VIEW: Disputes and disasters —Saleem H Ali
If this natural convulsion can improve ties between two of the world’s most acrimonious nuclear rivals, this tragedy would not have been in vain. Perhaps then all the retribution theorists will have something more compelling to say about divine plans
Geological forces have accomplished what decades of warfare and diplomacy failed to achieve in Kashmir — a tentative agreement between India and Pakistan to allow limited exchanges across the perilous Line of Control. Families across the border can finally communicate directly with each other in this dire hour of need. While it took a few weeks of political posturing, and media scrutiny to accomplish this after the earthquake of October 8, the result is certainly positive. Some rumblings of dissent continue about the workability of such arrangements but both sides deserve to be commended for showing courage to change in the face of calamity.
Chinese scholars reminded us after 9/11 that the Taoist symbol for disaster and opportunity is the same — but what might such opportunity bring forth? In some cases cognitive shifts have occurred after disasters at a national and regional level. The great Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755, which killed around 90,000 people in Portugal spurred the European Enlightenment and led many Portuguese to question some tenets of Catholicism. The rhetoric of retribution was rife then as it is now. Hindu fundamentalists are claiming the earthquake to be divine punishment on the Kashmiris. Muslim militants are bestowing martyrdom on the victims and proclaiming the recovery effort to be a punishment for President Pervez Musharraf. And, of course, conspiracy theorists continue to defy geology by suggesting preposterous accounts of American nuclear intervention. Alas, the poor masses that perished in this tragedy have become the axis of atonement.
This is indeed a trying time for President Musharraf, who has been embattled by human rights groups among the secular elite of Pakistan as well as the religious hierarchy. The president has responded to the fanatics with invocations that his mother’s prayers have protected him from two assassination attempts by suicide bombers. He also struck a sentimental chord with many by taking his mother on a trip to India to visit his birthplace last year. The key is now whether the same positive sentiments towards dispute resolution with India can be struck in the wake of this disaster. Militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Tayba are also planting flags in many earthquake relief camps in Kashmir, claiming to be the true saviours of the day. What we need is to use this opportunity to claim back a measure of common humanity from militants and pacifists alike.
A bold move towards a peace agreement on Kashmir is desperately needed now to prevent the anger of disaster from being co-opted by militant forces. Following the tsunami earlier this year, Indonesian authorities and Aceh rebels have shown us that peace can rise from the ashes by signing an agreement to end 30 years of conflict. In an interview with The Guardian, Humam Hamid, a senior community leader summed up the causality: “We would not be here without the tsunami. It focused the minds on all sides. It demonstrated that there has been enough suffering in Aceh.”
As for America, this may also be seen as a time when Karen Hughes can make the most greatest mark on public diplomacy. The $50 million that the US offered to Pakistan have been thankfully accepted by the president, who has rightly dismissed calls from some politicians to reject ‘tainted’ US money.
Technical assistance for better environmental planning of villages to withstand earthquakes will also be welcome. But money must be matched by mediation from the Americans and other interested foreign powers to finalise a peace agreement on Kashmir. Non-governmental organisations can also play a vital role in such matters. In the case of the post-tsunami Aceh accord, Finland’s government as well as the independent Crisis Management Initiative, led by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, played a vital role in mediation. Indeed, America’s own presidential peacemaker, Jimmy Carter, and the Carter Centre should consider resolving the Kashmir dispute a priority.
As for Britain, the Blair administration has at least admitted some past imperial mistakes as being the cause of current tensions. Jack Straw should be reminded of his 2002 interview to The New Statesman in which he clearly stated: “We were complacent with what happened in Kashmir, the boundaries weren’t published until two days after independence. Bad story for us, the consequences are still there.” Helping to resolve such a diabolical dispute may indeed lead to better consequences for both Blair and Bush.
If this natural convulsion can improve ties between two of the world’s most acrimonious nuclear rivals, this tragedy will not have been in vain. Perhaps then all the retribution theorists will have something more compelling to say about divine plans.
Dr Saleem H Ali teaches environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont in the United States