“There’s a Direct Link Between Peace and Democratic Freedoms” – South Asian Peace Advocate Rita Manchanda

“People need to see the value of peace in enhancing democratic freedoms,” says Rita Manchanda, Delhi-based author, researcher, peacebuilder and human-rights advocate, on the subject of building peace in South Asia. “There are multiple instrumental reasons why peace with our neighbours is important – human security, health security, environmental security, and even realpolitik. And the central axis in terms of South Asia is the India-Pakistan relationship – it holds hostage the ability of this region to move forward together in harmony and in economic integration.”

Manchanda, who has been programme advisor at the South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR), a regional network of 35 human-rights organisations, since 2000, is also a member of Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy. She sees last week’s U-turn of the Imran Khan government on allowing sugar and cotton imports from India as unfortunate.

On March 31, Pakistan’s newly appointed finance minister Hammad Azharhad announced that the country would lift a nearly two-year-long ban on imports of these two goods from India to reduce inflation. His government went back on the decision within two days after facing political opposition.

“It’s the same story every year even in India – onion prices go up but we don’t allow imports from Pakistan even though they have a surplus there,” says Manchanda, whose research focuses on conflict-resolution and peace-building in South Asia.

The author of Women and Politics of Peace: South Asia Narratives on Militarization, Power, and Justice (Sage, 2017) among other books on minority rights and forcible displacement, Manchanda believes political issues need to brought to the table along with peace negotiations, which in turn affect democratic freedoms and governance.

“Let’s face it. The deep state in Pakistan has a great deal to do with confrontation across the border. And there are issues like Kashmir that you must engage with. The greater allocation of budgets to defence forces and the greater importance given to issues of security at a cost to democratic freedoms have a lot to do with justification and legitimisation in terms of facing a volatile, hostile neighbour. Which is why we have seen a very direct link between the value of peace as well as the preservation, protection and strengthening of democratic freedoms,” she says.

With her family having roots in pre-Independence Pakistan and having herself lived across the world – from Switzerland, New Zealand, and Thailand to India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – Manchanda calls herself a “South Asian national” and has paid particular attention to critically exploring the role of civil society, especially women’s collective activism, in negotiating conflict and building peace in South Asia.

Rita Manchanda

While she admits there are many vested interests that do not want the Indo-Pak relationship to move forward, she believes civil society must strengthen and build the constituency that sees value in having and fostering more peaceful relationships.

“Sentiment and bonhomie are all terribly important but there are good realist reasons, justifications and rationales for the two countries to work together. It’s important for people to push that process. People must be made aware of the practical benefits and advantages of peace to be able to counter the toxic jingoism that has been unleashed against our neighbours,” she asserts. “To do that, we also have to identify new stakeholders. The business community is the most obvious one.”

Manchanda, who has also authored the book The No Nonsense Guide to Minority Rights in South Asia (Sage, 2009), uses the term ‘auditing’ of civil society advocacy effectiveness as her area of research interest. At SAFHR, she conceptualised and coordinated multi-country field-based peace audits and a diverse portfolio of programmes including ‘Media in Conflict’ and ‘Rights-based Approaches to Poverty Reduction’.

She welcomes the recent ceasefire in February 2021 between the two armies after a discussion between India’s Director General of Military Operations, Lt General Paramjit Singh Sangha, and his Pakistani counterpart, Maj General Nauman Zakaria. “It took months of back-channel discussions for this to happen, and when the ceasefire was announced, there wasn’t much opposition to it. It just shows that a space has been created for peace talks,” says Manchanda, who is a consultant with transnational governmental bodies and is on the board of journals such as International Journal of Transitional Justice.

She elaborates, “Those in power know that the Afghan fallout [following American troop withdrawal] could become a major security issue in India. If Pakistan gets destabilised by a refugee influx, it will affect India too. Where else will these people go? All these things have to be considered.”

A guest lecturer on the themes of global studies, gender, conflict and refugee studies at several universities, Manchanda rues that Pakistan studies is the least offered of all subjects in Indian universities, and comes fraught with risks for the stakeholders who do take it up. “This is one of the most important subjects yet we know so little about it,” says Manchanda, who herself went to Pakistan for the first time in 1982 as a journalist covering an economic summit.

“I don’t know what happens, but the minute a Pakistan frame comes up, we become dehumanised,” she says, referencing Indo-Pak ‘fishermen exchanges’ when each country waits until it has captured a significant number of the other’s fishermen so that they can be ‘bartered’. “They are not even seen as human beings; they are just statistics. You are playing football with people’s lives,” she regrets.

She similarly quotes the recent case of India trying to deport a 14-year-old Rohingya refugee back to Myanmar against her wishes and against basic humanity. Eventually, Myanmar’s border forces refused to take her back in, saying the situation was not safe for her. The teen was sent back to the NGO in Assam where she had taken shelter after escaping violence in Myanmar two years ago. “We were going to make this girl an example. What is happening to us? We talk about democratic values; we flaunt them in regional exchanges. Where are these democratic values?” Manchanda asks.

She believes that while governments of all ideologies have their own agenda, public discourse in India has been particularly pernicious and toxic of late, not just towards neighbours but also towards its own minorities. “The difference between the current government and the previous ones was that while all have been fork-tongued and have their own kind of populist propaganda, what has happened now is that our institutions are gutted. No one wants to risk taking a stand,” she says flatly.

This is clearly not a good sign for a country that aspires to be a regional superpower. “We are trying to be one of these spokes in a multi-polar world, but we’re not going to be able to achieve that unless we work our neighbourhood properly. We have hostile relationships with practically everyone. Our domestic policies are so confrontational,” she points out.

She cites examples, “You can’t call Bangladesh’s people termites and then extend hands of friendship. You can’t keep pushing Nepal around. Of course, they will turn to China.”

Which is where the former journalist and academic sees the role of people’s initiatives in calling for peace. She says, “It is in our interest to cultivate our neighbours. But, as a member of civil society, we don’t look to governments to make things move. We have to push them.”

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