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Diplomacy and music may bring India and Pakistan closer

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-08-13

NEW DELHI - Three events took place in India and Pakistan this week that brought home once again the realisation that both nations were born from the same womb, that both nations shared a cultural genetic code, and that senseless territorial disputes seriously set back sustained economic development which the overwhelmingly poor peoples of the two neighbouring countries desperately need.

These reminders came as both nations prepared to celebrate their respective Independence Day, Pakistan on August 14, and India a day later. It will be 58 years since they freed themselves of British colonialism, and the highlighting of historical and cultural realities this week somehow seemed to accelerate anticipation on both sides of the border that, sooner rather than later, there would be a rapprochement leading to an entirely different relationship between them.

Such is their longstanding mutual animus, however, that it would be premature to predict any dramatic change in Indo-Pakistan relations in the next few weeks. But the very fact that major figures on both sides are talking in terms of months, not years or decades, suggests that the corrosive atmosphere is clearing significantly. "Hope is in the air more strongly than before," said an Indian political figure close to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

One event occurred in both New Delhi and Islamabad, where Mr Deepak Chatterjee, India's Commerce Secretary, and his Pakistani counterpart, Mr Tasnim Noorani, held talks to increase trade between the two countries, which is currently a dismal US$250 million annually. India, which granted the coveted "Most Favoured Nation" status to Pakistan in 1996, wants the latter to reciprocate - which Pakistan is obliged to do under the rules of the World Trade Organisation. India and Pakistan are also among the five signatories of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement, the others being Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

But Islamabad's politicians - mindful of the opposition of powerful Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Jamaat-i-Islami - are balking at the MFN obligation on the grounds that India and Pakistan first need to resolve their dispute over Kashmir, the Himalayan region that both nations claim. In addition to Kashmir, other issues also came up this week during the talks between Mr Chatterjee and Mr Noorani: the right to occupy Siachen, a glacial area; the maritime dispute over Sir Creek; the Wullar Barrage of sharing river waters; drug trafficking; and, of course, India's continuing contention that Pakistan-funded terrorists filter into India through the largely porous border.

Officials this week acknowledged that the restricting of trade to just 600 items hurt the economies of both countries, but most particularly Pakistan, which is estimated to lose more than US$600 million each year in custom duties to smugglers of Indian movie videos, costume jewelry, pharmaceuticals, auto parts and cosmetics. The value of such smuggling is reported to exceed US$3 billion annually, costing Pakistan an estimated $500 million annually in custom duties lost to smugglers. Pakistan also spends more than it needs to by importing wheat from the United States, and medicines and fertilizers from other nations when Indian imports would be substantially cheaper.

And not long ago, President Pervez Musharraf's administration rejected a proposal to sell surplus electricity to energy-deficient India, even though the producer offered to give half the profit from the power sale to the Pakistani government.

Now General Musharraf is being increasingly cajoled by Pakistan's business community to expedite the removal of trade barriers with India.

Mr Riaz Ahmed Tata, president of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said that an easing of trade restrictions could lead to more than US$10 billion worth of two-way business each year.

"We must convince our governments to remove obstacles in the expansion of bilateral trade and investment," said Mr S.M. Naseem, president of the Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The second event this week that raised hopes of an Indo-Pakistan rapprochement involved a group of musicians called Strings. Their blend of classical and fusion music has long been popular in India. They toured several cities in this country, to sell-out audiences. And perhaps most intriguingly, Strings were given contracts by Bollywood producers to compose soundtracks for new films. India turns out nearly 1,000 feature films in several languages each year, making it the world's biggest film producer.

"The language of music is universal," said Mr Bilal Maqsood, who partners with Mr Faisal Kapadia as Strings' singing duo. "Music is about peace and fraternity."

That sentiment was amply echoed this week in a rare assembly of India's greatest living vocalists and classical musicians here in New Delhi. Brought together by Ms Durga Jasraj, a Mumbai television personality and impresario, they performed "Tiranga," a tribute to the tri-coloured Indian flag. Durga's father, Pandit Jasraj, sang in Hindi and Sanskrit about one colour, saffron, which signifies energy; Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma played on the santoor on the theme of transquillity, which is represented by the white middle band of the Indian flag; Pandit U. Shrinivas displayed his virtuosity on the mandolin as he played compositions about green, the colour that stands for fertility and prosperity. And Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia played the flute in an ode to the Ashoka Chakra, the ancient wheel symbol of the Emperor Ashoka, which denotes strength and progress.

Their performances were interspersed with poetry read by Mr Javed Akhtar, a Muslim who's widely considered the greatest living writer in Urdu.

And while no one quite said it in so many words, the subtext - nay, the driving theme - of the entire enchanting evening was peace within and between nations. I asked Ms Jasraj about this. She smiled quietly. At that magical moment, it became clear to her questioner that maybe, just maybe, it was possible for warring neighbours to live in harmony. What a week it was.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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