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Crossborder exchanges


THE Women’s Bus for Peace symbolizing the dialogue between activists from India and Pakistan under the aegis of the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) represents an important landmark in the people to people interaction between the two countries in recent years. The interaction was all the more important since it came at a time when relations between the two countries had virtually reached an all-time low.

The post-Kargil months have seen a hardening of attitudes in official circles and the hijacking of IC 814 contributed to further deepening the divide in people’s minds. The hype preceding the Clinton visit and the Indian government’s attempt to dissuade Clinton from visiting Pakistan, as well as the campaign to oust Pakistan from the Commonwealth, have only added to a thickening of the atmosphere. The fact of a military government at the helm of affairs in Islamabad and the increase in crossborder terrorism has certainly added to the possibility of an escalation of hostilities, furthering the dangers of nuclearization in the region.

While the dialogue between women on both sides was on a positive note, the responses from outside were mixed. Many expressed cynicism about the possibility of achieving peace through such exchanges. Others were positively hostile or derisive. The Indian women on their return from Lahore were faced with a volley of questions on their naiveté in having met the General in Islamabad and taking seriously his offer for talks anywhere, anytime. It was stated, in as many words, that peace between two nations is a subject of hard bargaining and it would be better if women did not meddle in affairs of state. There can be no denying that peace between two countries with a long history of conflict is a matter for governments to deliberate upon. However, it is time people begin to exert pressure on our two governments to sit down and talk.

The sooner this is done, the lesser the chances of third-party intervention and manipulation. In a unipolar world, the parameters and possibilities such intervention holds out are more serious than ever before. Further, that the present government, with its jingoistic rhetoric, has in fact given more leeway to powers having interests in this region is hidden from none. The reason for the successful response to the WIPSA initiative from women cutting across ideologies and areas of specific interest lies in the urgent need for peace in the region if issues of social development and removal of inequalities have to be addressed.

The facts highlighted by the Human Development Reports in recent years are before us: South Asia has the world’s largest number of poor; the largest number of illiterates as well the highest number of children who have never been to school; the largest number of undernourished children are to be found in this region; we have the largest population living under conditions where even basics such as drinking water, sanitation and minimal health facilities are denied to the vast masses. At the same time our region is experiencing militarization at a fast pace and an increase in arms expenditure. Between India and Pakistan we have two of the world’s largest standing armies and the ratio of soldiers to doctors is 6:1. Add to this the proliferation of unlicensed arms and the huge increase in illicit arms dealing which lies at the back of growing militancy and the threat to peace in the region becomes clear.

While SAARC has failed to advance any kind of negotiations between countries in the region, a well-organised mafia operates, establishing a nexus between those who trade in illicit goods and indulge in money laundering. Crime, corruption and the underworld flourish with the patronage of a criminal-politician nexus even as governments refuse to find solutions. While governments have been trading charges, the quality of life in the region has declined, the consequences of which have been most visible in women’s lives.

 Growing violence and its increasing social acceptance has been one of the most visible trends in the region. While the women’s movement has succeeded in drawing attention to an increase in domestic violence, attempts to focus on violence experienced by women in conflict situations have not met with much response. Atrocities committed on women in tension-ridden regions, be they by the state or terrorists, have somehow been hidden from the public eye. While Pakistan has been a victim of the denial of democracy, in our country the debate on violation on human rights has been largely confined to social activists. For the large part, such issues remain subsumed under the rubric of national security and there is a lack of transparency of the state apparatus and measures taken to ‘deal with challenges to national unity.’

The WIPSA efforts put into focus the urgent need to redefine notions of development as well as security in more human terms if this region is to see lasting peace in any meaningful sense of the term. While no one condones the proxy war being fought on the border, it has also to be recognised that much more needs to be done to strengthen the base of democracy and that includes imparting more substance to federal principles and the devolution of power to structures subject to democratic controls. In any case, it is time policy analysts and those who delve in hard talk understand that talk of peace and posturing on democracy devoid of a human focus and debate on the consequences of choices made regarding the nature of development are matters of public concern. Women activists’ efforts have to be seen in a continuum, as part a process of democratic self-assertion.

The importance of the exchange at this moment cannot be overstated even though its tangible effects may not be immediately visible. The need to engage in a dialogue with people across the border is an urgent one, if the fundamentalist-jingoistic combine working overtime on both sides of the border is to be checked in its spread of hatred and its attempt to demonise the other. The Talibanisation of this region has to be prevented at all cost and a first step in this direction would be to get Musharraf to talk so as to draw him into the democratic process rather than facilitate his strengthening ties with the fundamentalist forces. Women have a particular interest in this.

The exchange between the women’s delegations was marked by deep warmth and a serious desire for peace in the region, in sharp contrast to official relations between the two countries at the present juncture. Going beyond the usual nostalgia which marks such occasions, participants in the interactive sessions addressed the commonality of issues facing people in this region, particularly challenges in the way of advancing women’s rights. While many emphasised the common bonds and shared past, it was also pointed out that in the last 50 years the two nations had developed differently and that common origins did not preclude separate and different identities. It was important to recognise cultural differences so as to not submerge the present reality in the name of recovering the past. The pain of Partition found its echoes, but it was recognized that this could not be allowed to swamp discussions on subsequent developments.

The economic contribution of women has been one of the most closely guarded secrets of the region and no one could be more concerned about this than the Pakistani women. The invisibility of women in public space acts as a convenient device to keep this reality hidden from society as well as official discourse. Women across the subcontinent have been waging a battle for recognition of their role in the economy only to find that even as they were just beginning to impact official policy and machinery, they were swamped by forces of globalization which effect their further marginalisation. Many speakers in the discussions highlighted the manner in which the process of economic reforms, ushered in at the behest of international agencies, has added to women’s economic burden while simultaneously.

The rise of fundamentalist forces in both India and Pakistan and their direct confrontation with the struggle for women’s equality, as well as the denial of space within decision-making fora, were some of the common problems identified in the discussions. The tenor of the discussions reflected the participants’ deep concern about the obstacles to democratic governance and the consequent denial of space to women. Depiction of women in cultural stereotypes was a common device to deny women equality in the social sphere and women on both sides agreed on their opposition to the use of religion to advance social orthodoxy.

While women from Pakistan expressed concern at the invoking of retrogressive laws to deny them basic social and legal rights, the Indian women were apprehensive about attempts to go back on advances made in the last century and a half, as well as to impose fundamentalist prescripts. The use of history and the state apparatus by the fundamentalist forces to advance their agenda came in for sharp criticism. Cultural exchange and discussions on related issues featured prominently throughout both visits.

Both in the formal sessions as well as meetings with students, artists, writers and educationists, the need to have more interaction so as to recover and strengthen cultural bonds was reiterated. The poetry of Faiz and songs from the rich repertoire of Sufi literature reverberated many a time. The women resolved not to allow the hostility between governments to come in the way of their forging closer links to restore peace and prosperity in the region. Women’s special interest in this was expressed repeatedly, even though not many accepted the claim of some WIPSA spokespersons that it was only men who fought and waged wars, while women were inherently and innately destined to work for peace.

Indu Agnihotri