‘New India’ a challenge to regional stability: Senator


Sherry Rehman is one of Pakistan’s most articulate voices advocating peace and dialogue with India and has been part of many Track-II or behind-the-scenes dialogues between the nuclear armed neighbors. 

Rehman is Pakistan’s first woman Senate opposition leader representing the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). She also currently chairs the Islamabad-based non-partisan think tank Jinnah Institute.

Pakistan conferred on her the state’s highest civil award — the Nishan-i-Imtiaz — in March 2013 for her services to the country.

A former diplomat and editor, Rehman was in Ankara to attend an international conference on Kashmir where she spoke to Anadolu Agency about several issues, including Kashmir, the rise of populist politics in India, political instability in Pakistan and trilateral solidarity among Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan.

The following are excerpts from the exclusive conversation:

Anadolu Agency (AA): People in South Asia would regard India as a model of liberalism and democracy. However, post 2014, things seem to have changed. What are your thoughts on that?

Sherry Rehman (SR): What we see is that the old model of Nehruvian secularism in India has gone through a sea change with right-wing ultra-nationalist forces such as [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi’s RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)-led BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). It is extremist in all senses of the word, and it has an exclusionary agenda.

Look at what’s happening in India. Look at the Muslim majority being diluted everywhere, including Kashmir.

Now you see the internment centers for the Citizenship Act in Assam (province of India) where the Muslims are being almost removed from citizenship.

It’s a huge change. And it is a spectacular failure of Indian democracy that it has come to a point where its old, inclusive formula of the Nehruvian secular constitution — the state — is now seen as an instrument of oppression, certainly in Kashmir and in many places.

Muslims are not sure of their footing anywhere in India. And there is an increasing sense of insecurity, communalism.

And you have heard of the mob lynching and exclusion, the otherization they want. It is becoming a very much dangerous norm, and I think it affects the idea of India as was projected by Indians.

And I think it’s a serious challenge to regional stability and peace.

AA: You wear many hats. Besides being a diplomat and now a senator in Pakistan’s parliament, you have been a very strong of advocate of dialogue between India and Pakistan. You also head the Jinnah Institute, which has been involved in Track-II and behind- the-scenes dialogue between the two countries. What is the quality of interaction between India and Pakistan post-2014?

SR: It has gone through a change. We have felt that the conversations are very hard to be put on a constructive path, into life. And since I had put together the Jinnah Institute in response to challenges to regional peace, as well as trying to grow space for inclusion and a plural model that [the founder of Pakistan] Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah advocated very strongly in his Aug. 11, 1947 address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.

Those are our goals, and now on the regional peace track, we [Jinnah Institute] have run the longest Track-II dialogue with India, and we find that it has gone through change.

The BJP interlocutors, they talk in private, but there is a sense that hostilities in the public domain are so high and the coercive diplomacy of mainstream ministers whom you can no longer say are the lunatic fringe or the ultra-right, they are the main ministers in the Cabinet of Narendra Modi.

So it is very hard to keep the constructive conversation going. But in another sense, Track-IIs are very essential in a time of information apartheid. The time you see running in India right now, we don’t even know about what is happening in many areas.

And Indians are also still keen to learn and talk to Pakistan. But we feel that there is clearly a shift in the public temperament in India. And obviously that reflects in every conversation. 

AA: In recent times, things have been coming out in Pakistan’s mainstream media that Kashmiris be left to fight their struggle on their own. Do you think there are takers for this?

SR: Prime Minister [Imran Khan] and the [Pakistani] government have actually done more than enough in terms of signaling to India, or New Delhi rather, that they are ready for constructive dialogue. Because there is no other path. There is no military solution to Kashmir. And that is something that the Jinnah Institute wants.

All political parties [in Pakistan] are united on this consensus that Kashmir is a very core issue for all strategic thinkers and for everybody manifesting our foreign policy.

So we are all united on this one thing.

However, to suggest that we should fly off unilaterally [to New Delhi or] we receive them, I think, is a step too far right now, because we see no receptivity in the Modi government for a dialogue that will perhaps even begin our conversation related to Kashmir and other obstructions to normalization of ties between India and Pakistan. Especially after the Pulwama incident [on Feb. 14], things have been very, shall I say, volatile between the two countries, and so the space for peacemaking has shrunk. But I have to say that Pakistan has not shrunken.

The day of the Kartarpur [in Pakistan] opening with Punjab [in India], as you know, with all Sikhs to come in and to invest in a multi-faith vision for the region, India brought forward, the Supreme Court [of India] brought forward the Ayodhya incident verdict which spelt many things to the Muslims of India, and it impacts again, as I said, the idea of India, because it seemed like a very arbitrary and self-serving verdict for the Hindus who had actually demolished the 500-year-old mosque for them to get this land and Muslims to be given another piece of real estate.

It has polarized and divided India. And the Muslims now are very clear; they are not worse than second-class citizens. Maybe some Muslims are not. Some are successful. We wish them very well because they are citizens and their rights must be respected.

