India, Pakistan Can’t Break the Ice, Even in Hour of Tragedy

Reported by Sanjeev Miglani for Reuters

Pakistan’s catastrophic flood continues to boggle the mind, both in terms of the human tragedy and the scale of the damage it has wrought, and even more so over the longer term. One official has likened the disaster to the cyclone that devastated what was once East Pakistan, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to its secession and the birth of Bangladesh.

Not even that spectre, raised by Pakistan’s ambassador to Britain, can however dent the steadfast hostility between India and Pakistan. For a full three weeks as the floods worked their way through the spine of Pakistan from the turbulent northwest to Sindh in the south, Islamabad made frantic appeals to the international community not ignore the slow-moving disaster, and help it with emergency aid, funds. But next-door India, best-placed to mount a relief effort probably more because of the geography than any special skill at emergency relief, was kept at arm’s length. An Indian aid offer of $5 million, which itself came after some hesitation and is at best modest,was lying on the table for days before Pakistan accepted it. ”There are a lot of sensitivities between India and Pakistan … but we are considering it very seriously,” a Pakistani embassy spokesman told our reporter in New Delhi earlier this week. Things appeared to have moved faster only after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani expressing sympathy and reminding him of the offer of aid. Millions of Pakistans meanwhile continued to struggle for food.

To some extent, Pakistan’s hesitation in accepting aid from India is understandable. India is the traditional enemy. It is also the bigger country of the two. And over the last two decades it has become easily the more prosperous entity, courted by the world’s industrialists while Pakistan is “haunted by the world’s terrorists”, as columnist Vir Sanghvi writes in the Hindustan Times. A Pew poll that we wrote about a few weeks ago showed how deep-seated these Pakistani fears are: a majority of those polled said they considered India to be the bigger threat than al Qaeda or the Taliban, despite the violence they have suffered at the hands of the militant groups over the past few years.

As Sanghvi writes:

But, to be fair to the Pakistanis, let us accept the position that decades of hostility between our two countries have led to a situation where the Pakistanis simply do not trust us. Let us also accept that they are so resentful of India that even in their hour of greatest crisis when thousands of people have died and millions are homeless, they will still spurn India’s hand of friendship. And let us grant them their claim that given our history, they are justified in being suspicious of India.

But then, you have to wonder, if the two nations cannot even keep up basic neighbourly ties such as offering aid and commiseration at times of natural crises, what chances they can ever come to a peace deal that will demand much more from them ?

It was pretty much the same in 2005 when the earthquake struck Pakistani Kashmir and the authorities struggled to provide aid to the affected. And Indian aid offer was initially ignored, later blankets from India were accepted. But even then Pakistan had people cut out the label that read ‘made in India’ on each blanket.

Indeed, some Pakistani writers are already criticising the government of bringing dishonour to the country by accepting Indian assistance. Commentator Shireen M. Mazari in a piece entitled “What Have We Become” says the Pakistani government accepted the Indian offer for help under pressure from the United States and that it was a matter of shame. By taking Indian aid, Pakistan had let the people of Kashmiri down just when they had risen in revolt against Indian forces.

“This money has the blood of Kashmiris on it and one wonders how our Kashmiri brethren must be feeling as they face the bullets of Indian forces every day and see us taking Indian “aid”,” Mazari wrote.

Kashmir, then, can’t be far from any discourse relating to India and Pakistan. It is the core dispute at the heart of 60 years of difficult ties, says Pakistan and must be resolved before any normalcy can take place. India doesn’t even consider the territory to be disputed, so the argument, at least in public, hasn’t changed much in over half a century.

For the 20 million affected by the flooding in Pakistan, and facing a future that would daunt any of us, Kashmir must, at the moment, be a distant thought.

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