South Asian Spring?
Like the youth revolutions of the Middle East, renewed talks between India and Pakistan have the wind of youthful hopes for peace pushing these long-time, nuclear rivals. Obama's exit plans from the Afghanistan war rest on it.
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Exhibit A is Hina Rabbani Khar.
The 30-something woman who holds a master’s degree from the United States and owns a nightclub in Lahore became Pakistan’s top diplomat this year. This week, she made a splash among India’s youth during important talks aimed at ending a cold war between the two South Asian nuclear rivals – a rivalry that only fuels the Afghan conflict.
“A new generation of India and Pakistan will see a relationship which is going to be much different than the one we experienced in the last few decades,” she said with calm eloquence during the talks that propelled bilateral ties forward. “We have learned lessons from history but are not burdened by history.”
Nearly two-thirds of Indians and three-quarters of Pakistanis are under 35 years old and may see their history differently than previous generations. Their dream of a peaceful, prosperous future – which elected leaders cannot ignore – was best summed up in a banner held up by fans in a stadium last March during a friendly Pakistan-India cricket match:
“We have two common religions – cricket and cinema. Why then fight?”
Such youthful atmospherics do count in the difficult diplomacy that lies ahead for Pakistan and India, especially on the issue of Kashmir. Just the fact that they are talking is a milestone, as talks since 1997 have been easily derailed by some blowup, such as the 2008 Mumbai bombings by Muslim militants from Pakistan.
A year ago, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh resolved to forge ahead. Dr. Singh has shown special courage in fending off domestic pressure to be tough on Pakistan. He was tested again just before this week’s talks when a series of blasts hit Mumbai July 13, killing 24.
Overcoming a deep “trust deficit” won’t be easy. Yet both leaders know this rivalry hurts their economies and opportunities for young people.
The rise of China and the pending withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan add strategic reasons to reconcile. A nuclear war between Pakistan and India is unthinkable. Pakistan has finally woken up to its own domestic terrorism (and was weakened by the US killing of Osama bin Laden on its soil). India needs to be a peacemaker if it wants a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
And each side knows the issue of Kashmir can be solved by allowing a “soft border” between the divided peoples. Indeed, the talks this week did result in an agreement for increased travel and trade in Kashmir, among other small steps. People-to-people exchanges between two countries is the best way to build up trust.
“I visualize a resurgent South Asia, proudly marching forth on a path of development, in a terror-free and harmonious atmosphere,” said India’s external affairs minister, S.M. Krishna, during the talks.
As Khar’s counterpart (and a man more than twice her age), Mr. Krishna is looking far ahead – just like the youth of India and Pakistan. He’ll need such hope. In September, talks will begin on the issue of nuclear weapons.