New US Administration And Indo-Pak Relations; Is There A Way Forward?

Raza Rumi shares key insights on impact of prospective Biden administration on foreign front, especially in South Asian context, Indo-Pak stalemate and nationalism, and prospects of normalcy in their relations.

Daanish: Mr. Raza is an analyst, author and journalist; he is also the founding editor of Naya Daur media. I will ask him about the new US administration, its impact on our region and of course India Pakistan relations.  Can we record this [interview] in Urdu? [Rumi: yes] What will be the impact of this new US administration on our region, especially when we see Iran nuclear deal, Afghan peace talks, tariff wars with China, and finally the relations with New Delhi and Islamabad? If you could share your insights on this.

RAZA: You have put many questions into one. [Daanish: please answer one by one] As you know, the new administration will resume its charge in January. Then it takes three to six months to make the team, to craft policy. Currently, there are two, three biggest crises. Firstly, COVID-19 which has affected US the most, over 100,000 new cases are reported daily. The other day, there were 125,000. So, their first priority will be to deal with this pandemic, assess its fallout on economy, unemployment, the focus hence will be internal, within US. Third challenge is the polarization as you have seen recent elections; both candidates have half of votes each. Biden led with slight margin of 4 million, Trump secured 70 million votes. Same is the situation in senate where there is a tie. It will be declared ahead who will lead the senate. Biden administration would not focus on solid policy formulation as we are all expecting, we south Asians. But one thing that stands out is Iran deal of Obama’s presidency which Trump revoked. But to what extent it is revived; only time will tell. But, the extent of conflict situation with Iran will change.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, Trump wanted to withdraw completely. But Biden administration will not completely exit. Some troops would be kept there to prevent any void as it was in Iraq’s case. Second, new policy of China’s containment in South Asia, West Asia particularly across Asia and world generally; so they won’t be withdrawing from Afghanistan fully. Conflict with China will deepen. President Trump was unconventional it his policy and thought in contrast to Biden who will revive military-industrial complex in America which does not run without war.

As far as India Pakistan relations are concerned, Trump too expressed inclination to mediate but I don’t see much change happening here. Indian sarkar has belligerent attitude towards Pakistan hindering prospect of any major development. I was reading Biden’s democratic regime would perhaps exert more pressure on India regarding Kashmir, or criticize it, but that is yet to be seen [as] we don’t have evidence for such [to happen]. [Biden] has also worked with [Pakistani] military, so I think relations will be predictable unlike Trump who flipped his disposition quite often. So there will be stability and predictability. So, [as] relations with Pakistan [are concerned] Pakistan needs US, given that there is economic downturn, they need another program with IMF. At the same time, another problem is Pakistan being in China camp fully. And it will be a complex issue for Pakistan to balance these [with both US and China] relations and it will depend on how Pakistan does diplomatically

Daanish: Yes. As you mentioned, COVID and polarization, we saw that there was no mentioning of foreign policy issues during election campaigns. Was these two factors the reason?

RAZA: Exactly. There are many other crises here in US. There is racism as you saw when George Floyd was killed and whole country came to streets. So there is issue of Police, racism which is historical issue. SO Biden has to focus on these. There was hardly any mention on foreign policy except merely on China. So China came under focus. Russia-as trump is often accused of having relations with Putin that Russian helped him, so there was little hint on Russian factor. But there was no foreign policy agenda put forth. The reason for that is America’s domestic situation.

Daanish: Yes. Yes…so now lets talk about India and Pakistan relations. If we speak of cold war, there was Cuban missile crisis, Afghan war, Vietnam war…still the channel of talks between two superpowers was open. In India Pakistan context, there is no such [channel for dialogue]. Balakot strikes, surgical strikes happened after Uri, Abhinandan issue; here there is stalemate with no channel of communication. What should be done to resume such a channel for dialogue?