AA: Pakistan and India had set up the Chaophraya Dialogue, which is routinely held in Bangkok, Thailand. You have been part of this Track-II formation. Can you tell us anything about that?

SR: The Chaophraya Dialogue is the principle Track-II running between India and Pakistan. And naturally, given the state of the dialogue and the coercive diplomacy that we see emanating from India, it’s very difficult to keep that going, but we have been doing it, and it’s a non-state dialogue.

AA: You have been a strong advocate of the cross-LoC (Line of Control in divided Kashmir) movement of people and trade. Of late, trade is stalled. There is no communication or movement of divided families. Where to go from here?

SR: It is very unfortunate that even people-to-people ‘small mercies’ as we call them for the people of Kashmir, if they [India] care about Kashmir, which they say they do, then really all the old peace moves or CBMs (Confidence Building Measures) as we call them — the bus, the trade, the movement of people — that hurts the common woman and man, and if you stop that, so it should be facilitated.

Yet we see no appetite in the Modi sarkaar [government] or the regime for facilitating anything but the majority of Indians, which right now they have convinced and sold to a ‘New Indian’ dream.

But I’m convinced and hopeful for the future that the pendulum will swing, India is not a monolith. There are assaults on intellectual and democratic freedoms and the way you see Jawaharlal Nehru [University], which is a hub of leftist thinking and academic rigor and independence is also under attack in curriculums. So much is under attack in current India that we actually fear for its own cohesion.

And if you like, the mythology of what it is, every country has a uniting metaphor. And extremism seems to be becoming the new India’s unity metaphor as opposed to the unity and diversity of it they [Indians] used to talk about.

Right now, their inclination to manage diversity is just to talk about it as a poster child everywhere — secularism. But the reality is that this suppressive brutality and the exclusion of India’s minorities is a huge sea change in its entire vision of the state and who is a citizen, who it excludes, who it includes. I think it challenges the very foundation of India.

AA: You spoke a bit differently from other speakers at the conference [on Kashmir in Ankara]. You said the situation [between India and Pakistan] should not lead to any nuclear war between the two countries, but what we expect is more instability in the region.

Keeping that in mind, you are from a very well-respected party — the PPP. You are the leader of the opposition in Pakistan’s Senate. How do you reconcile with the fact that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government of Imran Khan is just one year old and there are attempts, which may be justified, quote-unquote, that Pakistan internally is being pushed to an unstable condition with reference to protests by Fazlur Rehman supported by opposition parties?

SR: See, I think instability is always in the hands very much — certainly domestic and political instability — of the government of the day.

I represent [the party of] respected [former premier and PPP leader] Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, which has modeled itself on constitutionalism and honoring democratic obligations.

When our party was in power, and there was opposition, there were street protests, we facilitated them. We did not carry on a dialogue or discourse of hate and division. That is not something a sitting government does. An incumbent [government] always has to seek to unite the country and to build consensus for shared goals that will help the public in overcoming very serious economic and other challenges.

But here we see that the government of the day [PTI government] is busy dividing, as opposed to uniting, even after the Pulwama-Balakot attack, which was very serious. Indian jets crossed Pakistan’s border for the first time since 1971.

It was a very serious signal to Pakistan, and the prime minister should have immediately convened a parliamentary meeting and talked to legislators.

The meeting was convened, but the prime minister chose not to come. The same went on for Kashmir.

Pakistan’s prime minister and the government have not had a single meeting of the Pakistani leadership on Kashmir, which every government has always had, despite there not being such an escalating crisis.

Now in times of crisis, they act like it is not their job to run the government and are constantly fostering division and polarity in society and often mock the opposition and keep claiming that people are seeking deals…That is not how a government behaves.

It is a government’s job to build consensus on key national issues of public importance. It is for them to maintain domestic stability, so that there can be a united Pakistan standing up against external challenges as well as very serious crises in public finances.

And we don’t see that, so I’m quite alarmed. I mean, very often, we have in parliament suggested that there be discussions to build this kind of consensus on key issues, but they have just walked away from it. It seems that it is a very non-serious group of (PTI government) Cabinet members when they talk like this. There are good members in the PTI, but they don’t seem to have the power to make the decisions.

AA: Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia have announced a trilateral-kind of solidarity. What are your thoughts?

SR: Absolutely! Malaysia and Turkey have shown real leadership in times of challenge to Kashmir and to Pakistan.

Malaysia has actually been hit by India canceling its massive palm oil imports. And that is one of Malaysia’s principal exports. So they are actually paying a cost for taking a political position on Kashmir, but hats off to them for doing so.

And of course, Turkey as I said, has spoken the truth to international power, which is very tough, but they have taken a position [on Kashmir]. We respect them for it. We appreciate it.

These three countries must, I would suggest, even form a pivotal core group for building solidarity on the plight of Kashmir and how to take forward the vision that these three countries can offer for dismantling the fires of extremism and building some kind of architecture for stability and peace in the region.
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