Friday, January 15, 2010

Peaceniking down the pike

The venue is Delhi’s India International Centre. The feathery-buttery winter sun looked weak as a simile. A battery of peaceniks converges. There are lots of doves and not all of them are white – rights activists, politicians, ex civil servants, academicians, ex militants, legislators and journalists. From Pakistan the time-tested and unbending Asma Jahangir [daughter Muneeza Jahangir works for NDTV] and Senator Hasil Khan Bizenjo [son to Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, variously called Father of Baluchistan and a traitor; depends on whom you talk to] came. Kashmiri leaders included the former rebel turned socialist-leader Yasin Malik and the burly and voluble Sajad Lone.

There was much deliberation, socializing [something peace-makers are damn good at], rhetoric, wisdom and shouting. The much hyped-up conference proceedings have already been dealt with in some detail in the press [that gives us scope for some back channel twaddle]. The discussions in the 'India-Pakistan Conference: A Road map towards Peace' lasted more than 30 working hours. The take-home didn’t come as a surprise: Public sentiment in both India and Pakistan is inclined towards peace. We are a sub-continent of one-and-a-half billion peaceniks.

Key Pakistan speakers included Iqbal Haider [ex-student leader at Lincolns’ Inn and Pakistan Human Rights Chairman], Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan [ex-student Gray’s Inn and Pakistan’s finest legal mind] and defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa [ex-bureaucrat and faculty at University of Pennsylvania]. From India the glib talker, Mani Shankar Aiyar [who but for his socialist outlook is pure foreign minister stuff], Salman Haider [ex-foreign secretary] and Prof Kamal Chenoy of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The common thread that runs through most delegates is that they are all well-bred and au courant.

Ostensibly there was anger amidst the love-talk. Pakistani journalists I spoke to thought India has very slyly clubbed Kashmir and Baluchistan as if the two issues are at par. Kashmir, they were at pains to educate us, is a disputed territory. Baluchistan was forever under the control of the Shahs of Iran and the autonomous principality of Kalat. The wily British grabbed it in 1840s when it became the staging ground for the various Afghan-British wars [the Great Game]. Baluchistan became Pakistan in 1947 but some Baluch nationalistic groups didn’t like the idea of a split-up historical Balochistan [presently split between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan] and hence the disquiet. Take-two: Pakistanis are very uncomfortable and high strung on Baluchistan.

There were more angry howls. Kashmiri Pandit [KP] groups have institutionalized the art of jeering. Any event in India – be it a literary festival, film screening or seminar on peace – connected to the Kashmir issue, they gate-crash to heckle at the odd Kashmiri speaker – be it Yasin Malik or Sanjay Kak. Be that as it may Kashmiri Pandits are integral to the Kashmiri fabric. After all we are the same stock and speak the same language. There is a huge debate and countless interpretations and a million slants to the theory of KP migration from Kashmir. Twenty winters is a long time. Let’s drop the bum rap. We need our neighbors back. Pandits are to Kashmir what songbirds are to woods. Take-three: KP groups suffer from low self-esteem.

Behind the scenes and after the mandatory hanging around with the intellectual crowd, I ran into a few interesting Kashmiris. Engineer Rashid is a legislator from the Langate province of Kashmir and is one of the most resolute politicians I have ever met. He sounds genuinely warm, has no airs and bears an activist-like demeanor. To his credit, Rashid had a particularly notorious army camp removed from his constituency after pleas from locals. He regularly fights for human-rights and often leads from the front. ‘I’m a grass-roots guy, and this gathering, I tell you’, he whispered conspiratorially in my ear ‘is anti-actual, not intellectual’. Boy, we need such mavericks.

Ved Bhasin, the founder editor of the much respected Kashmir Times remains such a sane voice after all these years. He spoke from heart [all intellectuals by definition speak clipped, smart, rehearsed verses; and not from heart] and called a spade a spade. He is independent minded, balanced and has more credibility than all his Muslim counterparts in the valley. I listened intently to him from the fifth row in the incredibly aromatic [was it the Pakistani females?] IIC auditorium when I suddenly noticed a very charming lady sitting besides me. Taking her for some middle-eastern journalist, I began, ‘That is Ved Bhasin’. Yes, I know, quipped Mushaal Yasin Mullick Awan. She is my latest painter pal on Facebook.

Monday morning quarterbacking: India and Pakistan have bickered over Kashmir for a little over six decades. There have been wars fought over, proxy-war waged, terrorism exported, espionage done and hate-speeches delivered. There have been cultural boycotts, trade black-lists, communication gaps. There has been much posturing and hoodwinking. Nothing has ever helped. The dispute remains. But hope lingers on. Both sides have a vast constituency which is ready to work towards building lasting peace between India and Pakistan. Like the European Union, there remain these amber and green dots that just need to be connected.

We perhaps need the imagination to locate the dots.


Friday, January 08, 2010

Twenty Ten

Twenty Ten made an ear-splitting entrée. Truckfulls of fireworks were set off in the Indian capital. Cold fog mingled with cracker fumes. Horns blared wildly. Vodka flowed. The rich gyrated and threw up at bar after another bar. The poor shivered under their perforated cloaks. News channels continued to waffle and re-play images from the year that was. Hawkers sold garish red Santa caps. Resolutions got made. Wishes popped like warm champagne. Even the entertainment-starved Kashmir rejoiced with rented rock bands. Hallelujah.

It is great to be young this year. Twenty Ten is going to be the year of the youth, the UN says. There would be sundry programmes to celebrate and government departments might have a budget dedicated to the hullabaloo. And the youth will continue to seek instant gratification. The age of revolutions is long over. Soon New Year resolutions will vanish like old oak tables. Old miseries will be upon us before we can say Jack Robinson. Already coffee colored bullets have pierced the winter chill of Kashmir.

January is the same each year. Cold and dreary. It doesn’t snow like a banshee anymore. Some people say it is climate change. Others assure that stuff happens and our planet has seen many ice-ages. Each camp accuses the other of conspiracy. Anyway we have become a nation of conspiracy-theorists. The macabre ritual of blood that played out in Srinagar -- this week -- too has opinion split in the middle. The handiwork of intelligence sleuths to thwart any attempts at troop reduction, avers one group. Gunmen, blessed by our notoriously naughty neighbor, struck, others opine. The binaries stay.

Often enough we like to lollygag in life. Flunking to add meaning to our existence. Sartre, the old French boy, perhaps had it right when he meant that human essence is simply existence. Hence the choices we make for ourselves are very important. And profound. Sad, we chose goofy over goodliness. Nutty us.

I think any Hazelnut flavored brew is a great way to beat the chill.