RAZA: You said it right. Currently, the situation is very serious. I think there hasn’t been such a lack of dialogue and engagement in history, in 73 years. At some level, to some extent, there used to be talks. Modi has policy of non engagement that there would be no talks with Pakistan as long as there is, quote in quote, [sponsoring of] ‘terrorism’ – phrase which is very popular in Indian media.  This is unacceptable. When there was cold war, US and USSR never stopped dialogue and discussed everything in their regular meetings, be it nuclear arms, small arms or bigger arms or other issues. So these two countries – India and Pakistan – are like high school kids who do not speak after a skirmish. This has become the situation here. As responsible nuclear states, whatever be the differences and grievances, both have responsibility to dialogue.

Daanish: But Mr. Rumi, as far as India’s perspective is concerned, when Lahore Bus ran, it was met with Kargil, after that Mumbai attacks happened, [and] when Modi went to Lahore, Pathankot incident occurred. According to their perspective, they want to improve talks but something is coming from the other side. One incident, then another. [11:16]

RAZA: I have been condemning these in the past and have also written extensively. And these were unfortunate developments. But lets not forget transgressions from Indian side. Samjhota Express case for example, which killed many people. Evidence also came to light that there was Hindu extremists’ footprint. But there was no follow up on that. Then there is issue of Abhinandan; how and for what purpose did he come here? The problem of these two states is the blame game…

Daanish: That I intended to ask, blame game would continue but what is the way forward, for dialogue?

RAZA: For dialogue, Track 2 and Track 3 dialogue used to be in which retired officials and civil society members would pressure both states to continue talks. I also used to be part of Track 2. So people to people dialogue should continue, like I am speaking with you, face to face, no visa is required for such [interface]. This should be the first step. Secondly, it is also the duty of citizenry, informed citizens but at the moment intelligentsia of both states have adopted their respective state narratives. Problem is that nationalism is very young in India and Pakistan. Hindustan, and by that I mean Indo-Pak, subcontinent, which has never been a nation state. Now the talk of India as nation has had happened but it is “very young” which was very diverse – association of communities, in south, east, west, in north; semi autonomous, completely autonomous. The imagination that has happened in 20th century in Europe, i.e. nationalism, and you saw how disastrous nationalism was for Europe. Millions died in wars [due to nationalism]. After catastrophes of such, they learned a lesson; they rectified it [nationalism narrative]. In 1990s after cold war, they made EU and created visa relaxations.

Daanish: They [India, Pakistan etc.] too made a similar union, SAARC which by far lays defunct. Then again, it has been due to India and Pakistan.

RAZA: exactly. These two countries have made SAARC ineffective and zero. And it is unfair to other countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka etc. PM Khan invited India for talks but then India’s unilateral annexation of Kashmir became a thaw.

Daanish: Same is the talk on Gilgit Baltistan. In fact, some time ago, PM khan announced to make GB a separate sixth province.

RAZA: This is not a new development. Previously, PPP government granted GB provisional status. Then elections started there, although GB’s [admin, governance] structure is centrally controlled. So its not something new out of blue or as a reaction to Indian annexation [because otherwise] in a way it will be a ratification of sorts; Pakistan keeping GB and India keeping Kashmir.

Daanish: I saw your interview in which you said issues of India and Pakistan could be resolved by two entities, from Pakistani side, it will be military and from India, hardcore politicians. If you see the present situation, there is army here in Pakistan and hardcore politicians in India, then why aren’t issues be resolved?

RAZA: [smiles] ‘hardcore’-you have played safe here-although I said ‘right wing’. There, its Hindu nationalists, while here In Pakistan, nationalism is decided by military. Civil military bureaucracy defines who is national, anti state, who is Pakistani or not. This incumbent government’s favorite word is anti national, of interests, which is also in press.  Those in media in a democracy ought to remain independent. But, India’s media personnel, columnists and writers espouse Indian state narrative, mostly running terrorism mantra. Fewer are dissenting exceptions there. I am not bailing out Pakistanis here, as there is a mirror image as well. What happens is that marginal voices, scholar minorities are subsumed under the burden of nation. See Kashmir, and other such examples. The Hindi-Urdu controversy in Bengal is also a case in point. You can also see in South how proudly Telagu, Tamil identify themselves. Nationalism pressurizes these small groups and affects state not only internally but externally as well. So this has been happening on both sides of the border. So, there is Fahmida Riaz’s poem, “Tum Bilkul Ham Jese Niklay, Ab Tak Kahan Chupay thay Bhai” [You turned out to be just like us, where had you been hidden all this time dear]- what it tells it these are mirror images. Indians saying Pakistan has done so and so and vice versa. 

