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India - Pakistan: Civil Society Mounts Peace Offensive

by Rita Manchanda, 21 January 2009

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Inter Press Service

New Delhi, Jan 20 (IPS) - A visit to India by a delegation of civil society activists from Pakistan as part of a ‘peace offensive’ is expected to help keep the two South Asian neighbours from going to war over the Nov. 26-29 terror attacks on Mumbai city.

The Jan. 21-23 high profile ‘track two’ visit hopes to woo Indian political leaders, reason with hawkish security experts and appeal for cross border solidarity and, at a people-to-people level, make the point that both countries are common victims of terrorism.

Although the delegation is led by Pakistan’s best known human rights activists, Asma Jehangir and I. A. Rehman, and bolstered by politicians from Pakistan’s main political parties and leading journalists, the impact they are likely to make is still uncertain.

So far, except for India’s Left parties, no Indian political party has made any commitment to meet the delegation. "We’re still trying," said one of the Indian hosts Shabnam Hashmi of Act Now for Harmony and Democracy.

However, Ravi Hemadri of the Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) was more candid, "Given that India’s Republic Day, Jan. 26, is just days away, and with the jingoistic rhetoric already being ratcheted up, it’s doubtful if politicians would risk being seen as soft."

This is especially so against the backdrop of ‘megaphone diplomacy’ via the media with Indian army chief Gen. Deepak Kapoor telling journalists that ‘’all options are open".

Similarly India’s home minister P. Chidamabaram hinted to the ‘The Times’ of London about the possibility of curtailing trade and people-to-people contacts. "Why should we entertain Pakistani business people? Why should we entertain tourists in India? Why should our tourists go there?"

An opinion poll conducted by ‘The Indian Express’ newspaper recorded 92 percent of respondents saying ‘Yes’ on "Should road, rail links with Pakistan be snapped if no action taken...?" "This call for suspending links will hurt thousands of ordinary people for whom peace has meant the ability to cross the border," said Syeda Hamid, speaking in her personal capacity and as founder of the Women’s Initiative for Peace.

"The Parthasarthys, the Maroof Razas [top security experts frequently seen on TV], who do they speak for? Not for the ordinary people. It is the peace groups who speak for the ordinary people, not the hawks on TV. It is civil society that reflects the voices of the millions on both sides who stand to suffer,’’ Hamid said.

Such sentiments motivated leading social activist Swami Agnivesh to launch the "Joint Signature Campaign by Citizens of India Pakistan Against Terrorism, War Posturing and to Promote Cooperation and Peace", and travel to Amritsar to join a public rally for peace mobilised by groups that will, on India’s Independence Day stake a candlelight vigil on the Indo-Pakistan border.

"Civil society has to respond to terrorism. It cannot leave everything to the state whose instruments are the army, intelligence and diplomacy. For 10 years peace groups have worked to create an atmosphere for both governments to commit that peace is ‘irreversible’. That’s why even after Mumbai, there’s been no war," he said.

Were tall claims being made about the peace lobby? "Ask the 51 Pakistani citizens jailed in Jodhpur, Rajasthan for visa tampering? They would still have been locked up had the PIPFPD not taken up their cause. Despite the war jingoism, in December they were freed and returned home," Hemadri said.

The peace lobby which seemed to have withdrawn into a defensive silence after the Mumbai attacks has now found a confident voice. Most were "fearful to speak up, to examine, lest they be seen to be excusing the Mumbai attacks,’’ said Nitya Ramakrishnan, a civil liberties lawyer.

A joint resolution by 30 civil society groups has appealed for ‘Sanity in Our Neighbourhood,’ asserting that they "will not to be consumed by fear, terror and war. That is the agenda of the terrorists".

There are signs that the peace initiatives are gaining momentum. On Jan. 11, at New Delhi’s first public meeting on ‘War, Democratic Rights and Peace Processes’ there was backing from peace and democratic rights groups, feminists, labour and teachers’ organisations.

Tweaking the Indian media’s force multiplier phrase of "enough is enough" as a goad to military action, Pamela Philippose, a well-known columnist, said: "Our way is to say ‘enough is enough’ to war mongering".

Tarun Tejpal, editor of the ‘Tehelka’ newspaper, emphasised "the need to look at the root causes of the making of a terrorist, the grievances that motivate people to these heinous terrorist acts’’.

The visit of the high profile Pakistan delegation may catch media attention, but can it shift the hawkish public sentiment? Even the scheduled public meeting will be less than public. Security concerns have entailed an "invitees only" entry, as vigilante groups propagating hate politics have stepped up their activities.

On Jan.14, Pakistani TV comedian Shahid Siddiqui was thrown out of a studio in Mumbai by a sons-of-the-soil group, the Maharastra Nav Nirman Sena. Earlier, the same group motivated the Mumbai police to pressure the Oxford Bookstore to take Pakistani books off its shelves, "lest they be targeted".

The peace lobby, however, is determined to keep up the pressure. Shabnam Hashmi said: ‘’We can’t allow ourselves to be dispirited by mainstream media’s jingoism. Let us not trivialise the grave threat that the people of both India and Pakistan face by reducing it to cross border talking heads of TV trading blame charges."

They see as a triumph the fact that the Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre troupe was able to come to India and perform its ’Hotel Mohenjodaro’ to a packed audience at the 11th Bharat Rangmahotsav Theatre Festival in the national capital on Sunday.

Amal Allana, chair of the festival’s host, the National School of Drama, dismissed reports that the Pakistani troupe was denied visas. ‘’’Everything went according to schedule and their visas arrived on time.’’