Tuesday, June 18, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Know thy enemy

Update : 08 May 2015, 06:44 PM

How does dialogue and engagement start? I ask this question without any specific context. I shall come to that later. But still, generally, how does dialogue start? Honest dialogue and engagement assumes at least one thing. The pre-engagement attitude that exists between the conversants before any dialogue starts is clearly unsatisfactory. Hence the need arises for greater understanding, for dialogue. If one perpetuates clichéd understandings and sells them in a new package, it can even be slick, but if someone hopes that the package will have a new gift inside, they are being foolish. Let me now cut out all these generalisms and talk specifics.

In a cautiously optimistic note, the Indian Union and Pakistan have decided to resume dialogue. Delhi sent its foreign secretary S Jaishankar across the Radcliffe for initial engagement. Unrelated to the mood swings of Delhi and Islamabad, certain citizens of Pakistan and the Indian Union have been trying for decades to foster dialogue and understanding between people living on the two sides of the western Radcliffe line.

This has taken different forms. Of this, the most serious and consistent one is what is often termed “Track II” where influential folks from these 2 nation-states meet and discuss and come up with position papers. The good thing is that the Track II crowd is not necessarily made up of doves. If anything, retired hawks have a very special place in such initiatives. That is also a way, one can safely assume, by which the Track 2 deliberations do not go completely counter to the agendas of the power-to-be.

In addition to this, there are, what I want to term as “dhandaa” lobbies. Merchant chambers of various kinds are important in this and often, they are among the most successful, given their relative disinterest in the geo-political origins of the products they want to trade vis-à-vis their interest in getting a good deal. They understand, as a commentator from West Punjab pointed out not so long ago, that a tomato is neither Hindu nor Muslim. It is a tomato.

But beyond these hard-nosed initiatives, much of what exists is a particular kind of feel good posturing with very weak roots.  Much of these feel good posturing can be reduced to two things -- religion and commonality.

The Indian Union and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan are tied together in a grand narrative of religious difference. One is Hindu and the other is Muslim -- that’s how the story goes. Once one buys into this story of essential and insurmountable difference, the peace and friendship initiatives flows along clichéd lines. With the increasing avenues of interaction enabled by the Internet, these initiatives are more real than ever before. What shapes do these things take?

Typically, this would involve, say, a Hindu from Delhi or Bombay (two cities where rootlessness, curiously, is a cause of celebration with people only having “city” identities) giving Eid greetings to his friends in Pakistan. Or maybe a heart-warming story of a certain Hindu raising an orphan Muslim child as a Muslim and then marrying him/her off to a Muslim. By now, the corresponding set of overtures from Pakistan should also be predictable. A Muslim from Lahore will give Diwali greetings to those across the Radcliffe. Someone who has researched a bit more may even come up with a Ganesh Chaturthi greeting (look it up. I looked up what this entailed, given I am from West Bengal where this particular God’s worship is not so big).

All these messages across religious lines may be extremely well-meaning. That is not the problem. The problem lies in the fact that even in the most well-meaning of gestures, we seek to replicate the fissures of difference in the first place, reducing each other to their religious selves. And because of the superficiality, it is a tad dis-honest. There are these people in the Indian Union, who are born in high-caste Hindu families. Their privileged education makes them “not believe in caste” and “not divide people into castes.” So far so good. But ask them, beyond mouthing general humanism, can you give me specifics of the lower castes -- who they are, what is their society like and what are their practices.

This is when the elite feel vulnerable. The elite anti-caste position is a lazy and fashionable excuse for general alienation from society at large -- no wonder atomised cities produce them more easily. That is one trap that superficial religious tolerance and greetings at each other’s festivities may fall into.

At a more fundamental level, one might even question these superficial greetings and exchanges as a kind of smart-alec posturing -- a short cut to tolerance and peace-making. I am reminded of certain characters in the Indian Union territory, who are born Hindu, are mostly atheist or agnostic, do not say Ram Ram or Durga Durga, as is customary in certain regions, but would respond to a Muslim greeting like As-Salamu-Alaikum with a contrived Wa-Alaikum-as-Salam.

