A Train and a Resolve: Symbols of Hope for South Asia?
History was made in South Asia last week by two seemingly different but yet inter-connected events that could become symbols of hope in a region that has been blighted by terrorism and discord for well over a decade.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flagged off the first ever train in the state of Jammu and Kashmir on Oct 11 - a short distance of 66 km from Rajvansher near Srinagar to Anantnag in the central Budgam district of the state. For many of the local residents who had never ever seen a train before, let alone travel in one, the symbolism was electrifying.
This first link is part of a more ambitious rail project worth Rs.112 billion ($2.5 bn) that will one day connect J&K to the rest of the Indian rail grid - and consequently give a significant boost to the development and economic stimulus of the entire region. But this will be feasible only if the trauma of terror and sectarian discord that has engulfed the state for the last 20 years is gradually lifted.
Concurrently, on the same day, Oct 11, it was announced that millions of ordinary Pakistanis had signed up on a massive email anti-terror campaign. Aptly titled 'Yeh hum naheen' (this is not us), the two-year-long campaign exhorted Pakistani citizens including those in the diaspora to take a stand against the malignant virus of religious extremism and related terrorism and, at last count, 63 million people signed up. Launched by a Britain-born Pakistani media consultant Waseem Mahmood in 2007 - the initiative gathered momentum and more recent developments in Pakistan during the last stage of the Musharraf rule seemed to have galvanized an otherwise demoralized and cynical civil society. While 63 million is less than half of Pakistan's total population and it is often estimated that even if two percent of the populace is motivated to take the path of distorted 'jihad' we are still talking about more than three million Pakistanis - this gesture is not devoid of hopeful symbolism for the entire region.
Manmohan Singh observed during his Srinagar visit that the much contested Line of Control that divides the two Kashmirs - and hence India and Pakistan - ought to gradually become a line of contact for travel and trade. But for this to happen the gun will have to be set aside - by both the separatist groups and their militant/terrorist proxies, which in turn will allow the state to reduce its own overbearing security presence in the region. This initiative is an extension of the Vajpayee-Musharraf composite dialogue accord of January 2004 which was rooted in the assurance by Islamabad that the Pakistani establishment would desist from supporting terrorism against India. But the track record in J&K and elsewhere is splattered with blood and suspicion - the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul being the most deadly such transgression.
By flagging off the train service in Kashmir, Manmohan Singh has once again pointed to the many positive connectivity possibilities that can be nurtured, which will have a direct bearing on the lives of the ordinary Kashmiris - who are weary of terrorist and separatist related violence and would like to resume the rhythms of normalcy that has been denied to them for years. But the mood in the valley is sullen and this was reflected in the shutdown called by the separatists who shunned the PM's visit. State elections are to be held in the near future and those who wield power without the legitimacy of the ballot-box have reason to be confrontational. Ironically, this time around, along with the Indian leader, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was also the target of separatist and militant ire. Zardari's effigy was burnt - since he had dared to refer to the Kashmiri groups that indulged in violence and killing as "terrorists".
Notwithstanding the general mood of cynicism about India-Pakistan relations, anxiety in India about periodic bomb blasts and the post Marriott pall of gloom in Pakistan, there have been some positive trends, albeit in that typically 'two-steps forward, one-and-a-half back and one-step-sideways' manner, in the last month. Manmohan Singh and Asif Ali Zardari met on the sidelines of the UN General Asembly meeting in New York in September and they agreed that the bilateral relationship needed high-level political impetus. The emergence of a civilian dispensation in Islamabad offers a positive augury for hopefully it would be freed from the overbearing, hostile Pakistani military orientation towards India. Subsequently Zardari made some very radical observations to the Wall Street Journal including an assertion that India was not a threat to Pakistan - and on the contrary, greater trade and economic linkages with it would be to Pakistan's long-term benefit. Predictably, after returning to Islamabad there was an
attempt to 'clarify' what exactly President Zardari had meant - and some Pakistani commentators even suggested that in the absence of a full transcript of the purported interview, its very validity was questionable!
Be that as it may, there is a groundswell within Pakistan which sees the writing on the wall - the immediate dangers of the growing spread of religious extremism and an anti-US/anti-western militant mood that has permeated large sections of the North West Frontier Province and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the very real possibility that this can on one hand engulf the rest of the country and, on the other, the more tangible long-term benefits to Pakistan by normalising relations with India - an idea first mooted by then prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the Lahore Summit of early 1999.
There is little doubt that the prevailing global financial crisis will alter the existing strategic profile of the major powers and their current military investment - both fiscal and human - and this will be of direct relevance to the Pakistan-Afghanistan theatre where US and NATO troops are now present. The general consensus now seems to be that the US led war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily and some kind of political accommodation with the Taliban is inevitable. This exigency is of considerable relevance to both Pakistan and India where they are perceived to be in opposition to each other. But there are encouraging signs of new thinking - and if there is adequate political perspicacity to acknowledge that both countries and their people face a common threat from religious extremism and terrorism, some degree of cooperative effort is desirable. The current visit of Pakistani National Security Adviser Maj Gen (retd) Durrani to Delhi is a pointer in that direction.
It is instructive to note that some quarters in Pakistan are hinting at much the same. In an editorial comment, the Daily Times, Lahore, noted on Oct 7 about a possible western withdrawal from Afghanistan: "If NATO leaves, Pakistan will have to think hard about what to do next, without going back to its doctrine of 'strategic depth'. A regional forum that includes India, Pakistan and Iran may be better in resolving the political problem of Afghanistan than the current NATO-ISAF contingent that is not even doing the military job whole-heartedly."
However anomalous it may seem, there appears to be cause for cautious optimism about India-Pakistan relations and the impact this will have on the internal dynamics of J&K. The train that Manmohan Singh flagged off last Saturday may still gather steam.
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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