Track II diplomacy: Pakistan and India searching for peace on the shores of the Chaophraya river

13 November 2018 Neha Zaigham Track II diplomacy: Pakistan and India searching for peace on the shores of the Chaophraya river

Neha Zaigham explores how track II dialogues between Pakistan and India have brought together young leaders to build cross-border links and work towards peaceful solutions to shared challenges.

In late September, the Indian and Pakistani governments entered a fresh round of strong rhetoric leading to heightened tensions. These long-standing tensions are all too familiar to the citizens of both countries, but what is less known is the tireless work of those supporting alternative ways of resolving differences.

The track II – or informal – dialogues between India and Pakistan provide a platform for engagement, creating a repository of ideas and influencers that can step up to strengthen bilateral relations during periods of relative calm. The Chaophraya Dialogue – named after the scenic Chaophraya river in Thailand, where the meetings are convened – began in 2008. It has brought together prominent figures from India and Pakistan, who have gone on to share conclusions and recommendations on a range of issues discussed during the dialogue with their respective governments, from crisis management and trade ties to visa liberalisation and regional stability efforts. In recent years, Saferworld partners Jinnah Institute (JI) in Pakistan and Australia India Institute (AII) in India have expanded these dialogues by opening this forum to young leaders and mid-career professionals, bringing a fresh outlook to contentious issues plaguing the two countries. 

A recent progress study looking at UN resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security explored the roles of young women and men in the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security. The study highlights some of the frustrations shared by young people who are side-lined by their governments and the international community, many of whom see them as the problem rather than a solution. The Chaophraya Emerging Leaders’ Forum seeks to tap into the vast potential of young people as influencers within their respective fields, in and across borders. The second forum this September underscored the importance of bringing these young minds together to meet in person, share their thoughts and look at ways for Pakistanis and Indians to connect across borders.

In dire straits

In sessions chaired by members of JI and AII, young people covered a range of topics from nationalism, identity politics and extremism to tensions in Kashmir, censorship and improving livelihoods across South Asia. A worrying trend to emerge was the growing hyper-nationalism on both sides of the border and the disconnect between the younger generations of Indians and Pakistanis. This isolation and lack of direct contact, as well as the asymmetry of pop-culture consumption, where Pakistanis are disproportionately exposed to the Indian entertainment industry, means that these generations are not equipped to understand their counterparts properly. Tanvi Kulkarni from AII said that Pakistanis know a lot more about Indian culture, but for Indians “there is a complete lack of imagination of what the country next door looks like…I have an easier time imagining the slopes of Switzerland rather than the mountains of Pakistan”.

As well as barriers on the flow of information and people, the rise in hyper-nationalist narratives has led to the danger of one being termed a ‘traitor’ for any association with the ‘enemy’. This type of rhetoric is used on both sides of the border, with the ruling party in India building its political capital by denouncing Pakistan and its domestic and foreign policies, and with the general elections in Pakistan this year seeing the use of anti-India slogans by some political parties.  

Re-imagining relationships

The Emerging Leaders’ Forum allowed for important discussion on sensitive topics and the chance for change-makers to highlight areas of collaboration that offer a glimmer of hope in an otherwise grim landscape. For example, Dr Ali Usman Qasmi, Assistant Professor of History at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, has co-taught a virtual course with Indian professor, Dr Pallavi Raghavan from O P Jindal Global University in a bid to understand the contested history between the two countries. By employing new technologies such as Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook, students from both sides of the border were able to learn about some of their contentious histories in an academic setting.

Participants at the Chaophraya dialogue event in Bangkok. Credit: Chaophraya dialogue website

I found it interesting how participants focused on the value of new technologies and online communication. The joint recommendations coming out of the forum focused on using these methods of communication, which would take account of strict visa controls which otherwise inhibit people-people contact. Suggestions included a multimedia series, including films and documentaries, focusing on populism and misogyny, and conferences integrating academic expertise on regional issues with the Chaophraya Dialogue. Journalists who attended agreed that an online fact-checking tool was needed to catch misinformation from spreading and damaging relations between the two countries.

The forum has shown that diversity, innovation and fresh ideas are just as valuable as extensive experience. With technology tearing down barriers, the possibilities for engagement are more present than ever. Where those in power swing between impasse and aggression, these person-to-person interactions between Indians and Pakistanis can lead to real incremental change.

I for one, left the sessions better informed, recharged, and further committed to the possibility of a better future for our region.

Photos: Chaophraya Dialogue