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A Desert And Two Roses

Prem Shankar Jha

Monday 21 July 2003, by JHA*Prem Shankar

Article paru dans "Outlook India", ?dition du 21 juillet 2003.

There were two stories in the newspapers last Thursday (the day this column is written). They could add up to nothing. But they could also, if we so wish, herald the dawn of peace in South Asia. The choice is for us to make.

The first concerned the successful open-heart surgery carried out by a talented team of doctors on little Noor Fatima, daughter of Nadeem Sajjad and Tayyeba Nadeem, from Pakistan, in the Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital in Bangalore. The story of Noor’s impending operation might never have hit the headlines had she and her parents not come to India on the newly restarted Delhi-Lahore bus service.

But once it did, it tapped a huge reservoir of goodwill and sympathy in this country. The hospital waived its fees for the operation, but Nadeem Sajjad and his wife insisted on paying the sum anyway and added another Rs 50,000 to pay for operations on poor Pakistani children in future. Money has poured in from well-wishers all over the country, including the governor and chief minister of Karnataka. A donor who insisted on remaining anonymous donated the full cost of the operation, Rs 1.4 lakh. A former industrialist, one Mr Santhanam, has donated no less than Rs 12 lakh to fund a cardiac diseases research centre at the hospital. And, the best news of all, at the time of writing, Noor is on her way to recovery. This has been one of those all-too-rare moments when humanity has burst through the walls of politics and prejudice to assert the indivisibility of the human race.

The second story concerned the visit of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of Pakistan’s Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI), to the Deoband seminary, en route to Delhi. This is not the Maulana’s first visit to India. He came in 1995 to intercede with Al Faran, an offshoot of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, to release five foreign tourists it had kidnapped in Kashmir (and later killed). For mysterious reasons, he was stopped at Delhi airport and sent back to Pakistan. This time New Delhi has been more accommodating. The JUI is not only the political godfather of the Harkat-ul-Ansar (now rechristened the Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami), a key member of the United Jehad Council based in Muzaffarabad, PoK, but also the theological patron of the Taliban-most of whose leaders are graduates of its seminaries in the NWFP. It is also a member of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the coalition of Islamic parties that has seized power in the NWFP and Baluchistan and is a part of the ruling coalition in Islamabad. The Maulana’s presence in India is therefore somewhat surprising, to say the least.

But his message is even more surprising. "It is time to solve our problems," he said in Deoband. "The governments of our countries are trying and every effort should be made to chart a roadmap for peace." And more in the same vein.

A close examination of what the Maulana is saying shows that he is carrying not one but two messages. The first, mentioned above, is an affirmation that the peace overtures being made by the two governments to each other have the support of his party and coalition. His use of the term "roadmap", which echoes some official pronouncements, makes this clear. The second is more subtle.

Why has he come to India, and why is he visiting Deoband? "It is on the way to Delhi," he said when asked the latter question. It is also the intellectual birthplace of the austere brand of Islam that the JUI preaches. But his visit also carries another message. It is a reaffirmation of the indivisibility of Islam in South Asia, and consequently of the fact that the fate, not only of all the people of the subcontinent, but especially of its Muslims, is inextricably interlinked. Peace between the two neighbours will therefore serve the interests of Islam.

If this reading of the Maulana’s visit is correct, then it has profound implications for relations between the two countries.First, it means that should President Musharraf and Prime Minister Jamali want to make any concessions during negotiations for peace, the JUI will not stand in the way. The second is an awareness in the JUI, created no doubt by the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, that Islamic countries may face a more serious threat today from the US than anything they can conjure up from India or any other neighbour. It would therefore be wise for Pakistan’s jehadis to reorder their priorities. Above all, the Maulana’s visit reflects his awareness that in the global empire that is in the making, squabbles between smaller countries could become gateways for the entry of the new colonisers.

The two news items are therefore the markers of future Indo-Pak relations. If the Maulana’s visit signals a new awareness of the price of discord, Noor Fatima’s operation signals the limitless benefits of cooperation. From India’s point of view, the time is propitious for another reason. Never have the dividends from peace been more apparent to Kashmiris than they are today. The patently free-and-fair elections of last October, the ascension of a new government and the growing realisation that it is not a puppet government imposed by New Delhi has combined with a drop in militant violence to create Kashmir’s first tourism boom in 15 years. For the first time the hotels and houseboats are full and the Dal Lake is dotted with shikaras. No one wants the bad times to return and this sentiment is beginning to affect even the Hurriyat. There is thus a convergence of interests on the perpetuation of peace. There can be no better time to begin a search for a solution that makes everyone a little better off than they were before.

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