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India-Pakistan relationship – the Punjab angle 

Tridivesh Singh Maini
It is important for both countries to think outside the box and create constituencies of peace outside New Delhi and Islamabad, especially in the two Punjabs


The meeting between Dr Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of the India-Pakistan cricket world cup semi-final at Mohali has provided the much needed fillip to the relationship between the two countries that was adversely affected by the Mumbai attacks.

While India won both the semi-final and the cup, it would not be out of place to say that in the context of diplomacy, neither country has lost. Fortunately, Dr Manmohan Singh’s invitation and Yousuf Raza Gilani’s visit were welcomed in India by large sections of the media and leaders from across the political spectrum. But Bharat Bhushan, the editor of The Mail Today, expressed skepticism in an article titled ‘India-Pakistan peace initiative: Mohali spirit seems spurious’, and dismissed the initiative as a meaningless exercise.

There was only so much that the two prime ministers could have discussed on the sidelines of an exciting cricket match. The emphasis was rightly on reconciliation and engagement. Dr. Singh’s remark that Mian Mir, a forefather of Gilani, had laid the foundation of the Golden Temple is a perfect illustration of that.

The match was played on the Indian side of Punjab, and it is tough to ignore the Punjab-Punjab dimension. Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao has said more Punjab-Punjab interactions were definitely on the agenda.

While Indian Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh attended the dinner hosted for Gilani, it was disappointing to see Pakistani Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif missing from the Pakistani entourage. The reason for this may be purely political, as Sharif belongs to the PML-N. But his absence signalled non-realization of the role Punjab can play in bridging the gulf between the two countries.

The previous regimes in both the Punjabs played a crucial role in easing things out between the two neighbours. The Punjab-Punjab engagement reached its zenith during the previous Amarinder Singh regime on the Indian side and the Pervaiz Elahi regime on the Pakistani side. Many of their initiatives, such as running buses between Amritsar and Nankana Sahib, and cultural and sports exchanges between the two provinces, have done their bit in improving the relationship between not only the two provinces, but also the two countries. As a result of this engagement, Captain Amarinder Singh gained immense goodwill, and he listed the engagement with Pakistani Punjab as one of his government’s achievements.

It would also be crucial to mention that current Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal was part of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s delegation to Lahore in 1999.

Both New Delhi and Islamabad need to pay more attention to the relevance of the interaction between ordinary Punjabis. New Delhi must not lose sight of the fact that Punjab in Pakistan shapes national perceptions, as it is the dominant force in almost every sphere. Islamabad needs to realise that while there is a pan-Indian constituency for peace between India and Pakistan, the Indian Punjab’s desire for peace is the greatest – because the benefits of a harmonious relationship or the ramifications of an acrimonious one would be felt the most by Indian Punjab.

It is important for both countries to think outside the box – like Dr. Singh did by inviting the Pakistani leadership – and create constituencies of peace outside New Delhi and Islamabad. Engagement between provinces, especially the two Punjabs, needs to be encouraged.

Even civil society groups need to stop pontificating in five star hotels of New Delhi, Mumbai, Lahore and Karachi and percolate down to the lowest level. Initiatives such as ‘Aman Ki Asha’ which restrict themselves to academics, policy makers and journalists from the elite, should seek to build constituencies of peace in smaller towns.

While Punjabi tarka can not be the core of India-Pakistan relations, it must not be overlooked either, because of the historical commonalities between the two provinces and their high economic stakes in a good relationship.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. These are his personal views. 

 

The Friday Times: April 8-14, 2011