OPINION

Civil hands must soothe uncivil tempers

bridging ties:“Exchange for Change has linked thousands of Indian and Pakistani students.” Picture shows Pakistani school students(dressed in blue) visiting Indian students in New Delhi under the ‘Students Exchange for Change-II’ programme organised by the NGOs Citizens Archive of Pakistan from Pakistan and Routes 2 Roots from India.— photo: Monica Tiwari  

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 initiate 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 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 defence practitioners together, in person and online, to formulate workable solutions to intractable political and military problems.

Initiating policy shifts

The measurable impact of these initiatives is not always clear, but anecdotal evidence suggests they have significant potential to inform political decision-making — what Peter Jones, coordinator of the Ottawa Dialogue, calls “transfer”. At best, they can facilitate tangible policy shifts.

Several practitioners told us of meetings with government officials who were eager to discuss policy ideas and confidence-building measures raised by joint task forces and at Track Two exchanges. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has encouraged this sort of engagement, stating days after taking office that “policymaking should incorporate inputs from universities and think tanks.” Policy proposals first considered at informal dialogues on ballistic missiles, nuclear risk reduction, military exercises, and travel restrictions have subsequently surfaced in official negotiations.

As a number of these initiatives demonstrate, civil society-led efforts can create space for dialogue around prickly issues. They can also keep the parties talking when official lines of communication are closed: even in the current atmosphere of diplomatic deadlock, trade delegations, fashion designers, security scholars, and artists from both states have met.

Civil society can serve an important convening function too. That Prime Minister Modi attended the recent gathering of the Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness in Bodh Gaya demonstrates the power of non-governmental channels to promote both people-to-people and government-to-government ties.

It must be said that all civil society-led initiatives are not created equal, nor are all civil society groups interested in peace. But those initiatives geared towards improving ties that have achieved results — those able to build reservoirs of trust and understanding, with local leadership and buy-in, whose policy prescriptions are taken seriously at the highest levels of government — share a number of characteristics. The most effective efforts are well-coordinated, able to marshal disparate knowledge, resources and personnel, and are able to adapt with the winds of political change.

Promising initiatives also know their audience, working either behind the scenes or in the public eye, as required. Campaigns to inform broader publics about the extensive bridge-building efforts underway — in local dialects and through less conventional means like social media — can craft a different narrative than one of persistent animus. In India’s vivacious democracy, public support born of a robust civil society can generate pressure and momentum for reconciliation.

Finally, the most potent civil society-led work looks well into the future. Seeding policy ideas, crafting new narratives, and generating enough empathy to overcome decades of animosity take time and perseverance. Most importantly, they require steady and long-term financial support, from philanthropists, foundations, and all concerned citizens.

Civil society will not, on its own, bring peace to the subcontinent. Yet, if government officials cannot find their way to the negotiating table, those willing to start chipping away at decades of mistrust might just be encouraged to take their empty seats. If adequately empowered, they can continue to lay the groundwork for a more peaceful future.

(Vishakha N. Desai is Special Advisor for Global Affairs to the President and Professor of Practice, Columbia University, and President Emerita, Asia Society. Benjamin Weiss is Editorial Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.)



Anecdotal evidence suggests these initiatives have significant potential to inform political

decision-making