This probably helps create some personal sense of fashionable political correctness among some, but for anything else, this is absolutely useless. That the Indo-Pak peace types have too many of these types amongst themselves is a problem indeed. Peace-building or for that matter, people to people contact building, mostly needs people who are rooted in their socio-religious particularities but at the same time are wanting to go beyond what their respective nation-state narratives have taught them. Unless those people get involved, elite feel-good posturing is what we will get. Sorry to have said this bluntly, but well.

Another problem with this Hindu-Muslim-bhai-bhai narrative of Indo-Pak peace-building is the complete marginalisation of religious minorities of these nation-states in this model. This is particularly unfortunate given that the religious minorities suffer the first brunt of violence if something goes wrong across the Radcliffe. And let’s not even start with the constant hum of religion-based persecution and violence that is perpetrated on the minorities in these two nation-states. But playing the Hindu-Muslim game, we end up ossifying fissures and excluding the already marginalised, in spite of the noblest of intentions.

Let me now come to the other prism by which many approach Indo-Pak peace -- that of commonality. I will start with an anecdote. From a long time ago, I remember a picture in a Bengali daily newspaper. It showed, in a schematic view, the progressively increasing range of a particular missile system of Pakistan. It could have been Shaheen or Hatf or something else. It does not really matter. The picture showed a series of concentric circles of increasing diameter -- depicting the range of the missile.

At first it covered some parts of Punjab-Kashmir-Haryana-Delhi areas, then a major part of the middle-Gangetic plains and in the last circle, it was shown to cover Western Bengal -- my home. I should honestly state here that it is this last circle that terrified me. Call me chicken, call me close-minded, call me what you will, but I will unhesitatingly state that in the imaginary scenario where the missiles might be launched, first and foremost, I wish to escape unhurt. The inclusion of Kolkata in that range diminishes the chances of that.

This anecdote from my teenage is to state something that is not always obvious in the Indo-Pak peace circles -- that different regions inside the two nation-states have varying attitudes towards this thing. For some it is distant or even irrelevant -- a certain kind of Baloch or Naga mindset come to mind. Some are slowly learning to get worked up about this -- certain sectors of West Bengal or Tamil Nadu come to mind. And then there is Hindustan -- that vast stretch centred around the upper and middle Gangetic plains, the theatre of certain kinds of Indo-Persian encounters. One problem of this Indo-Pak commonality narrative is that this Hindustan is confused with the Indian Union and West Punjab becomes a proxy for Pakistan.

In this Hindustan-West Punjab love-fest, a very skewed picture of Indo-Pak commonality is produced. The wistfulness for Lahore, the regal memories of Delhi (curiously patronised by that upstart parasite of a city called New Delhi), the commonalities between the two and all that lies in between -- these things have been a source of a lot of heart-warming stories and anecdotes.

This has produced in Delhi and its outskirts a not so small circle of the enlightened who invariably turn to verses in Rekhta to bolster their cosmopolitan and refined sensitivities. And of course there is the New Delhi based mini-cottage industry of what can only be called kitschy Sufism. Yes, you heard that one here first. As the Indian Union continues its long project of neutering regional identities by cooking them in the Delhi cauldron, I am sure the tribe Sufism-dabblers will rise. But at this point, there are others in the Indian Union. It is important that in the commonality project of Indo-Pak peaceniks, these “others” are not forgotten or sidelined. Dialogue needs to carry populations -- extremely varied populations at that. For good or for worse, there is no lasting solution between the nation-states that excludes vast sections of its constituents.

I have sought to underline certain drawbacks and limitations of the peace lobby’s approach. If all that I have stated till now sounds a tad too critical, let me be clear that the enmity between these two nation-states is not an option at all. It may be useful to remember the words of the contemporary Bengali thinker Ashis Nandy: “You can afford to choose your friends carelessly but need to be careful when choosing an enemy because, in the long run, you begin to resemble, perhaps not your enemy, but certainly as you imagine him to be.” 


Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on twitter @gargac.

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