EDITORIAL: A constructive engagement
The meeting between Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir was not expected to yield any major breakthrough. They were there to set an agenda for the foreign minister’ meeting to be held next month. But the meeting exuded optimism and positive understanding. Their joint briefing to the media indicates that the two sides have engaged constructively. There is a visible shift in the tone of India since the SAARC conference at Thimpu in April. It seems that India has been persuaded to rethink the hard stance it had held post-Mumbai that without Pakistan clamping down on terrorist networks and bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack to justice, there can be no peace process between India and Pakistan. Delhi has expressed dissatisfaction for a long time since then over the progress made by Pakistan in both as less than satisfactory. Arguably, that situation still prevails. Hafiz Saeed has been released on bail and is openly issuing anti-India statements. There has been no change in the status quo regarding the terrorist infrastructure India complains of. Apparently, the diminishing returns of its rigid stance have compelled India to change its position vis-à-vis Pakistan. Internationally, India began to be seen as simply obdurate rather than statesmanlike, when Pakistan had given no indication of not wanting to engage in dialogue. Backtracking on the Sharm El Sheikh agreement immediately after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s return to Delhi, due to the domestic backlash, particularly for including Pakistan’s concerns about Indian involvement in Balochistan and subsequent refusal to engage in a dialogue, has not resolved any issues.
There are indications that there has been an internal debate and India has realised that the policy of disengagement has run its course. Also, not engaging with Pakistan means ceding ground to the terrorists, whose ultimate aim is to damage efforts at normalisation of relations between the two countries. Moreover, the emerging rivalry of the two neighbours on Afghan soil has sent alarming signals regarding the need to engage constructively rather than bleed each other in the hope of gaining some perceived strategic advantage over the other. Largely, Pakistan has been consistent in its stance in favour of restarting the dialogue process. Regrettably, the Foreign Office fell short of expectations when it stated that if India insisted on raising the issue of the terrorist infrastructure, Pakistan would raise the Balochistan insurgency issue. This reflects a zero-sum approach. Both countries need to overcome their past mistrust and follow the vision of a prosperous and free South Asian region.
Contentious issues between India and Pakistan are diverse and plenty, some more intractable, others less. Kashmir and terrorism stand out as the more complex ones and cannot be solved in a single sitting. Resolvable issues such as Siachen and Sir Creek should not be made hostage to these. The implications of a freeze in relations are too gruesome to be ignored. Even though the Composite Dialogue has not been resumed, if there is progress in some areas, it would provide a big boost to the process of talks. At this point we must keep our expectations realistic. The process is also important because without engaging with each other, a proxy war in Afghanistan cannot be prevented from becoming a reality. It is therefore encouraging that both countries are engaging bilaterally as well as on the forum of SAARC, whose Home Ministers’ Conference is underway in Islamabad. There is now a convergence of interests between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, because they are all afflicted in differing degrees by the same problem — terrorism. In addition to resolving their old disputes, they must focus their minds on this phenomenon, which is no respecter of boundaries. *
SECOND EDITORIAL: Spain bans the burqa
In line with the discriminatory pattern emerging across Europe, the Spanish senate has approved the banning of the burqa. A move pushed by the conservative Popular Party to ban the face-covering niqab in all public places, the bill has been made into law by a narrow vote of 131 to 129. As expected, the ban has drawn harsh criticism from human rights activists and Muslim groups in not just the country, but across all of Europe.
Proving that some sane minds do exist, the Council of Europe has rejected this ban as MPAs from the 47 member states of this body unanimously say that such a general ban impinges upon the rights of those women who freely choose to wear the burqa without any force or coercion. They claim that an all out ban is unnecessary and women ought to only abandon the niqab in security and professional capacities where so required.
Hot on the heels of Belgium and France — where a complete ban is also being considered — Spain has set a new precedent in disregarding the freedoms and liberties that the secular European Union stands for. The voices of suppression seem to have won this time round as the socialist Spanish government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, instead, favoured education to help enlighten the Muslim immigrant population regarding Spain’s liberal values.
Mr Zapatero had it right. Societies have always followed the evolutionary process when defining their ever-changing cultures. Progress and reform have been rife when there has been an upsurge in education, knowledge, space and time. To enforce something as culturally fundamental as a dress code is something liberal and free societies just do not do. The Taliban enforced the burqa in Afghanistan and now Europe is bent upon taking it off. In both extremes, it was the women who were crushed by coercion. Nowhere were their voices heard.
Europe’s security concerns can be understood but further ghettoising the Muslim psyche by denying them their religiously motivated cultural traditions will only serve to push them further into the arms of waiting extremists. It is time the tenets of enlightenment, humanity, tolerance and understanding be revisited to allow an incrementally positive and liberal transformation of society. *