A drive to my hometown, Sialkot, in the 1990s presented an interesting spectacle of graffiti on the city walls exhorting the youth to enlist for the ongoing jihad in Kashmir. With time, these inscriptions faded away. The city started presenting different visuals. Banners could be seen along the thoroughfares with an appeal, “Sialkot-Jammu road link bahaal karo”. This turnaround was taking place in a city, which had been battered the most during the three wars with India. It was in no way, a mean development. People wished to be part of the peace process and connectivity. This phenomenon signified slow, yet incremental gains for the peace lobby. That trend, however, is still in a frail state. Any untoward incident upsets the apple cart. It not only wrings the peace constituency but also, on both sides of the divide, gives instant spurt to hawks by many notches.
Recent conflagrations along the Line of Control (LoC), with casualties on both sides, are a pointer to the follow-up events. While Pakistan’s reaction was measured, the tone and tenor of the Indian reaction rattled the ongoing processes. The new visa regime was put on hold, the bus service was suspended and Pakistani visitors were shown the door. Indian fragility in the wake of the Mumbai attacks is understandable. But this time, it was a bloody stand-off between regular troops. It was not fair to see the incident through the Mumbai spectrum with orchestrated media hype. This time, Pakistan had been as much an aggrieved party. While the alleged decapitation of an Indian soldier’s body is a most reprehensible act, what is stopping India from accepting Pakistan’s proposal for a thorough probe?
Such a flare-up in a nuclearised region alludes to the fact that we are building peace on brittle foundation. This vindicates Pakistan’s stance that there can be no meaningful progress on normalisation unless we address the core issue. Pakistan and India had adhered to the ceasefire and status quo along the LoC for the past decade. This declared intent, however, presages rigorous operating procedures for maintaining the status quo as there could be no unilateral build-up by either side. Any movement in the sensitive belt requires prior exchange of information. Before starting the blame game, the Indians have to do some soul-searching as to what impelled them to make unilateral moves, which resulted in the bloody clashes. Status quo, once disturbed, has the potential of making the situation volatile.
We have recently witnessed an alarming Sino-Japanese stand-off in the East China Sea on account of tinkering with the 40-years-old status quo over the islets of Senkaku-Diaoyu. Both countries claim sovereignty over these islets. In the 1970s, the elder generation of the leadership of the two countries agreed to maintain the status quo over the disputed islets, which were transferred from the US to Japan, along with Okinawa. Last September, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abes’ nationalist government tinkered with the status quo by nationalising these barren islets. This invited a strong Chinese reaction followed by a protest wave throughout the country, which has also hit its economic interests and led to the suspension of key operations of Japanese companies in China. Aerial scrambling over the East China Sea is a common sight now.
India and Pakistan have ventured to alter the status quo in this sensitive region on two occasions since 1972 — once in Siachen when the Indian forces scaled the heights, and the second time, to the stunning disbelief of the Indians, with the presence of Pakistani forces in Kargil. The latter incursion was reversed but the former still persists. Both countries, however, have not been able to get over the far-reaching consequences of these misadventures.
In the years to come, however, progress and development rests on greater connectivity and mutual sensitivity to persisting issues. We are in the neighbourhood of Asean, which despite interstate issues, is turning into an economic union in two years time. Are we prepared to ride on its tailwind? With episodic flare-ups, spikes in the ongoing processes, venom-spitting by hate campaigners and heated hype by the embedded media, it may look to be an elusive goal.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2013.