Un-poisoning the chalice! Pakistan-India relations- Manish Tiwari

National spokesperson of the Indian National Congress party and former Information & Broadcasting minister tells us that India and Pakistan need to stop drinking from the poisoned chalice of a toxic narrative that prevails in both countries in order to resolve issues between them.


Pakistan has a new government under the stewardship of the Oxford-educated cricketer turned politician Imran Khan. The new PTI led coalition government consists of old experienced players in the form and shape of Shah Mahmood Qureshi, as the new Foreign Minister, who is etched into the collective psyche of the Indian people as the face of Pakistan ensconced on Indian soil, just as the bloodiest terrorist carnage – 26/11 was being perpetrated by Pakistan based and patronized semi-state actors in Mumbai.

The assault left 166 people dead and over 600 wounded. It also has in its ranks Dr. Shireen Mazari, known for her hawkish views and writings on nuclear and other issues qua India. The new Defense Minister of Pakistan is Pervaiz Khattak. As the former Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa he was known for his ‘moderate’ views on the Taliban and publicly called for a dialogue with the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Not the most inspiring cast of characters from the Indian perspective. Like any new government in Pakistan the coalition government led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) made the ritualistic overture of improving relations with India.

On 26th August 2018, Imran Khan tweeted “To move forward Pakistan and India must dialogue and resolve their conflicts including Kashmir: The best way to alleviate poverty and uplift the people of the subcontinent is to resolve our differences through dialogue and start trading”.

Referring to the Indian leadership in a press conference he declared, “If they take one step towards us, we will take two, but at least need a start,” He however quickly added the Kashmir caveat by stating, “Kashmiris are suffering for long. We have to solve the Kashmir issue by sitting across the table. If India’s leadership is willing then the both of us can solve this issue through dialogue.

Whenever a new government assumes office, whether in India or Pakistan, the regular banalities in terms of mere lip service to the virtues of peace are mouthed in the first one-month, only to soon slip back into the harsh rhetoric of mutual antagonism that has been the sina-qua-non of the relationship between the two nations over the past seven decades.

It will be good for the subcontinent also.” He further stated “I am one of those Pakistanis that want good relations with India. If we want to have a poverty-free subcontinent then we must have good relations and trade ties. This blame game, that whatever goes wrong in Pakistan’s Baluchistan is because of India and vice versa, brings us back to square one.”

Echoing the long-held multi-partisan establishment view in India, former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal wrote in the Hindustan Times “Khan is equating longstanding Pakistani support for terrorism against India with Pakistan’s concocted narrative about India’s activities in Baluchistan.

His effort to evade responsibility on terrorism and making the issue reciprocal needs proper understanding: Pakistan wants parity with India even on culpability for terrorism.” All this does not sound a very optimistic start even by our mutually sanctimonious first month platitudinal standards?

We have gone through the same cycle repeatedly in the past seventy years and especially so after Zia-ul–Haq deposed and then executed Prime Minister Zulifkar Ali Bhutto in the late seventies.

Whenever a new government assumes office, whether in India or Pakistan, the regular banalities in terms of mere lip service to the virtues of peace are mouthed in the first one-month, only to soon slip back into the harsh rhetoric of mutual antagonism that has been the sina-qua-non of the relationship between the two nations over the past seven decades.

Why the senior Bhutto is germane to the India-Pakistan story even today is because not only did he negotiate the Simla Accord between Indira Gandhi and himself in 1972, post the creation of Bangladesh, but in an earlier avatar as Industries Minister of Pakistan he led the most sustained dialogue on the Indo-Pakistan imbroglio with the then Indian Railway Minister Swaran Singh.

Read more: Indian high commissioner visits Imran Khan: Will this be the beginning…

Six rounds of talks were held between India and Pakistan between December 1962 and May 1963. This perhaps was the most protracted high-level Ministerial engagement between the two countries in the past seventy years. The Zulifkar Ali Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks were conceivably the most thoughtful, though maybe not the most honest negotiations between the two sides. Maps were exchanged and lines were drawn.

