays by prominent social activists, scientists, journalists, scholars and military men from both sides who declared peace on their respective neighbours a few decades ago. They are not alone and introduce readers to likeminded individuals who feel the need for some intervention and have taken it upon themselves to exploit the strengths and shared heritage to bring their people closer. These brave souls engage in candid discussions, freely admitting their collective faux pas. This frankness gets some into trouble with their own.

Since the 1990s, such forces have ‘defied the divide’, actively seeking an alternate lifestyle to the one thrust upon them by their political representatives. Beena Sarwar equates these attempts to streams “nourishing the land — heading towards a river, skirting obstacles, being replaced by others when they dry up, effective in strengthening the peace movement but still counting upon the political will to succeed.” A former head of the Indian Navy continues to believe, much to the dismay of some, that they need a new approach to convert the traditional confrontation method to one of cooperation and convergence. Here are individuals who have their own interpretation of the ‘greater good’.

Mubashir Hasan, founder member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) calmly states that the ruling elites from both sides are genuinely afraid of peace breaking out between them. Apparently, the status quo benefits vested interests and both nations cannot seem to coordinate their peace talks; when one is willing, the other is not.

The states’ priorities may have gotten a little mixed up on the way to the negotiating table. Their people, however, have proven to be surprisingly committed to the idea of peace. Citizens have been battling prejudices, blasting away propaganda, tearing down walls of distrust and establishing neutral zones to engage each other in meaningful dialogue. They also have a formidable arsenal of their own and are not afraid to use it. Their combined assault has yielded results in the form of ‘India Pakistan Soldiers Initiative’, allowing retired senior military men and their wives to meet with their counterparts in 1999 and 2000 for instance. Other peace networks like ‘Pakistan Peace Coalition’ (1999) and ‘Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace’ (2001) have been active in both countries while civil society initiatives, coalitions and single-issue organisations provide requisite platforms to foster ties. They have made remarkable progress in crossing borders through performing arts and mobilising the common man. Sandeep Pandey and Sanat Mohanty share memories of the peace march from Delhi to Multan (2005) that describe moving scenes witnessed at every turn of their historic journey.

One learns of the challenges that lie ahead for peace brokers and the obstacles they have to overcome trying to pitch their peace plan to the sceptics. These essays also examine the benefits of ‘waging peace’ ranging from economic prosperity (by allowing corporate sectors a stake in each other’s economic pie) to regional stability (demanding a South Asian nuclear weapons-free zone).

Though their attempts are continually thwarted, the citizen diplomacy movement can take heart; Bridging Partition asserts that their contribution has helped shape policies and build networks that change lives and perspectives. Visa restrictions notwithstanding, they have managed to get their message across, reaching out to mend fences and construct a durable framework that does not fall apart every time there is some little ‘incident’. There is no shortage of goodwill needed to keep Operation Peace going.

Published under the title: Waging peace — Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

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