The relationship between India and Pakistan continues to be held prisoner by past traumas despite both countries’ effort to move ahead. A case in point is the current controversy over India’s decision to grant Pakistani cricketer Javed Miandad a visa to visit the country to watch the just-concluded cricket match that was the first between the two sides in nearly four years.
Miandad was supposed to attend the last one-day cricket match in Delhi on January 6th, but a section of India’s media and right-wing Hindu political groups heavily condemned the trip, forcing the veteran cricketer to cancel his journey. The player has family ties with Dawood Ibrahim, an organized crime kingpin who was accused of participating in the 1993 serial bombings of Mumbai that claimed hundreds of lives. Miandad’s son is married to Ibrahim’s daughter.
The English daily, The Hindu, writes that “the visit was cancelled as the Pakistan Cricket Board did not want any controversy affect the cricketing ties and wanted to avoid focus shifting away from cricket to other matters, sources in the Ministry of Home Affairs said security reasons might have forced him to change his mind.”
But this issue transcends any individual and is really a question of mindset. Despite a focus on long-term interests and changing political scenarios in which both countries are trying to deepen their understanding and gradually redefine their relationship, how much longer will people continue to harp on the same old issue which is quickly losing relevance?
Those who have been opposing Miandad’s visit forget that the Mumbai serial blasts were a response to large-scale religious riots perpetrated by Hindu fundamentalists against the minority Muslim population in 1992 in the wake of the demolition of a disputed 16th century mosque in the eastern Indian town of Ayodhya. The culprits of the riots have yet to be held accountable for their actions, a fact the media in India fails to cover.
India has, however, moved beyond the political narratives of 1990s. The right wing Hindu parties, like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Shiv Sena and others have seen their support weaken over the last ten years. They are looking for an opportunity to revive the same divisive sentiment to polarize the voters along religious lines and reap electoral dividends in the 2014 elections.
The immediate impetus for such a strategy is the third successive victory of Narendra Modi in the recent Gujarat elections. Modi first came to fame for his role in the 2002 crisis in his state that saw riots against Muslims claim the lives of more than 1,000 people, according to some estimates. Various reports and the popular perception continue to blame Chief Minister Modi and his state administration for not suppressing and perhaps encouraging the chaos and the corresponding lives that were lost as a result. Modi has won the praise of Hindu fundamentalist forces for his abrasive politics and complete disregard for minorities and pluralism in the state he governs.
The normalization of Indo-Pakistan relationship will undermine the very raison d'etre of right-wing groups, which thrive on stoking anti-Muslim sentiments. By linking Miandad with Dawood Ibrahim, these forces want to inflame the sentiments of the people.
A similar plan is at work when right-wing groups demand that India make the arrest and sentencing of Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed, believed to be the mastermind of the 26/11 attack in Mumbai in 2008, a precondition to normalizing relations with Pakistan.
But India’s geopolitical interests and the subcontinent’s inclination towards peace demands a deeper engagement with Pakistan. Such engagement cannot be held hostage by hawkish fringe groups that thrive on the two neighbors’ continued animosity.
India and Pakistan have been prisoners of political parochialism for too long. Today, Pakistan understands the consequences of harboring and nurturing religious extremist forces, including the threat that poses to its own internal security. India similarly realizes the folly of a Pakistan-centric foreign policy that has muddled its geopolitical vision. It now wants to look beyond brinksmanship with Islamabad and engage its neighbor politically and economically.
The new visa regime and greater economic integration between the countries is an indication of a growing detente between the traditional enemies who have fought four wars since 1947.
The greater political and economic bonding will also mean the marginalization of the right-wing religious fundamentalist groups in both countries. However, these entrenched forces are not easily defeated and will continue resisting the forces for peace through actions like those that forced Javed Miandad to cancel his trip to New Delhi.