However, those talks can provide the template and the framework that should be reexamined by both sides as a starting point for future dialogue between the two nations. Can an uninterrupted and uninterruptible conversation be feasible given the developments since then? Maybe the substance of that engagement can provide some pointers if intent on both sides are kosher.

The starting point of any future engagement should be to first ask ourselves with all the candour that we can muster some fundamental questions Why does the dialogue process get shipwrecked repeatedly on the rocky shoals of the Indo-Pak zero-sum paradigm? Why is there no navigation channel that we have been able to create that can lead our two nations to the safe harbour of a mutually beneficial relationship?

Why is there no lighthouse that can illuminate our path? The answer is simple both India and Pakistan drink from the poisoned chalice of a corrosive and toxic narrative between the two countries. Unless that does not change, nothing will succeed. What is the story of India and Pakistan? A bloodstained Partition that left 500,000 people dead and 15 million uprooted on both sides of the Radcliffe line.

For those who survived those traumatic times it was not Batwara (the Hindi term for partition) but Ujara (the Punjabi term for devastation). Independence for India and Pakistan also translated into rape, loot, plunder, destitution and trauma for the majority of its people especially in Punjab and Bengal the two states that bore the brunt of Radcliffe’s calligraphy.

The answer is simple both India and Pakistan drink from the poisoned chalice of a corrosive and toxic narrative between the two countries. Unless that does not change, nothing will succeed.

It is also the fable of four wars 1947 over Kashmir, 1965 again over Kashmir, 1971 over East Pakistan now Bangladesh and finally Kargil in 1999 again over Kashmir. It is the tale of cross border terrorism into India sponsored by Pakistani deep state using semi-state actors. From the Pakistani perspective, it is alleged Indian interference in Baluchistan and encirclement of Pakistan through an enhanced presence in Afghanistan.

Do you see even a shred of positivity in this parable between two nuclear-armed neighbors where the missile flying time is barely minutes? A sub-continent whose most enduring policy pre-occupation in the words of Shireen Mazari should be “If India seeks to opt for an even-spread amongst its nuclear triad of forces, then Pakistan needs to have an edge on land-based developments in terms of numbers.”

How then can you even think of making peace in such a situation? There is a silver lining on this otherwise very dark cloud. The starting point has to be the creation of a new narrative between the two countries. A narrative that can shed the bitterness of the past seventy years and focus on mutually shared syncretism stretching back into millennia. For seventy years is not even an innocuous footnote in history.

Before 1947 never did the Indus River Water Basin and the Ganga River Water system lie in two different Westphalian entities. As Robert Kaplan argued in his 2012 Foreign Policy Piece-What is wrong with Pakistan “The more one reads this history, the more it becomes apparent that the Indian subcontinent has two principal geographical regions: the Indus Valley with its tributaries, and the Ganges Valley with its tributaries.

Read more: India & Pakistan have to stop playing snakes and ladders 

Pakistani scholar Aitzaz Ahsan identifies the actual geographical fissure within the subcontinent as the “Gurdaspur-Kathiawar salient,” a line running from eastern Punjab southwest to the Arabian Sea in Gujarat. This is the watershed, and it matches up almost perfectly with the Pakistan-India border. Nearly all the Indus tributaries fall to the west of this line, and all the Ganges tributaries fall to the east.

Only the Mauryas, Mughals, and British bonded these two regions into single states. For those three empires, the Indus formed the frontier zone and required many more troops there facing restive Central Asia than along the Ganges, which was under no comparable threat.

Likewise, the medieval Delhi Sultanate faced so much trouble in Central Asia that it temporarily moved its capital westward to Lahore (from India to Pakistan, in today’s terms) to deal with the military threats emanating from what is today Afghanistan.

Yet, for the overwhelming majority of history, when one empire did not rule both the entire Indus and the entire Ganges, the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, most of Pakistan, and northwestern India were nevertheless all governed as one political unit. And the rich and populous Indus Valley, as close to the wild and woolly Central Asian frontier as it was, formed the pulsating imperial center of that unit.

