Still waters, Strong currents

The resurrection of old bonds between the two Punjabs, in India and Pakistan, can decisively shift the affirmative discourse across the border

Tridivesh Maini Delhi 

Few would have expected that the India-Pakistan commerce secretary-level talks in April 2011 would pave the way for such a drastic shift in the economic relationship between the countries. Tensions ensuing after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks were such that even basic engagement between the countries seemed a far cry. 

In the past year, we have been witness to some significant developments such as Pakistan’s decision to confer Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status — in a phased manner — on India. And also Islamabad’s enthusiasm to import petroleum and power from India, and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s remark, during the course of his short but eventful India sojourn, that India and Pakistan should follow the China-India model of engagement, whereby economics and politics are de-hyphenated from each other.

There are numerous factors which have led to this thaw between the two South Asian neighbours. Obviously, the national leadership of both sides deserves credit for showing courage.

The Indian leadership, under the aegis of Dr Manmohan Singh, has gone ahead with the engagement in spite of the scepticism of a large section of the political set-up, including his own party, a significant percentage of the strategic community and even the media. Similarly, Pakistan’s civilian leadership’s unambiguous endorsement of the peace process by pushing for trade, without hyphenating it with any conditions — as was done in the past — is praiseworthy.

The unequivocal pitch for peace by New Delhi and Islamabad is even more laudable, considering that both dispensations are not on a very strong political wicket in the domestic realm — for different reasons, of course. The ruling UPA government’s image has been battered as a consequence of numerous corruption cases, the recent downturn in the economy, the pounding it received in the assembly elections held in five states earlier this year, and endless ally problems. In Pakistan, the ruling civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) faced a major setback when Yousuf Raza Gilani was disqualified by the Supreme Court for not taking action against Zardari in a corruption case and had to be removed from his position as prime minister.

The tide of extremism in Pakistan’s Punjab needs to be countered by promoting Sufi philosophy — marginalised due to the domination of Wahabism

Thus, undoubtedly, the central leaderships across the border need to be credited for their abiding commitment to ameliorating the poor relations. Besides, it would be grossly unfair if one were not to recognise the role of ‘both the Punjabs’ which in the past decade have been pushing hard for closer ties — economic, cultural and political — between India and Pakistan.

For decades, the Indo-Pak conflict was often attributed to the animosity between East and West Punjab — separated in 1947. The reasons were obvious; the scars of the violent and tragic Partition, and, then, the wars of 1965 and 1971.

The traumatic vivisection of the region led to its geographical division. It caused severe economic damages and unprecedented loss of lives. It also created communal fissures between the Punjabis who for long took pride in a composite Punjabi ethos carved out first during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule — as has been vociferously argued by eminent historians such as Khushwant Singh and Kirpal Singh — and further consolidated by the Unionist Party, which, through its mechanism of power-sharing between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh landlords, kept communal forces at bay. 

It was Punjabi civil society, the World Punjabi Congress (WPC) and the Academy of the Punjab in North America (APNA), which used the intellectual space for promoting the Punjabi language and traditions and using them as tools for reconciliation 

In the aftermath of Partition, the period between the mid-1950s and the 1965 war rekindled hope since it witnessed a substantial amount of people-to-people contact between the two countries in general and the two Punjabs in particular. A large number of visitors from the Indian side went during the cricket series of 1955 when Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan, then Pakistani High Commissioner to India, facilitated visits of a large number of tourists from East Punjab.

During this epoch, the vast majority of trade between the two countries was between the two Punjabs since it had important land routes such as Attari-Wagah and Hussainiwala-Ganda Singh Wala (Pakistan). The 1965 war resulted not only in disturbing bilateral trade, but also made people-to-people contact virtually impossible. While trade did resume a decade later and a visa protocol was signed in 1974, the level of connectivity and integration even today is far from the pre-1965 levels when there was a much more liberal permit system rather than the draconian visa regime which we
have now.

If 1965 had an indelible impact on connectivity, the war of 1971 played a critical role in shaping the mindset of the Pakistan army, a predominantly Punjabi army (as has been noted by scholars like Yunus Samad and Stephen Cohen), which was to dominate the country’s political landscape, thereby influencing the popular mindset and exacerbating hostility on both sides.

In spite of these impermeable barriers between New Delhi and Islamabad, and the two Punjabs, it was Punjabi civil society consisting of organisations such as the World Punjabi Congress (WPC), led by Fakhar Zaman in Pakistan, and the Academy of the Punjab in North America (APNA), based overseas, which not only pitched for greater interaction between both sides, but, more significantly, were resolute in using the intellectual space available to them for promoting Punjabi language and traditions in Pakistani Punjab and using them as tools for reconciliation.

They could not achieve much for two reasons: first, Punjab was the flag-bearer of conflict. Second, to establish its pre-eminence in the Pakistani set-up, Punjab gave up its native language Punjabi (which received no official patronage), and adopted Urdu. Sahiba Mansoor, in a book titled Punjabi, Urdu, English in Pakistan: A Sociolinguistic Study (1993), aptly states: “A growing number of Punjabis... feel that in Pakistan no regional language has suffered at the hands of vested interests as Punjabi… creating a cultural alienation of the worst kind.” Thus, Sufi thought and philosophy too was relegated to the margins for a long time.

