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Peace at the Borders

By Tridivesh Singh Maini

Since the killing of Osama bin Laden by American forces, Western attention has focused on the deteriorating relations between Pakistan—where bin Laden had been hiding for years—and the United States.  The tension in American-Pakistani relations crescendoed recently with the revelation that Pakistan had detained a number of people, including a Pakistani Army major, suspected of supplying the United States with information on the compound where bin Laden was living.

Yet, as fraught as American-Pakistani relations have become, the South Asian relationship most desperately in need of improvement remains that between India and Pakistan. Attempts at the level of national government have failed dramatically. There is thus a dire need to look at alternative models, not only for ending the conflict, but also for providing a boost to the Pakistani economy to help stabilize the nuclear-armed country.

One alternative could be the encouragement of deeper cooperation between border states in both countries—especially the two Punjabs, the two Kashmirs, and Rajasthan (India) and Sind (Pakistan). These border states have long been relegated to the periphery in discussions of the conflict. Yet in the last seven or eight years, which have witnessed an increase in people-to-people contact between the two countries, the border states have found themselves in the center of a “peace process” largely unknown to the rest of the world.

There are a number of reasons why this process has unfolded in the border regions. First, geographical realities often make it easier for these provinces to trade with one another—across national borders—rather than with areas within their own countries.

Similarly, due to cultural commonalities, these regions yearn for porous borders. There is no better evidence to illustrate both these points than the porous border once shared by Rajasthan and Sind. Until the 1990s, people crossed over from Rajasthan simply to buy groceries from the Pakistani side.  Rajasthan and Sind, in addition to the two Kashmirs, are even home to divided families.

The history of the two Punjabs is slightly different, as the region was subject to the bloody bisection that created modern-day India and Pakistan. But more than six decades later, the two provinces are bound by a form of soft power—a common language and culture—and the desire of Sikh pilgrims to visit their religious shrines in Pakistan.

Economic benefits are a powerful incentive for a peaceful relationship. Events like the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 damage support for peace in other regions, which, despite having civil society groups lobbying for nonviolent solutions, are easily swayed by the hysteria and frenzy generated by the media.  However, in the border provinces, even in the attack’s aftermath trade continued as normal and buses continued running, with minimal disruption, between the two Punjabs and Kashmirs. While the Indian and Pakistani governments bristled with hostility and acrimony, trade at the Wagah border (the main land crossing between both countries, which divides the Punjab province) nearly tripled. The total value of exports to Pakistan from April to October 2008 period was approximately $23.59 million; during the same period in 2009, that figure nearly tripled, to $66.71 million. Trade between the two Kashmirs continued after the attack as well.

A strong indicator that the border provinces desire to improve their relationships with their counterparts, at least on the Indian side, is the use of cross-border cooperation as a successful electoral plank by many parties.  In Indian Kashmir, for example, the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) included the opening up of a cross-border bus service—the Srinagar-Muzzafarabad route—in their list of electoral promises in the 2003 assembly elections. The party won, and the bus service between Srinagar and Muzzafarabad began in 2005. In Indian Punjab, during the assembly elections of 2007, the Congress Party touted improvement of relations with Pakistan, especially in the Punjab province, as one of its achievements. The party lost, but it has been argued that a softening of relations between the two Punjabs garnered a sizeable number of votes. Even in Rajasthan, the opening up of a rail route with Sind (Pakistan) was used as an electoral issue.

While easier transport and commerce connections, as well as confidence building measures, have been initiated, it is still important to ensure that they serve their purpose of facilitating people-to-people contact. However, because of the logistical challenges of cross-border travel, none of the initiatives has quite lived up to expectations. In Punjab, traveling from Amritsar to Lahore takes barely an hour—but first, Indian travelers have to go all the way to Delhi to secure a visa, an exercise that many do not have the time or money to afford. In addition to a visa, security clearance is required to travel to Pakistani Punjab. This is a tedious process.

The situation is no different in Kashmir, where measures in the name of national security regularly hamper people-to-people contact between the two sides. Two bus routes, the Uri-Muzaffarabad and the Poonch-Rawalkote, run between the Kashmir and Jammu divisions. But the present procedures for crossing the heavily militarized Line of Control (LOC) are extremely complicated, which discourages most people from cross-border travel;  detailed scrutiny of applicants makes obtaining a travel permit a months-long effort.

It is time that India seriously consider “outsourcing” some aspects of its foreign policy to its border provinces. Peaceniks may sit in big, central cities and pontificate on the virtues of peace—but for the border provinces, peace is not desirable simply because it is virtuous. The logic of geography, the commonalities of the past, and shared economic incentives make peace, for them, a practical necessity.

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Tridivesh Singh Maini is an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own.

[Photo courtesy of flickr user toyohara]

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