South Asian Free Media Association conference and the Line of Control
The eighth regional conference of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), in which members from eight countries of South Asia participated, was recently held in both Amritsar and Lahore. Their ‘peace caravan’, comprising over 200 delegates, crossed the border into Lahore on Monday in the hopes of “opening minds and borders”.
The usual themes were discussed in this conference in Lahore, with leading political leaders of Pakistan addressing and expressing their resolve to see greater economic and political cooperation in South Asia. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf urged political boundaries be struck down so that economic gains are made feasible via trade liberalisation. He also emphasised the importance of allowing journalists and media representatives access to an easier visa regime between Pakistan and India. PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif reiterated the fact that Pakistan was unable to solve its problems on its own and needed regional cooperation. He elaborated that the energy and power sectors needed help from SAARC countries and that peace and stability depended upon greater economic cooperation.
It seems that across the board in Pakistan, our political representatives have abandoned any notion of demonising India and realised the importance of working together on a South Asian level, letting the dead past bury its dead. The conference adopted the Lahore Declaration, in which dismay has been expressed at continued acts of violation of human rights, failure to effectively curb terrorist activities and ongoing acts of sectarianism, and the failure to constructively tackle the plague of poverty. The Declaration welcomes trade and visa liberalisation plans and appreciates the fact that all countries want to see a more vibrant and economically strong South Asia along the lines of the European Union, a reflection of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s view expressed in his address to the conference.
Unfortunately, while the SAFMA conference was underlining more cooperation, the clash the other day on the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir has sparked angry accusations and counter-accusations amid calls for retaliation from both India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s army says that Indian troops stormed a check post on the Pakistan side on Sunday, killing one soldier. Indian authorities say that two of its soldiers were killed on Tuesday after a “ghastly” attack by Pakistani troops on the Indian side of the LoC. Just days after celebrating the Pakistan-India dialogue process in Amritsar during the SAFMA conference, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid says that India will take retaliatory action against Pakistan. This is extremely unsettling. On the one hand we have the SAFMA delegates representing a broad spectrum of South Asian media striving to strengthen ties in the region generally, and between India and Pakistan in particular, and on the other we have the escalating war of words between the latter two countries after the military clash on the LoC. Such clashes do happen from time to time on the tense LoC, not an unnatural occurrence when the forces of the two sides are deployed eyeball to eyeball across the divide. However, the timing of the this latest incident has aroused suspicions that there are elements on one side or the other or both, interested in sabotaging the ongoing moves for peace and normalisation through trade and economic cooperation, a liberalised visa regime, and sundry other confidence building measures. Where India and Pakistan are concerned, given their fraught history, it does not take much to jeopardise the peace process. It is extremely important that both sides practice restraint when approaching this issue and keep the spirit of the dialogue process alive. A mechanism must be put in place to prevent such incidents from occurring. Such skirmishes have the potential to throw the whole dialogue process both countries have laboured over in recent days into complete disarray. Going by the spirit that SAFMA has brought to the cross-border table, it is vital that both countries approach this matter in a civilised and intelligent way in which solutions are offered, not threats.