The first dynamic began to change when a clear window of opportunity emerged in the late 1990s. Nawaz Sharif won the 1997 election on the plank of peace with India. As prime minister, he repeatedly spoke about the dire need for economic cooperation between the two countries. The reasons for Sharif’s overtures towards India were two-fold. First, Sharif, an implant of the Pakistan army, began to call for greater civilian control and peace with India; this was an affront to the ‘anti-India’ army. Second, being a businessman, Sharif realised the relevance of trade.

Sharif further pushed the envelope for greater cooperation during the Lahore Agreement, signed with the then Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who boarded the inaugural Delhi-Lahore bus along with a delegation of prominent personalities. But Sharif’s and Vajpayee’s efforts were nullified in the aftermath of the Kargil war which once again resulted in hostility between the countries for a considerable period.

The real game-changer in the relationship came in the aftermath of the 2004 cricket series in Pakistan and Vajpayee’s visit to Islamabad for the SAARC summit. A yearning for peace seemed evident.

In the context of the two Punjabs, the chief minister of Punjab in India, Amarinder Singh, visited West Punjab for a conference organised by the World Punjabi Congress in March 2004. Singh also met his counterpart, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, and discussed possible areas of engagement between the two countries. Both decided to take a very cautious approach and began by focussing on people-to-people contact, promoting sports interaction between the two provinces and greater exchanges between members of the business community on both sides. 

Initiatives between the chief ministers drew support from the national governments — especially in India. Dr Manmohan Singh, the new prime minister in 2004, favoured interaction between the two provinces. Some of the important achievements between 2004-2007 were the inauguration of two bus services — Amritsar-Lahore and Amritsar-Nankana Sahib, the all-Punjab Games and regular meetings between the chambers of commerce of Lahore and Amritsar. The positive impact of this was bolstered by the sudden upward spiral of land prices across the Radcliffe Line during this period.

India and Pakistan should follow the China-India model of engagement, whereby economics and politics are de-hyphenated from each other

Thanks to the efforts of both governments and the business chambers, India-Pakistan trade through the Wagah land route resumed in October 2007. Just when things seemed to be on the right track, the Mumbai attacks in 2008 once again escalated tension and conflict. Punjab, across the border, could not go significantly against the tide.

Interestingly, trade interactions through Wagah carried on as they did between the two Kashmirs. In fact, there was an increase in trade at the Wagah checkpoint. While the trade between the two countries over April-October 2008 was worth Rs 105.71 crore, for the same period in 2009 it was Rs 299 crore. Yet, due to stringent visa regimes in the aftermath of the attacks, business interaction between entrepreneurs in the two countries was affected.

The business community and the Punjab governments vociferously supported the resumption of dialogue. Of late, interaction between the Punjabs has picked up with a high-profile political delegation led by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein coming to Indian Punjab for the World Kabaddi Cup in November 2011.

At the inauguration of the Integrated Check Post in April 2012, the chief ministers of both Punjabs — Shahbaz Sharif and Parkash Singh Badal — urged their national governments to take tangible steps to facilitate more meaningful people-to-people contact and economic integration. Badal called for liberalisation of the visa regimes and an increase in the number of commodities which can be traded at the Attari-Wagah border from the current number of 137 items.

The traumatic vivisection… caused economic damages and unprecedented loss of lives. It created communal fissures between the Punjabis who for long took pride in a composite ethos carved out during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule

Sharif called for opening up the Hussainiwala-Ganda Singh Wala crossing. This was a very important trade route and has assumed more significance with the inauguration of the Bathinda refinery since there is a possibility of selling petroleum products through Hussainiwala which is much closer than Attari. While the government of India has spoken about the possibility of opening up Hussainiwala, the Punjab government in Pakistan has already constructed an eight-lane highway which leads to the Ganda Singh Wala border 25 km from Kasur.

Thus, while so far the states have begun to emerge as harbingers of cooperation, the future role of both Punjabs will depend to a large degree on a number of factors. First, the relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad does influence the relationship between the Punjabs. This has to remain manageable if not cordial for the states to do substantial business. Second, it will hinge on the level of economic traction which evolves between the regions through the current and future trade routes and the pace of infrastructural developments.

Third, and crucially, the rising tide of extremism in Pakistan’s Punjab province needs to be countered by promoting Sufi philosophy which is being marginalised in recent times due to the domination of Wahabism. Similarly, Punjabi culture and traditions should act as a counterpoise to fundamentalism and a bridge between the two regions.

Indeed, the Punjabs — especially the Indian Punjab — have played a constructive role in the relationship between India and Pakistan and it is not only in their interest but that of the whole of South Asia that linkages in the economic, cultural and educational realm expand. This will restore old bonds and consolidate new creative ties and energy between the nations and their people.

The writer is a Research Fellow with Observer Research Foundation(ORF), New Delhi 

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2012