Prime Minister Imran Khan convened a meeting of the country’s leading industrialists and businessmen in order to solicit their advice on how to expand and deepen Pakistan’s economic ties with China. Imran Khan’s visit to China began on 3 February. The visit focused on accelerating the work on CPEC — the flagship Chinese project that would ensure more connectivity, more trade and more infrastructure development leading to socio-economic emancipation of the masses. Moreover, it also focused on the development of the Gwadar port, expansion of trade, Afghanistan, and the Islamist movements in Western China’s Xinjiang province.
Before the visit, one of our leading industrialists, Mohammad Mansha, struck a somewhat discordant note by raising the issue of normalisation of relations with India. He was of the view that differences on Kashmir should not come in the way of establishing durable trade and commercial ties with our neighbour. Mansha’s timely advice may have fallen on deaf ears as “strategic” security imperatives have taken precedence over any rationale for normalisation of relations with India. Mansha raised the issue in a forum that included the country’s top security officials. Firstly, the civilian government has little to contribute to the formulation of a policy on issues with countries such as India, Afghanistan, China and the US. And secondly, the current rulers are too passionately fixated on how to criminalise their political opponents and how to use the resources of the state to defame and malign their rivals. This single-point agenda has driven the policy and conduct of our rulers since 2018 and has left them with no time or energy to tend to issues of governance, climate change, impending water scarcity, deteriorating healthcare and education, growing poverty, and unemployment.
Regrettably, Pakistan’s policy towards India is designed to prolong the status quo. This would mean an eternal confrontation at the cost of socio-economic development. The status quo delivers power and resources to some but results in an agonising and bitter rivalry that has increased poverty and led to repeated military interventions in Pakistan. The stand-off on Kashmir has resulted in incalculable damage for the two nations both in terms of human lives and huge economic losses. It has caused an unquantifiable loss to the treasury and has been the principal cause of the menace of poverty on both sides. According to the World Bank, the potential for bilateral trade between India and Pakistan would be more than $45 billion a year. Imagine the tremendous impact of trade to the tune of $50 billion a year on reducing poverty and unemployment in both countries.
To link the resumption of trade with the “resolution” of Kashmir is a non-starter. Pakistan has waited for more than 70 years for any substantive change in the status of Kashmir in the context of the aspirations of the people of the disputed region. That has not worked. And yes, it has had the opposite impact. Kashmir’s status and identity have been destroyed. It is now a union territory and will no longer have an independently elected government. This alone should be an eye-opener.
The policy of an eternal confrontation has had the opposite impact for sure and now it is time to reappraise that policy. This does not mean the abandonment of the idea of a plebiscite for the people of Kashmir and their right to participate in free elections for constituting their own government. Instead, the new approach should emphasise on deepening cultural and economic ties, which would not only boost economic progress but also help create an environment for a resolution. The two countries must understand that the dispute over Kashmir cannot be resolved by war or conflict. Wars can have no winners. An all-out war between two nuclear armed neighbours would lead to unimaginable destruction. The only option is to work closely to design systems that would be more compatible with the aspirations of the people of the region. Something along the lines of what was suggested by Pakistan many years ago such as envisaging the gradual irrelevance of the disputed border and allowing free trade and movement of the people across the LoC. This could help bring about a profound change in outlook and could have a huge impact on the lives of people on both sides of the border.
It is time the confrontational approach was abandoned. Too much is at stake — the teeming millions living in abject poverty in both countries; the future of one-fifth of humanity; and issues such as climate change, depleting water resources, rapidly expanding population, disappearing glaciers, and the high rate of poverty that afflicts millions in each country. These challenges could only be overcome with joint endeavours, close consultations, data and experience sharing, and joint strategies to combat crises. Confrontations would only make the task even more difficult to accomplish. It is time that public opinion exerted pressure on both countries in order to design a new contract of close bilateral relations that incorporates not only the aspirations of the people but also lays down a rational, far-sighted strategy to deal with the enormous challenge of climate change, water scarcity and poverty. But that may not happen soon considering the ground realities of partisan or selfish agendas that dominate policy formulation on both sides of the divide.
The death of the legendary singer, Lata Mangeshkar, produced a spontaneous outpouring of grief all across India and Pakistan. Lata was loved, admired and respected in every village, town and city across Pakistan as much as she was adored in India. This shows the deep cultural affinity between the two countries. There are multiple such cultural bonds that are common between the people of South Asia. Should we build upon this or should we embrace the agenda of confrontation? This is a choice that those in authority have to make.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2022.
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