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Peace: The nitty gritty bang bang

May 16, 2003

Talk of peace fills the air again. With it, of course, comes the usual background noise from either side: outrage from the sceptics and downright warmongers, calls for caution from the 'pragmatists', brotherhood and sunshine from the optimists, and, amid it all, the one-step-forward-two-steps-sideways, I-didn't-say-that foxtrot from all our leaders.

Where do the guys fit who long for peace, but are in no way optimistic about it breaking out any time soon?

Never mind. I often wonder what goes on when these folks -- prime ministers, diplomats -- meet to 'talk about' peace. The USA's Richard Armitage zipped through Pakistan and India just days ago. What exactly was the conversation when he met Vajpayee? Did our prime minister actually say to him, "Pakistan must stop cross-border terrorism before we will have talks with them", or "India has suffered from terrorism for years", or these other phrases we have got so used to hearing over the years?

I mean, did he say just those things, only those things, while Mr Armitage listened gravely, nodded his head, and leaped up to shake our PM's hand? Because that's what we hear our PM did.

Similarly, when Armitage met Pakistan's leaders, did he hear from them that "India is not implementing the UN Resolution on Kashmir", or "It's not terrorism! We are only lending moral support to an indigenous freedom struggle in Kashmir"? All as Armitage listened to them too, nodded his head, and leaped up to shake their hands? Because that's what they say they told Armitage.

What I'm getting at is, is it possible that when leaders meet, their conversations contain the same phrases they spout for public benefit every day? Can any countries progress towards peace, or towards anything at all, by regurgitating those familiar formulations to each other? Or is there more to it than that?

Of course, these private discussions must be greatly more substantive than the way they are described to us. After all, it's not as if Armitage has never heard the official Indian position -- that cross-border terrorism must stop -- and therefore needs Vajpayee to tell it to him in so many words. But that's only one aspect of this substantive business. It is also hard to believe that leaders actually talk about precisely these things when they meet. After all, imagine a conversation like this:

Vajpayee: Pervezbhai, you must put an end to Pakistan's support for terrorism before we will negotiate with you.

Musharraf: Well, Atalji, in Pakistan we are not supporting terrorism in Kashmir, but an indigenous freedom struggle.

Vajpayee: Really? Everyone knows that's just bakwaas! You're promoting terrorism!

Musharraf: Now that's nonsense! We are not!

And so on. Does this seem faintly ludicrous to you? Is it even plausible that leaders spend their time together simply going back and forth like this, trading accusations, denying them, trading some more, and then posing for the photographers? No, it's not plausible, it's ludicrous.

So, my questions are these: just what do the two sides say to each other? What does it actually mean to conduct peace talks? What happens when two countries that have fought bitter wars, that have grown up learning to hate each other, come to a table to discuss peace? Surely each knows that the other is not going to simply capitulate, admit complete guilt, and resile from its stated positions. Each must also know that the other knows this. So what do they discuss?

Off the top of my head, some thoughts about that.

I have no way to be sure, but I imagine the first item of business must be to find ways to rebuild trust. The past colours everything that's said or proposed today; and given a past filled with war and hate, trust is an immediate casualty. I mean, I've had email arguments where I find it hard to believe something a guy says today, even if others might find it innocuous and sincere. Because I remember what he said yesterday -- perhaps some abuse, or a rude dismissal of something I suggested -- where he showed not the slightest respect for me. The same applies to him thinking about me.

And that's email. These are India and Pakistan, come to the table with distrust clinging to every word, with the albatrosses of six hostile, violent decades hanging from their shoulders. How do you trust again, so you can start believing the other guy, then move on?

The answer lies in exercises, conducted by assuredly neutral observers, designed to plant and then nurture trust. Like activities in which both sides work together, contributing ideas and effort equally, towards a goal. Like games, or difficult and dangerous tasks, in which I have no choice but to rely on the woman from the other side, and she on me. In which my actual safety, maybe even my life, lies in her hands. Things like these, to show me that she on the other side will complete tasks assigned to her. That she will respect my opinions. That she will stand by me, and is willing to work with me. That she is not solely interested in scoring points off me. (Or, I suppose, that she is: in which case the whole effort must certainly fail right there.)

Things like these, to plant that seed of trust in her mind and mine, barren ground for such germination for over half a century. There can be no progress until this happens. But once it does, possibilities open up. The road to peace doesn't get any easier, but there is a foundation of trust to build on. Again, I have no way to be sure.

But the second item of business, it seems to me, must be an examination of differences. A frank, open, complete tabling of the differing perceptions of vital issues by each side. Given the trust, the assumption here is that this will be an honest exchange, in which we will at least respect each other's points of view even while greatly disagreeing (precisely because we have learned to trust each other).

These will be difficult and probably anger-filled sessions. But that's OK, and in fact they must be like that. Finding peace after decades of bloodshed is very hard work. But because it is, both sides will treasure each little step forward; will be extremely reluctant to throw away hard-won gains. That value placed on every tiny marker of progress will itself become the hope, the guarantee, that such a peace will hold.

And what will those little steps forward actually comprise? Agreements, compromises, hammered and hacked out of each side's entrenched positions. That come out of each side's introspection about what they are willing to concede towards compromise. What form the agreements will take is not greatly important here, as long as they do take shape. Each such, and each such that holds, feeds back to building trust.

All this will take multiple meetings over many months. Because barriers of hostility won't crumble overnight, nor because we merely wish them to. But because it will take so much time, because it will also have political implications, this process cannot be left to prime or any other ministers to take forward. Because such men are necessarily blinkered by their own political compulsions, compulsions that force them to blame each other most of all. But perhaps more than that, they cannot spare the lengths of time needed for such a process. They must run countries too. This is why nothing came of Vajpayee's bus trip to Lahore, even though he likes to sing the praises of that journey. Nor Musharraf's trip to Agra, though he likes to pretend he came with such a lot to offer.

Peace won't sprout because heads of government take bus rides with TV cameras watching; or at least, it won't sprout if there's nothing to follow up on those bus rides.

Serious negotiations for peace are best conducted by anonymous people, though still trusted to represent their countries firmly and fairly. They must meet far from the glare of public expectation and opposition. They will have to commit to long sessions, going on for months and years. This was the model for the Oslo negotiations a decade ago between the Israelis and the Palestinians; it has been used for talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, in Northern Ireland, and at other times. It's another matter, and a sign of how hard peace is, that it remains elusive in these places.

There is no other way out of the hole of hatred, mistrust, and violence that hostile nations -- like India and Pakistan -- dig for themselves.

Well, some think there are other ways: ramp up the hatred, wait for the other side to give in, go to war, continue the terrorism, drop the bomb. The problem, of course, is that bombs just tend to dig bigger holes. In our minds too.

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Letter to the Editor

Dilip D'Souza

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