In the Aman Ki Asha debate organized by the recently conceived Debating Societies of India and Pakistan on January 10 in New Delhi's Taj Palace's Durbar Hall - the distinguished panel supporting the state's role in promoting lasting peace between the two countries won the vote of about 200 people present at the debate. The opposing but equally illustrious panel could not persuade the audience or their debating counterparts of civil society's most critical importance in better promoting peace between India and Pakistan.
Speakers for this motion were Salman Raja (eminent Harward-trained lawyer), Wajahat S Khan (broadcast and online journalist who has produced and anchored for Pakistan’s primary networks Geo, Dawn and Aaj TV), Salman Haider (former Foreign Secretary of India) and actor Kabir Bedi. Javed Jabbar (Pakistani writer, former Pakistan Information Minister, having roots in Hyderabad), Mani Shanker Aiyar (former Indian diplomat and presently Rajya Sabha member), Shoma Chaudhury (Managing Editor, Tehelka news magazine), and Najam Sethi (award-winning Pakistani journalist and editor-in-chief of The Friday Times), formed the team debating against the motion.
The debate, which was sponsored by the Vandrevala Foundation and Yes Bank
, was moderated by Shashi Tharoor
, Minister of State for Human Resource Development, and Lok Sabha member. He acknowledged at the outset that he was under tremendous pressure from many quarters not to appear for the debate in view of the incidents at the LoC. Opening the debate after a one-minute silence for the soldiers killed at the border, Tharoor said, "Both countries have a mature civil society. We must decide in the favour of the strategic choice for peace."
Each speaker was allotted six minutes followed by two minutes of interjections, after which the panel took on questions from Indians and Pakistanis. The oratory, especially by Aiyar and Wajahat Khan, was sharp, and the interjections by Chaudhury and Raja were witty and pointed - with Aiyar furiously remarking that media's and in particular Times Now anchor Arnab Goswami's ugly jingoism, was affecting state response following the killing and mutilation of two Indian soldiers, and killing of at least one Pakistani soldier in the past few days. Chaudhury was quick to negate Bedi's passionate plea for the acknowledgement of the role of all quarters of civil society who live and act peacefully being the primary promoters of peace who should be taken seriously by governments.
She said that allowing the civil society to spearhead peace has inherent dangers. There are multiple positive and negative voices in civil society. If the media and civil organizations were to be allowed to be the most important factor in promoting peace, then it can be dangerous. Peace is in better hands of the state structure in place, as the state takes into consideration views of the civil society and then takes decisions. "The civil society is asking for physical amputation following the gang-rape. There are all sorts of opinion on any event. What's the guarantee that civil society will never become a lynch mob. Derailments have been caused by non-state actors. Civil society is important but progress can be made only by the state," said Chaudhury.
Bedi, while delivering his ending remarks, took on Chaudhury's refusal to acknowledge the immediacy of civil society's reactions, and said, "Each issue decides the definitional question of the involvement of the civil society."
Jabbar made a reasoned argument for peace but only with a minority role for the civil society. "The India-Pakistan relationship is the most complex in the world. For Pakistan, peace with India is pivotal. But elevating the civil society will not be effective, and is unrealistic. We must remember that the civil society has played a historical role in militarization of the state. Sometimes, the state can't handle complexity and politicians have a dark side but only the state can take responsibility for promoting peace."
The in-demand laywer that Raja is in Pakistan, he said both the sides had an "emaciated view of peace," adding that, "Lack of war and a ceasefire does not mean peace. It will be wrong to think that once the Kashmir issue is resolved there will be lasting peace. There needs to be intellectual and psychological engagement. There needs to be peace and engagement at the material level - be in in business
or travel. Why can't India and Pakistan together be involved in Afghanistan and then all three will benefit."
Asking a rhetorical question, Najam Sethi, observed, "Can you tell me where this civil society is? If you want to muster 5,000 people to participate in a Indo-Pak peace march it has not been done. In Pakistan we can't even gather 100 such peeple. The civil society takes up many issues, most domestic. The narrative of nationalism is for local issues. Why don't they march for Indo-Pak peace? When my friend Salmaan Taseer died, it was impossible to gather people to march in protest." Sethi, who came across as a bit dejected in the debate, attacked the civil society, "In India, the civil society does not like Arundhati Roy because she does not believe in the Republic of India, and is branded anti-national. In the US, Noam Chomsky always remains marginalized."
Aiyar and Wajahat Khan had some of the finest exchanges. Aiyar said it would be incorrect to allow business interests to dominate the need to promote peace as deep economic engagement was never a guarantee for peace. "Civil society is important, it is critical, and not the most important. Engagement with the civil society is good but not a marriage." To which Wajahat said, "Mani, what you see in front of you is being organized by the civil society who wants to have an engagement with peace," asking Mani to respond to the civil society. Unperturbed Aiyar said, "Engagement is not done by rats, which are sitting in power, it is done by Lions," later on adding and alluding that the Indian Prime Minister should chose to go to Pakistan, in view of postponement of his impending visit. "Once you show leadership, things change and can reflect the views of the civil society - citing the path-breaking visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi
to China, as a result of which there is less animosity and more trade between the two nations."
Salman Haider made a telling remark while other debaters quibbled about whom to involve and not involve from the civil society in promoting peace. "In all this time, governments have unclenched their fists. There is progress on the Indus Water Treaty and many confidence building measures. At the same time NGOs have become stakeholders, but the civil society can't replace official channels. There's no Nelson Mandela to lead the way."
Haider also had the last word when he said, "Politicians have power but course along. The civil society has better collective intelligence and wants change," ending a finely contested debate of which the Debating Society of India plans to conduct more with other nations and stake-holders, while also promoting debating in schools, to deepen understanding of issues and improve exchange between members of the civil society.