To no one’s surprise India-Pakistan’s yet another, supposedly mutual, venture into the macabre realm of peace diplomacy has come to a grinding halt.
The process has come full circle with the special assistant to PM Nawaz Sharif on foreign affairs, Tariq Fatemi, telling a BBC interviewer that Pakistan will make no further effort to revive the stillborn peace process—rather, dialogue—ushered in with the inauguration of PM Modi last summer. He intoned that the ball was in India’s court, so any initiative to break the deadlock should emanate from Delhi.
Contrast this rigid, carved-in-stone, punditry with the soft, humane and soul-titillating out-of-the-box peace-specific appeal of Malala Yousafzai to her Indian co-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Kailash Satyarthi, to join her in beseeching Nawaz and Modi to grace the award ceremony in Oslo later this winter, in a show of commitment to amity and peace between the estranged neighbours. The humanists aren’t doing anything mischievous to inconvenience or unsettle the leaders on both sides of the Great Divide that increasingly has been looking like a Great Chill. The politicians have painted themselves in a corner that doesn’t seem to offer much wiggle room, much less space for them to rebound on the centre stage. Their egos, higher than the mighty Himalayas, have regrettably been smitten by the star-crossed Sisyphean syndrome to such an extent that early recovery looks hopelessly distant. Fatemi’s puerile punditry is just the icing on it.
The humanists are, innocuously, telling them there’s an exit from the blind alley if only they could get down from the perch where they have, of their own volition, marooned themselves. They are only pointing to the side-door, away from the spell-binding centre stage, which may still lead to open space for peace beyond.
Satyarthi recently figured prominently in the humane context of saving millions of bonded Pakistani labourers from the grubby hands of their exploiters and virtual slave traders.
Pakistan’s leading English paper, Dawn, carried a detailed blog on November 1—under the rubric of Kailash Satyarthi’s Pakistan Connection—on his helping hand to his Pakistani soul-mates, more than a quarter-century ago, to organise an intensive movement in Pakistan to cut the chains of bonded labour on more than one front. Exploitation of bonded labour at the brick-making kilns of Pakistan’s Punjab province is as old as the choke-hold of power-inebriated feudal lords over its land and human resource.
For generations, poor, unlettered and voice-less labourers—men, women and children—had remained chained to the unquenchable lust of their feudal masters for money and power. There was not a kiln where bonded labours didn’t work without wages for its owner, or owners, supposedly repaying the debt owed to their master. The feudals had the clout and patronage to ensure their trade was neither questioned nor regulated. Muslim and Christian “holy men” alike showered the exploiters with their blessings. There was this Pastor of Lahore—with the majority of bonded labourers at the kilns being those who’d converted to Christianity from the lowest strata—who commanded his unsuspecting audience that “the Lord wanted his people to obey those who provided them with bread and butter”.
This inhumane order held sway until an intrepid journalist, Ehsanullah Khan, took on the exploiters, head on, and launched his Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz or the Brick Kiln Workers Front in 1967. Ehsanullah laboured on against heavy odds to fight for the rights of the bonded labour. He was hounded and persecuted by the powerful feudal barons with a lot of help from corrupt bureaucracy. But he won the day for his votaries when the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment in September 1988, outlawed bonded labour and handed it with its independence. It was at then that Satyarthi, who’d made a name for himself in India as the progenitor of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, met Ehsanullah and advised him to cast a wider net to include all other nooks of exploitation of labour in other industries.
The 1988 launching in Pakistan of an overarching Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) had the cementing advice of Satyarthi in its foundations. Taking a leaf out of Satyarthi’s book—especially his struggle on behalf of young children robbed of their school education—Ehsanullah took on another well-heeled and cushioned-with-power carpet weaving industry where it is still common to employ kids barely out of their pampers for hand-knotted carpet making.
Ehsanullah’s Herculean struggle to set poor kids free from the clutches of carpet-making’s cottage industry was also inspired by—and modelled on—the example set in India by the Bahchus Mukti Morcha kicked off by a former minister, Swami Agnivesh, recasting himself into the role of a selfless humanist and labour-rights reformer. So the humanists and human rights workers, on both sides of the Divide, are shining the spotlight on the path of peace—in their own self-effacing way—that politicians and leaders seem still shy to see, much less traverse. The greatest asset available with these humanists is that they are less concerned with making headlines and more occupied with the grass-roots where success, or failure, of any undertaking is determined. And because they aren’t prisoners of rhetoric, they can venture forth into undertakings that media or public opinion polls-savvy leaders are chary of touching even with a barge pole.
The Pakistani political circles have recently been given a taste of how bold and innovative human rights campaigners can be with the filing of a petition in an Islamabad court against General Pervez Musharraf. The petition was lodged by the newly formed Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR) on behalf of Ahmed Rabbani, a young Pakistani detained at the American Gulag of Guantanamo for a dozen years without charge or trial. Rabbani is there because Musharraf—as admitted in his ghost-written autobiography, In the Line of Fire—had “sold” him and 690 other Pakistanis to the US for money. CNN confronted Musharraf in a live interview, when he was there to promote his book, to explain the use of the “sale proceeds”. He had no answer. But, FFR is insistent that Musharraf be held accountable for the sale of his own countrymen.
Likewise, humanists and human rights activists in both India and Pakistan are telling their leaders that non-conventional ways stand a better chance of plugging the gaping holes in their bilateral relations. They are saying, “freeze politics; activate humanism”.
Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat.