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Health, Sports & Psychology

Peace movements in contemporary India and Pakistan

Updated Monday, 7th August 2017

What chances are there for peace between Pakistan and India? What can be done to improve relations? A look at the positive steps that are being taken along the road to peace.

The previous article started with the questions “what chances are there for peace between Pakistan and India?” and “what could be done to improve relations?”. Peace between Pakistan and India is politically complex since the conflict is in part based on identity and questions of nationhood and partly on the exercise of power by India and Pakistan and their respective governments. Given the flashpoint situation in Kashmir, a cycle of distrust, resentment, escalation and further suppression appears to be maintained, with no clear end in sight. Or is there?

India Pakistan peace placard Creative commons image Icon By ramesh_lalwani via Flickr under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

The road to peaceful coexistence

The partition of India resulted in an arbitrary line being drawn through the Indian subcontinent dividing cultural regions arbitrarily to create new homelands for migrating Muslims and Hindus. This largely ignored the shared, interwoven cultures that had developed in the regions of Punjab and Bengal that were divided along purely religious lines in 1947.

Indeed the view that people on the other side of the border ‘are the same’ is often expressed by communities living in those areas. This recognition of a common and shared cultural history means that there has always been a subterranean current of friendship between ordinary people of the two countries. This can be seen in a host of civil society initiatives involving numerous Indian and Pakistani individuals and organizations that have come together to improve relations between their two countries. Through media collaborations, youth exchanges, ‘Track II’ (i.e. non-state actor & citizen-led, informal, non-governmental) dialogues, literary festivals and theatre productions, capacity-building workshops and other cultural initiatives, Indians and Pakistanis have sought to create meaningful connections and build platforms for peace and reconciliation from the bottom-up. These initiatives reflect a growing belief that the hostile and conflictual relationship between the States of India and Pakistan can be improved faster by cultural than by political diplomacy, led by citizens’ and civil society organizations on both sides. 

There are numerous examples of such initiatives. For example, Aman Ki Asha (Hope for Peace), is a joint campaign for peace between the Jang Group of Pakistan and the Times of India Group, the countries’ two leading media companies. Their aim is to change the ways in which Indians and Pakistanis perceive each other. Aman Ki Asha’s campaigns include Milne Do (Let People Meet), an advocacy campaign for an improved visa regime; Water is Life, a regular conference on India-Pakistan water issues; and Dividends, an India-Pakistan business conference. The activist organization, South Asians for Human Rights campaigns on a range of cross-border issues including women’s rights and empowerment, the plight of fishermen who are often punished harshly by both governments for crossing borders they cannot see, and human rights violations by military personnel and other armed groups.

Civil society's flexibility and transnational reach can help produce new spaces and opportunities for engagement and trust-building. Throughout the last decade, the Exchange for Change programme promoted by Routes 2 Roots (India) and the Citizens Archives of Pakistan has promoted direct contact between the people of India and Pakistan through a variety of cultural activities.  Focusing on school students, they run year-long programmes that connect children of the two countries through letter and postcard writing and the exchange of audio and video recordings, with the aim of eliminating misconceptions about each other’s cultures. This engagement enables the students to ask each other questions about their lives, hobbies, food, histories and festivals, and to discover common interests. At the end of the year, selected children and teachers from each school go on visits to their partner schools across the border, see places of historical interest and directly experience the other country’s culture. 

Such civil society initiatives have emerged as a vital arena for cultural engagement, trust building, and even potentially for conflict resolution. Moreover, since the governments of both India and Pakistan are at least theoretically committed to improving relations between the two countries, they have not been able to straightforwardly oppose these initiatives for fear of the adverse publicity that would immediately be generated. This is why the High Commissions (embassies) of both countries have felt compelled to support and facilitate the student exchange programmes. Indispensable in creating meaningful connections between the two peoples, cultural initiatives are also perceived by the governments as less threatening than openly political demands for change. 

Moreover, civil society campaigns can directly affect the political arena and help create a momentum for conflict resolution. Of particular significance here are women’s anti-war initiatives involving cross-border interactions during periods of heightened political tension. For instance, following the threat of nuclear war during the Kargil conflict of 1999, women on both sides of the border came together to form the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) and organized a multi-track ‘Women’s bus for peace’ which eventually captured even the politicians’ imagination. This initiative is credited with a vital role in establishing a platform for the de-escalation of the Kargil conflict.

In spite of their reciprocal mistrust and hostile relationship overall, one notable success of India-Pakistan State diplomacy has been the Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960 by their leaders in a deal brokered by the World Bank. Seen as one of the most successful international treaties, it has so far survived all the political tremors and established a mechanism for cooperation and information exchange regarding the use of the rivers intersecting their territories, known as the Permanent Indus Commission. For over half a century, this arrangement has provided a stable framework for resolving disputes over water, as well as for irrigation and hydropower development. During the past year, renewed political tensions coupled with severe water shortages in both countries have put the Treaty under considerable pressure. In India, hardliners launched an attack on the Treaty, attempting to have it declared illegal and unconstitutional. Civil Liberties’ organizations mobilized in its support, and in April 2017, the Indian Supreme Court dismissed the petition.

Final thoughts

Clearly, peace and reconciliation movements in India and Pakistan require further elaboration and empowering. They work by rebuilding trust, and promoting understanding between people helping to break down barriers caused by group polarization. By campaigning for justice an attempt is made to achieve some form of restitution and reparation which is a key element in repairing trust. Issues that are of mutual interest, such as food security and poverty eradication, women’s rights, climate change, environmental and health issues, regional trade facilities recognize interdependence and thus are potential drivers for dialogue and establishing common goals.

The internet also provides a powerful vehicle for developing further dialogue and exchanging information. Civil society and campaign groups have already used digital media with a fair measure of success. An online user-generated information repository for all peace activities between citizens of the two countries would extend individual organizations’ ability to keep each other informed and plan their campaigns with better coordination so as to achieve maximum impact. Convergence based on needs, allied with ongoing reciprocal cultural activities, may in time generate irresistible political momentum for the normalization of the relationship between the two countries. There is more that unites India and Pakistan than divides them.

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