Here, alas, is the conundrum. During the relatively brief periods when the areas of India and Pakistan were united — the Mauryan, Mughal, and British — there was obviously no issue about who dominated the trade routes into Central Asia.

During the rest of history, there was no problem either, because while empires like the Kushan, Ghaznavid, and Delhi Sultanate did not control the eastern Ganges, they did control both the Indus and the western Ganges, so that Delhi and Lahore were under the rule of one polity, even as Central Asia was also under their control.

Today’s political geography is historically unique, however: an Indus Valley state, Pakistan, and a powerful Ganges Valley state, India. Though this article was written in the context of Afghanistan this particular extract is extremely germane for India – Pakistan conundrum for it reflects that there was cultural continuity between the Ganga- Jamuni Tehzeeb and the syncretic impulses of the Indus civilization in terms of the transmigration of shared culinary, musical, artistic and even marital experiences.

Unfortunately, passed-on memories can be more noxious than the actual reality. For, they emphasize the trials, tribulations and the tragedy erasing the co-existence preceded that harrowing spell.

The continuing fusion between these two regions created a unique shared identity that got disrupted by the partition in 1947. The challenge, therefore, is to rekindle the essence and spirit of this shared past without disturbing the Westphalian status quo.

That is where Civil Society in both countries must kick in. What we require is not an Aman Ki Asha that was trashed into Aman Ki Ashes by hysterical and profane television anchors on both sides, but an echo system that can emphasize the centuries-old undulating interaction between the Ganga and the Indus; a template that does not see a contradiction between ‘Bhartyiata and Pakistaniyat’, but a continuing co-existence.

An undulating civilizational continuum that stretches from the Indus to the Ganga embracing within its fold, all the elements that allowed people to co-exist peacefully for centuries while not only dwelling but even celebrating their religious and cultural diversity. For in reality the India – Pakistan problem in mental and emotional terms begins at the Khyber and culminates north of the Vindhyas.

That was the tyranny of Partition that we have to, if not, undo at least surmount. The logical question that pops up is why what happened seventy years ago even relevant today after all both India and Pakistan have had several generations that have been born post-partition. Unfortunately, passed-on memories can be more noxious than the actual reality.

Read more: Pakistan asks for release of prisoners from India

For, they emphasize the trials, tribulations and the tragedy erasing the co-existence preceded that harrowing spell. If such an enabling narrative is created by sane, sensible, progressive and forward-looking people and organisations on both sides, it would allow politicians and policymakers to try and resolve in an enabling rather than a contentious environment the entire basket of seemingly intractable issues that are subsumed under the overarching rubric called the Composite Dialogue Process between the two countries-albeit renamed many times thereafter.

The corpus to kick off this process is the huge reservoir of empathy and compassion that people on both sides have for each other; a basin of affection that neither empties nor ebbs despite every attempt to drain it by respective establishments on both sides. Our food, our music, our love for Bollywood and Pakistani plays, cricket and the rest of it must become the building blocks of this new narrative.

Today the digital platforms in the virtual civilization and the social media with its humungous reach provide us with the means to by-pass the state-controlled and directed discourse of the mainstream media to build a constituency of compassion on both sides of the divide. The Indo-Pakistan gridlock holds the destiny of two billion people to ransom in South Asia.

It remains the least connected region in the world with some of the world’s most deplorable human development indices. If the potential of this region has to be unlocked, borders across South Asia have to be made irrelevant. A new dynamic stretching all the way from the borders of Myanmar with Thailand to the Afghan-Iranian border has to be created.

It is doable only if India-Pakistan poisoned chalice is un-poisoned. Technology today with its Twitter worlds, Facebook lands and Instagram virtuality that make national boundaries irrelevant, provides an opportunity to build a shared future miles away from a toxic past. Do we have the will to seize the moment?

Manish Tewari is a lawyer who practices in the Supreme Court of India. He was the Information and Broadcasting Minister in the Government of India. He is the National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress. He serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow with Washington based Think Tank Atlantic Council. He tweets: @manishtewari. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space

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