Daanish: Mr Rumi, I recalled a report on South Asia. 97% of people have matchable DNA here. [20:36]

RAZA: of course. Now you and I haven’t met ever. Our language is an important mode of communication, our shared history, our food, our way of perceiving the world. As I can guess you are Muslim by name, I don’t know you, but same applies to non Muslims. This pettiness, South Asian pettiness as I call it is also in DNA, but I won’t talk along lines of ‘I am more secular’, ‘you are beggar’, ‘how dare you.’ And similar name callings we see from friends [on social media for example] Till 1965, there was no visa.

Daanish: If 1965 war had not happened, relations could have been much better.

RAZA: that has happened [in our history] and I don’t want to defend or whitewash that. Because why should I do that, I want part of it. Pakistani awaam are not involved in these decisions.  But what was the reason; pundit Nehru promised plebiscite, he made several speeches, but did not resolve the issue…A nation needs an enemy to target. Soviet Union was enemy, communism was enemy, then fundamentalism became new enemy clash of civilizations happened-all that bogus drama.

Daanish: How much more time would it take for these two countries to be friendly neighbours than bitter enemies?

RAZA: It will take significant amount of time till domestic pressure is not built. Constituency of peace, as it is called, has not expanded but shrunk in both India and Pakistan. In Pakistan there are still voices heard calling for normalcy but for last 10, 15 years in India, the case has been opposite. I have travelled a lot in India and written a book on Delhi. Subsequently, they too have adopted reluctance towards talks. Kashmir has become the most militarized zone in the world. Now that does not serve well to the image of Indian democracy. When Jinnah was asked about the relations between India and Pakistan, he envisioned US Canada like relations. Gandhi who was fasting after Indian government withheld Pakistani money was eventually assassinated. Who killed him? Was it a Pakistani, a Muslim? Neither Turk nor a Persian. It was infringe from [Indian] society, which has become mainstream that killed him.

Problem in India is patronizing; saying Pakistan to come back. How is that possible, its irreversible. It’s a nuclear state with a strong army, bureaucracy and 222 million population. India [should] treat Pakistan as a viable entity and engage with it while Pakistan should do the same. In Pakistani nationalism, Indian entity is central. It used to be like India will break up Pakistan and let me tell you this as it is not mentioned in India. Patel and others used to give harsh statements that its unviable and Pakistan would come back in two years.

We need to ask ourselves, does it suit to India and Pakistan, having hundreds of nuclear arms while millions impoverished. Migrant workers who came on foot from India; how hard their journeys have been. They travelled 1,200 miles, 400 miles, 200 miles, people died on roads. My heart trembled reading story of a group travelling to a village and on the way one of them dies. With COVID worsening poverty, decreasing per capita income, does it suit to these countries to have one nuke here, another there, tanks here and there…[when in fact] they should be ashamed of themselves for failing to provide food to their people, jobs to their people, education to their people, all they could do is use jingoistic language that I am incharge and would pressure the other side. When we talk, we try to to act as peace activists and as people who believe in public interest. So, we cannot support such jingoism. We cannot afford to do so. [30:00]

Freedom is hailed, 15th August in India and 14th August in Pakistan is celebrated with fireworks, parades, but what kind of freedom is this? Ask value of freedom to a migrant who travelled 1,000 miles, 400 miles or 200 miles with luggage on head, no public transport, I mean those scenes were so harrowing, and although I am Pakistani I should be [symbols quote] “typically” happy [as after all] its happening in India but I am not. Because once upon a time we were one people. I can feel the pain of Bihari labour, what happens in Karachi also pains me. So both of these states should be ashamed and we need to remind them again and again. They have put people’s lives at stake. Sorry I am going on and on as you mentioned these states. The level of malnourishment of Sub Saharan Africa is equivalent to children in India and Pakistan, according to UNICEF reports.

