January 2012

Relations between the governments of Pakistan and India have not been easy in the six decades since the two countries became independent. The two states have argued and threatened each other countless times, fought four wars, poured scare resources into a ruinous arms race and developed nuclear weapons despite efforts by the international community led by the United States. Over the past two decades, a new player has entered the game, with growing numbers of activists in the Pakistan and India mobilizing to make the case for peace and cooperation between the two countries.

The emerging South Asian citizens’ diplomacy movement brings together a diverse array of groups. The effort now embraces thousands of activists working on peace and justice, women’s rights, human rights, and labor rights. It includes teachers and students, journalists, former soldiers, scholars, business people, and retired government officials. They work together to find common ground on issues ranging from national security, cross-border conflict, and economy and trade, to development, education, ecology, democracy, and arts and culture. Some of these efforts have been recorded on the South Asia Citizens Web (www.sacw.net).

A key umbrella group is the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (www.pipfpd.org), which began in 1994 as a group of 25 activists and scholars from the two countries meeting together in Lahore, Pakistan. They decided to focus on opposing further India-Pakistan wars, reversing the arms race, and to promote a process of South Asian nuclear disarmament.

The organizers recognized that the Forum would have to take a position on the long-running dispute over Kashmir. The struggle over the land and people of this region started at the time of the partition of British India to create the independent states of India and Pakistan. The 1948 and 1965 wars over Kashmir left the region divided between the two countries. Reflecting their commitment to deepening democracy as both a process and a goal for resolving conflict in South Asia, the Forum argued that the way forward in Kashmir was to insist on the democratic rights of the people of the region to decide their future peacefully.

There was also a need to combat the growing religious extremism in both countries. Hindu nationalists in India and Islamic nationalists in Pakistan feed national chauvinism and seek to settle the scores of partition. At home, these groups promote a narrow view of national identity and social life and undermine the possibility of a plural and tolerant democracy that respects religious minorities.

The Forum saw a path forward in encouraging people to people dialogue across the border, directly challenging the claims of the two governments to be the sole representatives and voices of their people. It organized its first convention in 1995 in New Delhi, bringing together almost a hundred people from each country. Since then, the annual convention has alternated between Pakistan and India – in some years this effort has been blocked as respective governments have refused to granted visas in time. The joint conventions of the Forum have grown to become the largest regular gatherings of citizens of the two countries. The 8th joint convention of the Forum was held at the end of December 2011 in the Indian city of Allahabad, with over 200 participants from Pakistan.

The meetings are more than an opportunity for activists to meet and argue politics and make a statement. They are a way to cross a physical, political, and emotional border. For many, it is the first venture to the other side and the discovery of common cause. For some older people, it is their first trip back to a place they had left at partition, a chance to renew old friendships. Lives are changed and hope renewed.

There has been real progress. Citizen diplomats have become significant players in the domestic politics of both nations. Political leaders, including presidents and prime ministers, now feel obliged to meet delegations of visiting citizens from the other country; government officials talk of the importance of strengthening people-to-people contact and the need to ease visa restrictions.

Even once-hostile media show signs of change. In January 2010, the Times of India Group and Pakistan’s Jang Group, leading media conglomerates in India and Pakistan which own major newspapers, magazines and TV channels, joined hands to promote peace and good relations between the two countries. Their vehicle was increased people-to-people interaction through the Aman ki Asha (“Desire for Peace”) initiative.

The public mood has shifted. Despite the wars and the hostility, and the decades of being taught that the other was a mortal enemy, the people of India and Pakistan say they are ready for peace. A December 2010 poll of people in six major cities in India, and in ten cities and 42 villages in Pakistan found that about 70% of respondents in both India and Pakistan said they wanted peace between the two countries, with two-thirds in each country expecting “friendly relations” in their lifetimes. Eighty per cent of Pakistanis and Indians polled said people-to-people contact was an effective “instrument of peace,” significantly more than those who said increased trade, tourism, sport could help serve as a path to peace.

Real challenges remain, however. Old habits and powerful vested interests, especially those who profit politically and economically from hostility, resist change and seek to undermine the possibility of peace. The Kashmir issue remains intractable. Pakistan and India continue to prepare and plan for war, with both sides now armed with nuclear weapons. The Indian military has been working on a new doctrine for a massive rapid conventional strike against Pakistan, hoping to keep the fighting below the nuclear threshold. Anticipating such an attack, in 2011 Pakistan tested a short-range nuclear-capable missile for use on the battlefield.

The Pakistan Army’s long-standing support for Islamist militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba as proxy warriors in a covert war against India remains a major problem. Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008 killing almost 200 people. This attack came two months after an agreement between the two countries to dramatically expand bilateral trade by increasing the number of trade goods by a hundred-fold to almost 2000, and to allow freight trains to move across the border for the first time in five decades. These plans stalled as India demanded a crackdown on the Islamist militants as a condition for further peace talks. It was only in 2011 that formal talks between Pakistan and India resumed.

Sadly, the struggle for peace in South Asia has found few allies outside. For the past decade, the United States and the international community more broadly have not worked hard at promoting peace in the region. In its relations with Pakistan, the United States in particular has attached greater importance to the war against the Taliban and al Qaida in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. To this end, the U.S. supported General Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship until he was forced out by popular pressure in 2008 and generously funded and armed Pakistan’s army. One measure of this support is the $22 billion in military and economic assistance Pakistan has received from the United States since 2001, of which over $14 billion was military assistance and $7 billion was economic aid of various kinds. It is well known that the Pakistan Army sees its real mission as confronting India and protecting its own power and privilege.

The United States also has not pressed India to make peace a priority. It sees in India a rising economy that offers a vast source of cheap labor for American corporations and a market for American goods, and a strategic partner to help counter China. The Obama Administration’s January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance observes that the United States is “investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.” To build this relationship, the United States has turned a blind eye to India’s nuclear weapons program and seeks to profit from India’s rapidly increasing military spending (now the 10th largest in the world) by selling it American weapons. According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, India is now the world’s largest arms importer, with almost $6 billion worth of arms purchase agreements in 2010.

President Obama has not broken with the Bush Administration’s policies towards India and Pakistan even though he seemed to recognize the need to do so. In 2007, then-presidential candidate Obama claimed “I will encourage dialogue between Pakistan and India to work toward resolving their dispute over Kashmir.” There is little to show that this view yet informs policy. A basic reordering of U.S. priorities in South Asia is long overdue. The first principle of U.S. policy in the region should be to do no more harm. This means the U.S. has to stop feeding the fire between India and Pakistan and instead support the grass-roots efforts by the citizens of the two countries to make peace.

Zia Mian is a physicist and directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. He is the co-editor of Bridging Partition: People’s Initiatives for Peace between India and Pakistan (Orient Blackswan, 2010),” and has been active with the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy since it was founded.