November 26, 2020
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Now, Listen!

Enough talk about talks. It is time the people of India and Pakistan learned to listen to each other. Peace, with or without quotation marks, cannot be achieved by talking past each other.

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Now, Listen!

I have previously written on the patent reasonableness of the Indian government’s decision (within the context of the Sharm al Shaikh declaration) to engage with Pakistan, as well as on the necessary superficiality of a peace process so much of which has been conducted out of the public gaze . In the wake of the recent Indo-Pak Foreign Secretary-level talks, however, and given that commentary on Indo-Pak relations often does not seek to look beyond the level of statecraft, often leavened with platitudes about “the people” of the two countries “wanting peace,” it is also useful to pay attention to the elephant in the room, namely public perception in the two countries. In a sense this is the flip side of a dialogue process that has not taken the public into confidence, but that has contented itself with generally affirming the desirability of  “peace” as an end goal. That borders on banality: most are on board with the idea of  “peace,” but that is hardly different from the reaction one might get if one were to ask people if they preferred goodness to wickedness. Hardly anyone has a clue what “peace” might look like (in contrast to, for instance, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, where mainstream opinion has coalesced around what “peace” will likely mean, but no-one seems to know how to get there). This failure is not simply one of the political leadership, to whom we tend to outsource virtually all political responsibility – it is a broader failure, of the media, of the intelligentsia, of “society” as it were. 

And in both countries, albeit in different ways: in India, peace with Pakistan is viewed primarily through the prism of national security, and there is virtually no attempt to engage with how the region/world looks like from Islamabad. That is entirely to be expected where official actors are concerned, but one is entitled to expect more from civil society. The implicit subtext this prism leaves us with is that Pakistan has no legitimate national security or geopolitical objectives, merely iniquitous ones. More broadly, a chasm exists in the imagination: it is difficult for Indians, especially those who do not have relatives on the other side, to even imagine what (e.g.) urban Pakistan feels like. [Bollywood is a case in point: the first thing that strikes this viewer of films as (politically and creatively) diverse as Deewar – Let’s Bring Our Heroes Home, Gadar, Veer-Zaara, and Black Friday is how odd the Pakistan of these films is, how unpersuasive -- not “good” or “bad” so much as “off” (to be sure, this problem is hardly Pakistan-specific, as representations of “the West” in popular cinema will attest).]  Perhaps this failure is understandable: older Indians (especially Punjabis) have long leavened hopes for a peace process with nostalgia for homes and cities left behind on the other side of the border, but younger ones, especially from regions that have culturally much less in common with Pakistan’s Punjab or its Urdu-speakers, tend not to regard the peace process as any kind of homecoming. For them, a more prosaic peace – as opposed to peace with an estranged sibling – is at stake. Furthermore, the combination of India’s rising economic profile, repeated terrorist attacks traceable to cross-border outfits, and (until relatively recently) insufficient attention to homegrown right-wing terrorism, has increasingly led to exasperation among the Indian middle-classes. Some of this irritation is schizophrenic: Pakistan is seen as both irrelevant to India’s future trajectory, as well as an irritant that serves as a constant reminder that India’s global/economic aspirations (such as those embodied in sports events like the IPL or the Commonwealth Games) can be held hostage by elements in Pakistan. The dialogue process is thus seen as helpful only inasmuch as it can remove roadblocks in the path of India’s trajectory – no-one envisages reshaping the contours of the geo-political settlement bequeathed by 1947-48, and 1971. 

Whatever one’s views of the substantive issues, there can be no denying that while the world does not any more regard India as hyphenated with Pakistan, the link is not completely absent where public safety and terrorism are concerned. The point was driven home to me last March; I was in Varanasi on vacation when I heard from a shopkeeper around the old city’s Kallika gali that the bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team had been attacked in Lahore; the elderly gentleman was shocked and horrified by the events in Pakistan, but I was struck by his surprise when I casually commented that this was bad news for Indian cricket too. He saw no reason why this should affect India at all; a few weeks later, I learned to my dismay that the IPL would be relocated to South Africa: the increased perception of risk meant that the Indian government was unable to guarantee security to both the IPL and the concurrent national elections. In the year since, rumblings over security at sports events in India have only increased, a reminder, if any were needed, that the kindly shopkeeper was wrong to assume that India could secede from its geo-political neighbourhood. Home Minister Chidambaram knows this full well, and his repeated attempts to inculcate realism by stressing the obvious in television studios – that neighbouring countries cannot be wished away, that they are permanently joined at the border that separates them – is welcome, but one wonders how many are listening. 

The prism through which Pakistan views India is even less encouraging. As far as I can tell, conspiracy theories play an even larger role in Pakistani than in Indian political discourse, and not many seem to appreciate that the post-26/11 collapse of the dialogue process is anything other than a desire to humiliate Pakistan and punish it, an expression of India’s animus toward its neighbour. Many Pakistanis are asked to believe that the 26/11 attacks were the work of right-wing Hindu groups or of RAW, and the Pakistani government’s concession that elements in the country were responsible has not helped much: televised nudges and winks from government spokespersons leave open the possibility in the public mind that the government is simply acting under pressure, and anyway, in the eyes of middle-class Pakistanis, the present government simply lacks all credibility (tendencies rumoured to be cynically fed by way of media manipulation by the country’s military establishment, never happier than when “civilians” are politically discredited; although my own reference to such covert meddling illustrates the inability of even those who critique Pakistan’s culture of conspiracy theories from escaping them). Certainly, most Pakistanis do not doubt the existence of anti-India militant outfits in Pakistan, but given at least some of these are also waging war against Pakistan, public opinion has apparently been liberated from any defensiveness on the issue: the bad actors are non-state actors, and hence shouldn’t impact India’s decision to initiate dialog. There is little public appreciation of how the dialog process looks from the Indian public’s point of view, of the difficulty of selling peace to the Indian public if the latter feels that neither warm nor cold relations between the two countries has made India safer. In other words, the Pakistani public has to my mind not adequately addressed the question of why the Indian public would feel it was in India’s interests to talk to Pakistan, if either way the militant groups continued as before. The two questions “Should two hostile countries resolve their differences through dialog?” and “What does the Indian public feel it is gaining from an Indo-Pak dialog process?” are not one and the same, and the latter cannot be answered by pretending that it is the former. 

The lack of imaginative engagement condemns the public in both countries to a sort of political narcissism. This isn’t simply an issue of ambiguity, but of dissonance. On the one hand, Indians do not tend to regard the Indo-Pak dialog process as leading to a restructuring of the sub-continent’s status quo, but as simply putting the seal of amicability on that status quo – everything will go on as before, but the two countries will simply get along better. On the other hand, it isn’t clear whether enough Pakistanis appreciate that no dialog process can lead to the sort of settlement in Pakistan’s favour that was unachievable in war. Dialog processes do not yield such radical results. I suspect the political leadership in India and Pakistan appreciates this, but whether or not it does, it is time the people of the two countries learned to listen to each other. Peace, with or without quotation marks, cannot be achieved by talking past each other.


Umair Ahmed Muhajir is a lawyer based in New York City. He blogs at


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