It took Islamabad and New Delhi 71 years to allow for a pocket of peaceful coexistence on their shared border as the nations travelled four kilometres in these seven decades to meet at Kartarpur. Around 0.05 kilometre per year. Thats the speed at which Pakistan and India are moving towards each other. At this rate, the two nations are expected to bridge the gap between Islamabad and New Delhi in just about another 13,000 years. The people cant wait, literally.
Yet, despite its necessity, Kartarpur is a paradox. Because the unfortunate border between India and Pakistan is perhaps the only one in the world where live artillery fire and oversized bouquets and sweets are exchanged simultaneously by the same people a few hundred kilometres apart. For the same border to have a visa-free corridor and a practically live-war zone is a singularly unique absurdity.
This paradox of Pakistan and Indias relationship was laid bare by Prime Minister Imran Khan as he spoke at the Kartarpur border crossing ground breaking festivities earlier this week. Once again, he spoke his mind, its the Prime Ministers best quality. Unfiltered, honest and well-intentioned. There is no denying that as Khan spoke the audience was at a loss to explain to themselves how peace between the two countries had not come about yet. He laid out a road map for peace between the two nations that was seemingly impregnable, largely due to its simplicity. Perhaps the most important part of the Prime Ministers speech was to rebut the detractors in the BJP who claim that the democratic government in Islamabad did not represent the views of Pakistans armed forces. The Prime Minister was unprecedently unequivocal when he told the world that the armed forces and the government in Islamabad along with all opposition parties were on the same page when it came to exploring peace between Pakistan and India.
If the BJP wasnt convinced, Khan proceeded to explain why there was no other page for the stakeholders to be on in the first place. Poverty and death. Its impossible to reasonably sustain a position when the same results in either.
There is something hauntingly ironic about fighting a war on an empty stomach. The sub-continent collectively is one of the poorest regions in the world, as people continue to starve to death in Delhi and Islamabad alike in the 21st century. And this is where PM Khan is so simplistically appealing; there is no sense in fighting an endless conflict while people continue to starve. War is a luxury ill-afforded for those already stricken by the tragedy of poverty.
But what brings the paradoxical nature of a sustained conflict between Pakistan and India in perspective most starkly is nuclear war. Its madness, he said, to engage in war between two nuclear-armed nations. The concept of mutually-assured destruction (MAD) has been around since the start of the Cold War in the 60s, whereby the apt acronym for nuclear war between two countries was used to drive home an exceedingly basic idea; in nuclear war, no one wins because everyone is destroyed. Yet, MAD hasnt stopped India and Pakistan from calling out the nuclear threat against each other. Equally paradoxically, theres little doubt, if any, that nuclear weapons on both sides have been a consistent source of deterrence from a large-scale conflict. What needs to be understood, and what was painstakingly explained by Khan was how this deterrent now needs to evolve into sustained peace.
After all this, if war between Pakistan and India isnt possible, it sure isnt probable, and so, after Khans speech, you would expect Delhi to take a moment.
But it didnt. The Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, was on television moments later seemingly on a damage-control mission, lest the cancerous peace established in Kartarpur spread to the rest of the sub-continent. The opening of the corridor, she said, would not result in the resumption of the stalled dialogue between the two countries, nor would India attend the Saarc conference in Pakistan, to which Islamabad had just days earlier invited the Prime Minister of India.
Why then, is the Modi government opposed to an idea so inevitably natural and reasonable as exploring peace between the two countries, especially after Kartarpur?
In the 50s the Red Scare swept the US as the American population was made aware of the dangers of communism and its harbinger, the Soviet Union. What transpired was a culture of fear, unbound paranoia and repression that came to be known as McCarthyism. After decades of propaganda and hate-based politics, the US and the Soviet Union found themselves in a siege mentality of perpetually frozen war, and in that manic paranoia, diplomacy became the first casualty as Washington and Moscow found themselves paralysed, not being able to move a step forward or backwards. Yet, despite the unbound hatred the two superpowers were made to harbour for each other, they never directly went to war, due to the simple fact that neither of them could afford to go nuclear, hence the paradox.
To sustain its power, Modis BJP government has radicalised its core electorate against relations with Pakistan, which in turn has led to the Modi government becoming a slave to this very radicalisation. Modi now finds himself unable to press back onto a narrative that he has nurtured and one that he rode to power, despite being aware of the misery it brings to the people of the subcontinent. With elections looming next year, now is an especially bad time for the Modi government to talk peace.
Without much else to offer, the Modi government needs a bogey-man that it can protect India from. Not that the Government in Delhi looks to go to war, lest the Sensex crashes and half the ruling partys fortunes are wiped out. No, the Government in Delhi has found comfort in the status quo, rebuffing Pakistans sustained requests for talks and engagement, exchanging live artillery and sweets simultaneously, keeping the threat of impending war on the forefront of the psyche of an electorate that has been tuned to require the BJP for seemingly necessary protection against a country that continues to avail every opportunity to invite India to talk peace. Importantly, there is significant and admirable resistance within Delhi to the BJPs interest-based resistance to peace as significant voices in Indias sizeable opposition continue to call Modi out for his use of hate-based politics.
Where does that leave us? Between feeding our poor and saving the world from nuclear damnation, there is only a small corridor, just four kilometres long, and it is in this tragically confined corridor that more than a billion people must find peace. This peace is not going to come about at a rate of half a kilometre per year, instead Kartarpur must be allowed to extend urgently and bridge the gap between Islamabad and Delhi if the people of the subcontinent are to live a prosperous day.
The Article First Appeared In The Express Tribune