If you see hunger index, India is way worse and leading over Pakistan which though is comparatively better but overall, its also very low. Then you can see health, public education, water, climate change, you can see the smog, I mean people are dying of pollution in cities. People are dying due to flooding, calamities and man made disasters. I have been seeing discourse on how will be the impact of US elections here, the dichotomy of global elite and local elite thinking, how we will confront China, eye to eye. How Pakistan will stand eye to eye with India. Or, How Hindustan will control Pakistan.

How can you cross sovereign countries’ borders Rajiv Gandhi sent troops in Sri Lanka …

Daanish: Mr Rumi, now that we have very little time, [Rumi: sorry, [smiles]] my last question, please correct me if I am wrong. I have seen in last one and a half month, you did two programs, one on Shah Rukh Khan and another on Dilip Kumar; is that correct?

RAZA: Yes on SRK I did but not on Dilip Kumar. I did another one on Raekha

Daanish: yes. Sorry, not Dilip Kumar, [but] Raekha

RAZA: I am so glad you saw. Please view and share.

Daanish: If you could please shed light on what and why you did?

RAZA: I did so because I am their fan [laughingly] there was no mystery. Here an Indian friend named [33:47] from West Coast and I share similar thoughts, on film and music. We thought to celebrate Raekha because we both were her fans. The underlying reason, as you mentioned we have same cultural DNA and so are our emotional triggers – Pathan, sardar g jokes, marrying or not marrying With either groom or bride absconding [in Bollywood films]. Bollywood is very big, a dominant industry in not only India, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. But these stars –SRK and Raekha – have immense following. When I was growing up, the time Raekha g’ film Umrao Jan was released, I was in school in 6 or 7 grade. Before that, there was a time when doordarshan used to come to Lahore and when there was announcement of such, people would go to their homes.

Daanish: So, you saw Pakeezah [film] in Lahore?

RAZA: Yes! And I used to follow Doorsarshan and programs of All India Radio. Not only me, but everyone. That’s another thing that culture has changed now, perhaps because of internet, access has increased. Still, Pakistan leads India with access because of Bollywood and this and that. I think, its far less in India. This communication which is an iron curtain has also adversely affected.

….let me mention here the misconceptions media plays with. Media fuels Indo-Pak rivalry. Problem here is that majority of Indians see what their media portrays about Pakistan, like explosion here, Taliban [insurgency], some politician going to jail etc. So, everyday, Pakistan is reduced to some stereotypes. When I came to Delhi first time, although I had visited Bombay before once during college years, I used to visit often from 2005 onwards, many people used to be amazed at learning that my mother studied in a university. They would wonder, do women really go to universities and colleges in Pakistan. Their image [of Pakistan] stemmed from Afghanistan, Taliban, Saudi Arabia so were the questions I used to be asked. One time, I was asked, where do you guys go in the evening? Are there restaurants there? I would say, yes definitely!

Everyday information is so blocked [there in India]. Now, some impact has been due to internet. As I mentioned about the nation project, nation states create enemy image. For instance, we are taught how Hindu banya was deceitful and conspired against Muslims and that’s why we created Pakistan. Hence, everything has to fit in that frame. And regarding Pakistan, Indians had these stereotypes, Pakistani women are put under veil, love jihad media debate and that Pakistan begs for money, and so on.

Daanish: I have one last question. What role do you see diaspora can play to help bring two countries together, given the current lack of dialogue?

RAZA: It is a very interesting question. I think Diaspora has a very important role and here [in US] Diaspora have very good relations. For instance, Indian and Pakistani doctors have common associations and they often meet, similarly professionals in Silicon Valley also engage with each other. With the rise of BJP, Hindutva ideology has become more relevant, Howdy Modi event attracted thousands of Indians. Those living here have a big role to play but they don’t materialize their potential. It can be used.

Daanish: there is need to utilize this so that normal face to face relations could resume between India and Pakistan.

RAZA: Yes. Exactly.

Daanish: Thank you very much Mr. RAZA.

Leave a Reply