Looking to get his fill of international conflict, Kashmir Bureau Chief Mark Hay grabbed a chair in the Satow Room last night for “Pakistan-India: What’s Next?”
November 26 will mark a somber anniversary – one year since the coordinated terrorist attacks of the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba ripped through the Indian city of Mumbai, paralyzing both nations for several days. And just like that, after several years of improved relations – cooperation on anti-terror issues, relaxations on border controls – the India-Pakistan debacle was back in the news. Since the relative silence after the Kargil War of 1999, observers had all hoped that what some had called the most dangerous conflict on earth would just fizzle out and die.
Fat chance, as it turns out. So it was in memory, in fear, and in a tenacious spirit of hope that the Organization of Pakistani Students and the massive pan-South Asian club Zamana convened a panel of experts last night to discuss the vital question of “Pakistan-India: What’s Next?”
The night started strong with a Pakistani narrative of the situation, as Harvard’s Dr. Hassan Abbas rejected the standard spiel of intractable differences, misplaced blame, historical baggage, and the impossibility of solving the vital issue of Kashmir. Rather, Abbas noted the extreme changes in the nations’ relationship as early as four or five years after the Kargil War – a shift incited by the lessening of communications restrictions, the common threat of terror, and the good job Pakistan has done investigating the Mumbai attacks – and suggested that such internal problems and increased understanding of the other side has led to Pakistan’s desire for peace. Ultimately, in Abbas’ view, India can and should trust the new Pakistan.
Columbia’s own Professor Philip Oldenburg then chimed in to agree that the progress of the past decade has driven Pakistan towards a much more conciliatory note, and that perhaps it is mainly the nation’s stale military and Foreign Service apparatuses that distort these gentle and knowing gestures. Oldenburg also noted India’s relative success when compared to Pakistan due in part to its recent alignments with the U.S. over nuclear issues, and wondered whether India had not been put in too dominant a position for peace to be reached.
Next, the venerable Dr. Saeed Shafqat, an adjunct professor at SIPA, mused that perhaps a larger issue to consider is that the subjects relevant to peace negotiations have shifted tremendously – away from Kashmir and the historical background, and towards the more pressing matters of the present day. In particular, Shafqat reflected on the inorganic presence of the U.S. in peace talks, the increasingly troublesome issues of water on the subcontinent, and India’s heightened focus on future conflicts with China as opposed to Pakistan. So regardless of slight variations between their viewpoints, the three men all agreed that Pakistan has undergone a paradigm shift, is trustworthy, and not only needs but also desperately wants peace.
And to this, the final speaker – Manish Thakur, CEO of Hudson Fairfax Group and director of the U.S.-India Institute, a think tank devoted to security and economic relations between the two nations – merely said pishaw. From his Wall Street vantage, Thakur noted foremost that while Pakistan wants to solve border issues with India before commencing trade, India wants to start trading before solving the border issues. Pakistan, however, will probably have to admit defeat here, as its military buildup pushes it ever towards bankruptcy and India appears to be rapidly losing interest.
To Thakur, the question is not one of how do we end animosities so much as how Pakistan will “maintain [its] survival as a country … when [it is] ripping itself apart?” Thakur also pointed out (to much noise from the audience) that as long as Pakistani military commanders draw a line between “good terrorism” and “bad terrorism,” there will be no ground on which Pakistan can settle, and there will certainly be no chance for peace.
As one might have expected from such bold statements, the question and answer portion of the event devolved quickly into a conversation with Thakur (it didn’t hurt that he was clearly the most talented speaker of the night). The audience fired at him primarily for his comments that Pakistan should pursue deals before a full resolution on Kashmir, and for his insistence that India is not instigating violence in Baluchistan, Waziristan, or any other trouble region; one student responded with such a vigorous and prolonged counterattack that the flustered moderator had to figure out how to cut him off, as various wide-eyed organizers at the back of the room made a strange dance of chopping motions. But Thakur responded evenhandedly, saying that he wasn’t suggesting the speaker abandon “your passions,” but instead that “you should not allow one issue to halt the development of your nation wholesale.” The other panelists did get the chance to slip in a comment or two, but it was mostly to offer a soft-footed and vague reiteration of their main points, and possibly to poke at a different vantage just lightly enough so as to avoid the wrath of Thakur.
Perhaps last night did exactly what the first three speakers would have liked – increased the dialogue and understanding between the actual people on both sides, and not just the big cheeses. Perhaps not. Bwog noticed that for the first half of the event, one could distinctly hear the muffled grunts and slams of a martial arts class in practice. The second half was flavored by what sounded like a rather pained and misplaced sing-along wafting through the too thin but aggravatingly impassable wall. It is impossible to tell if anything truly profound and symbolic can be made from that background, but it seemed at the time to summarize the event perfectly – veiled, faint, confusing, but absolutely scintillating.