Civil hands must soothe uncivil tempers

By Vishakha N. Desai and Benjamin Weiss – October 29, 2015

The Hindu

High-level talks between India and Pakistan are on hold once again. Smiles and nods from the Prime Ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly notwithstanding, tensions have mounted, with deadly skirmishes along the Line of Control and a series of fiery speeches from both countries’ military brass. The crisis has even spread to the sporting pitch, with officials being pressured to cancel plans for a highly anticipated cricket series.

At this point many observers might be wondering, “What, if anything, can be done to improve India-Pakistan ties?” The answer, it turns out, rests not in the halls of government, but in the hands of Indian and Pakistani civil society practitioners working together, outside of government, to build meaningful and constructive connections.

We reached this conclusion in the course of a study on India-Pakistan relations conducted this year at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. With government-to-government ties at a standstill, we looked at the role civil society-led initiatives — trade expositions, cultural festivals, and Track Two dialogues — could play in building links between Indians and Pakistanis.

Our research shows that these engagements can go a long way towards building trust and understanding on either side of a long-disputed border. They can also provide cover for dialogue around touchy issues.

In a vibrant democracy like India, empowered civil society groups can muster public support for normalisation and instigate a thaw in frozen ties. And while such efforts may not be a panacea for outright or immediate peace, civil society can, over the longer term, lay a sturdy foundation of goodwill between key actors and among large segments of the public in both countries; when political leaders prove ready for rapprochement, they will not have to start from scratch.

Indians and Pakistanis have a rich history of working outside of government channels to build more amiable ties. Poets gathered at mushairas in Lahore and Karachi just after Partition. Activists joined hands to decry the dangers of nuclear arms in the 1970s. A decade later, retired military personnel convened for defence dialogues, while intellectuals debated literature and fine arts.

“The most potent civil society-led work looks well into the future.”

The number and breadth of such initiatives has surged in recent years, taking the form of literary festivals, women’s dialogues, youth exchanges, joint chambers of commerce, security forums, student conferences, digital ideas hubs, and so on. Exchange for Change, for example, has linked thousands of Indian and Pakistani students and enabled scores to travel between the two countries. The India-Pakistan Regional Young Leaders Forum is another notable programme: it enables young adults to collaborate on media and public service projects, among other initiatives.

Beyond establishing personal links that help to dispel ingrained narratives, other initiatives seek to engineer practical responses to long-running challenges in India-Pakistan relations. Influential corporate leaders convene through the Pakistan India Joint Business Forum to explore ways of jump-starting cross-border commerce. The Ottawa and Chaophraya Dialogues and a newer initiative called South Asian Voices regularly bring defense practitioners together, in person and online, to formulate workable solutions to intractable political and military problems.

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