|India-Pakistan ties have traditionally been based on two arguments – one, that no other province is as hostile towards India as Punjab, and two, that only a centre-right regime in India and an army dispensation in Pakistan can bring about any rapprochement.
It is a fact that in 1947, Punjab witnessed the worst bloodshed, and that resulted in the two sides of the region being especially hostile towards each other.
Interaction in the 1950s and 1960s rekindled hopes of some sort of a thaw between the two Punjabs in particular. The war of 1965 dashed all hopes of any such reconciliation since interactions between both sides were made virtually impossible due to the draconian visa regime introduced in the aftermath of this conflict. It should also be kept in mind that Punjab on both sides of border was the battleground during the wars of 1965 and 1971 and both armies, especially the Pakistan army, were seen as Punjabi armies. While the Punjabi dominance in the Indian army no longer exists, in Pakistan it still remains so – though to a lesser degree.
The largest province of Pakistan is no longer averse to peace with India, in fact it is happy to be at the forefront
Secondly, Punjab has been the flag bearer of Pakistani nationalism, and has been more vocal in its Anti-India sentiment right until the 1990s – with politicians and large sections of the media in Pakistani Punjab being inimical to peace between India and Pakistan. During the course of my interaction with the Progressive Writers Association in Islamabad a few days ago, it was interesting to hear one of the Sindhi participants stating that Punjab’s obsession with India is clearly evident from the fact that while in other provinces a loss to India in a cricket match may not be a matter of life and death, in Punjab it is.
During interactions with a cross-section of Pakistani Punjabis in the course of my visit, I noticed that the argument of Punjab opposing good relations with India is losing steam. The largest province of Pakistan is no longer averse to peace with India, in fact if anything it is happy to be at the forefront.
This change is not recent, and can be traced back to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s initiatives towards India during his second term, and frequent interactions between the two Punjabs, such as sporting events which began during the regimes of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi in Pakistan and Captain Amarinder Singh in India.
The primary reason for this change in the mindset of the political leadership of both Punjabs is the mutual economic benefits of trading with each other and even cooperating in areas such as agriculture, which is the mainstay on both sides. According to Tahir Malik, a senior Urdu journalist, since the late 1990s there has been a shift in the narrative of Pakistani Punjab towards India, with the fringe no longer holding sway. This change is evident not only from Nawaz Sharif’s bold political initiative towards India in 1999 (much to the chagrin of certain sections of the establishment and the right) and his subsequent support for better relations with India even when he has been out of power, but is also evident from the toning down of the remembrance of the 1965 and 1971 wars.
Members of the civil society and sections of the diaspora too have played an important role in pushing for better ties between the two provinces.
The nostalgia of migrants on either side of the border has also been blamed for the tensions between the two countries. While the baggage of partition and the wars have no doubt fuelled acrimony, this nostalgia of the past brings to the fore one of the positives. The urge of individuals who had to migrate during partition to visit their erstwhile homes has been recognized in the recently signed visa agreement which states that individuals over the age of 65 are eligible for visas on arrival.
This attachment with ancestral places on the other side is underscored by the fact that even politicians have not been able to obliterate their emotions. Nawaz Sharif has made no secret of his affection for his ancestral village in Amritsar, Jatti Umrah, naming his house in Lahore after the village. More recently, Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh sent solar panels for the village of Gah, where he hails from. Indian Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who is not a member of the ruling UPA coalition in Delhi, welcomed the peace initiative and said that once the visa regime actually liberalizes he would visit Lahore every weekend. Badal has no roots in West Punjab, but graduated from The Sikh National College in 1947.
Apart from Punjab playing spoilsport, it has often been argued that only a centre-right government in India and a military regime in Pakistan, or at least a centre-right party, could bring about peace since their patriotism would not be doubted. If one were to look at Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s peace initiatives vis-a-vis India, they have been wholeheartedly supported by opposition parties such as the PML-N and not been opposed even by Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf. Pakistan’s media, which is critical of Asif Ali Zardari on every issue, has also backed his endeavor for better relations with India.
One only hopes that these two dynamics are not short lived ones, and that dreams of better relations between India and Pakistan turn into a reality.
The author is a New Delhi based columnist and foreign policy analyst