No better tribute can be paid to the intrepid soldiers and civilians — still buried under the recent avalanche, and thousands more who have been killed or injured due to the cold over the years in Siachen — than the recent recognition by the Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, that peace is in the best interests of the people and the environment. Earlier, amidst their sorrow at the tragedy in the Giari sector, politicians and the public alike, were unanimous in their conviction that the clash of national egos and needless deaths and human suffering in that icy wasteland must end. The Indian Minister of State for Defence, Mr MM Pallam Raju, immediately welcomed this emerging consensus in Pakistan and seemed amenable to the logic of Pakistan’s view. So let peace talks begin between Pakistan and India to demilitarise the Siachen Glacier and thereby save lives, economic resources and the ecology of that watershed region, which is vital to the life support system of both countries.
The proposition propounded by General Kayani — perhaps the first time by a serving chief of army staff — was a more general one: that Pakistan and India should seek peace in order to pursue the economic well-being of the people. It represents a step towards a welcome change in the national security paradigm. National security in terms of the capacity to defend the country against external aggression becomes meaningful only when individuals within that country have a stake in citizenship: this means an entitlement to democratic freedoms, education, health, food security, livelihood, justice, and protection from violence against an individual’s person. It is these rights flowing out of the fact of citizenship that enable human functioning. It is through the provision of these rights that a state acquires legitimacy and the citizens, the will to defend it. The real strength of a country, therefore, lies in the well-being of its citizens. The military, which specialises in defence, can win respect from society and indeed internal motivation when it restricts itself to its constitutional role under elected civil authority of defending the national territorial space. This space can acquire substance only within the institutional structures that guarantee the freedom of its citizens.
The essential fact about the India-Pakistan problematique is that both countries have common problems of hunger, disease, illiteracy, communal bigotry and internal violence, to varying extents. Yet, in maintaining a hostile posture and spending disproportionate amounts on building military apparatuses of mutual destruction, they are constraining their respective capacities to provide the very economic resources to their peoples which is the real basis of national strength.
The work of Dr Mahbubul Haq suggests that there is a substantial human opportunity cost of military expenditure in South Asia. For example, half the annual military expenditure in the region could provide primary school education to 119 million children for a year, safe drinking water to 200 million people and medicines to 117 million people.
Forty-five per cent of children who embody the future of our countries are suffering from malnutrition, with millions dying of water borne diseases and even more being deprived of primary education. My work for the International Labour Organisation on children in hazardous employment shows that out of those children who are too poor to go to school, millions are engaged in labour: many are maimed, blinded, and struck with lung diseases and brain deformities related to poisonous emissions and physical hazards at workplaces. We are witnessing a mutilation of the innocents in both Pakistan and India.
Together, through peace, economic well-being and protecting the life support systems of our shared ecology, it is time to build a better future for the people of India and Pakistan. Pakistan is taking the first hesitant steps in this direction by opening up trade and talking peace. Demilitarising Siachen could be the next substantial step. Will India have the courage and vision to grasp the moment and take the peace process forward?
Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th, 2012.