The problem with people-to-people contacts

India is putting the cart before the horse

Conceptually, it is difficult to find fault with the argument that greater interaction between the people of India and Pakistan contributes to greater understanding between the two countries. It tackles at the roots of mutual hostility at the popular level. Surely then, there should be no harm in allowing thousands of Pakistani cricket fans to travel to India to support their team and in the process, learn more about their neighbours?

But the problem arises when this undoubtedly nice concept hits ground realities. And the ground realities are: first, anti-India jihadi groups are still going about their business in Pakistan; and second, public opinion does not amount to much in Musharraf’s Pakistan.

Don’t wanna say good-bye
Thirty-four of the thousands of Pakistani fans who came to Chandigarh to watch cricket have disappeared (via Varnam). It may be that the motives behind their disappearance are economic or cultural. But it is impossible to discount the danger that one or more of this group of immigration offenders is connected with terrorism. The very fact that as many as 34 individuals went missing points to the fact that background checks before the issual of visas were inadequate. Moreover, tightening these checks may not be feasible without making the process extraordinarily cumbersome, and thereby defeating the process of making cross-border travel easier.

The key to hassle-free travel between India and Pakistan lies in General Musharraf’s hands. Claiming to have paused cross-border infiltration in Kashmir do not amount to much as long as the jihadi groups are active elsewhere in Pakistan. They could take advantage of the easing of travel restrictions, and with or without official Pakistani complicity, carry out their sinister business in India. Not every traveler is a terrorist, but even one terrorist slipping through is one too many.

Opinions, but no polls
And then there is the matter of the role of public opinion in an army-dominated, undemocratic Pakistan. It was not the people of Pakistan who created the jihadi groups, it was its military establishment. It was not the people of Pakistan who put the religious fundamentalists into power, it was General Musharraf’s political architects. It is not the people of Pakistan who spurn Bollywood and Indian TV channels, it is Musharraf’s government that bans it. As long as Pakistan is under military rule, there is little reason to believe that public opinion will amount to much in terms of actual policy direction.

Easing travel restrictions before Pakistan has cleaned up its jihadi stables is premature. So is expecting public opinion to shape Pakistani foreign policy before the military establishment relinquishes its hold over that country. Indian foreign policy should focus on these prequisites before before throwing the borders open.

Related Links: The Secular-Right take on this; and coincidentally an editorial titled Public Policy vs Public Good in Pakistan’s Daily Times argues that “In Pakistan, public policy and public opinion have never been as divorced from each other as they are today.”

10 thoughts on “The problem with people-to-people contacts”

  1. i think the fact that pakistani people are seeing for themselves how indians live and how they dont actually have horns or look like the devil is a positive step. the only problem is that our govt (or indeed previous ones too) expects a dictatorial government to heed to the voice of its people. that is the sad thing which is never going to happen.

  2. Question: to what extent do India and Pakistan have overlapping media markets? I mean, don’t Pakistanis watch Indian films, TV shows, smoke Indian cigarettes, etc.?

  3. I am sure that the 34 missing people are a matter of grave concern.

    But, then, we have tens of thousands of illegal immigrants that we don’t even know of. What is to say that that is not the bigger concern ? These 34 stand out only because this cricket exchange is a high-profile media event. Maybe we need to have a wait and watch policy on this whole people-to-people contact thing, to see if it will help solve the problem.

  4. Praktike,

    There is little overlap in the official media markets. Successive Pakistani governments have banned Indian movies from being screened in Pakistani cinemas (at the cost of running them to bankruptcy), Indian TV channels are banned on cable networks, video stores are banned from carrying them.

    This has driven the industry underground. Content piracy is big business in Pakistan, and organised crime/terrorist syndicates and the ISI have a hand in this too.

    Pakistani content is not banned in India, but it is not big either. Talented Pakistani artistes, both traditional and popular musicians have made it big in India, and are household names. For a while, one Bollywood music director duo (now wanted for underworld dealings) made good business out of lifting Pakistani numbers;largely, though, there is tremendous assymetry, in favour of India, in the media market. But not for the want of talent in Pakistan, if people like Ghulam Ali, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami or Junoon are to go by.

  5. I agree with Secular Right’s viewpoint. However, my interactions with overseas Pakis don’t give me cause for optimism.
    I am definitely not one of the “my grandfather lived in Lahore, Karachi – The Pakistanis are just like us crowd.”
    I do not understand how the worthies can forget what happened in Kargil, which happened just 5 years ago. We are willing to neglect our national security for the sake of watching what, a game. This game is like a drug to which we are addicted and neglect vital concerns. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of cricket but I dont believe in promoting this game at the cost of national security.

  6. Pakistan has had a practically unrelenting anti-Indian foreign policy for nearly 60 years, with some brief thaws. This has persisted through civilian governments, military dictatorships etc. Pakistan has generally had a moderately free press (less than that of India, let alone the Western countries), but the press has generally remained strongly anti-Indian, even the English language press. That is not all due to official pressure. Pakistan is not Saddam’s Iraq or even Egypt or Burma — its not all orchaestrated by the military and the terrorists operating in Kashmir probably enjoy high support from the civilian populace.

    Much as we would like to believe that Pakistan is just a case of the military suppressing peace-loving Pakistanis who want peace with India, that is simply not so.

    Improved public opinion does help — its harder for any demagogue (military or civilian) to whip up public emotions so easily. On the other hand, I’m dubious of the value of public-2-public contacts. Especially the idea that seeing a more prosperous India might make Pakistani’s envious — in the first place, while India is definitely more prosperous, it also has vast slums and streches of povert that any visitor is sure to see (and Indian Muslims quite often live in poorer areas).

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