When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in August 1947, neither the Indian National Congressnor the Muslim League visualised that the new identities emerging would remain in perpetual conflict. Sixty-four years after that great divide, it is time to contemplate the possibility of a better future for the people of India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries.
Following the meeting of the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers in Delhi on July 27, one can see some official ice melting, the two sides agreeing to deal with contentious issues through serious, sustained dialogue. But can rhetoric change the harsh realities impeding normalisation and peace? Today, if India-Pakistan relations are on the right track, as remarked by India's foreign minister S M Krishna, why hasn't a breakthrough on substantive issues yet been reached? When Hina Rabbani Khar talks about a "new era in bilateral relations", why do trade and travel inter-actions remain marginal, still captive to age-old mistrust?
India and Pakistan will soon celebrate their 65th Independence Day anniversaries. At such a time, we need to ponder how they can transform the ideals of peace and development into reality. One-third of the world's poor and half of its illiterate people live in South Asia. Can there be hope of turning this backward region into a secure, stable and prosperous one?
At least three generations of Indians and Pakistanis have suffered since Partition, seeing armed conflict. Moreover, terrorism and extremism in South Asia have enjoyed substantial space because the region's two core countries, India and Pakistan, neglected the socio-economic needs of their masses. When poverty, illiteracy and lack of development loomed large, the main beneficiaries were hawks or militants who poisoned minds with their message of hate. But after over six decades of confrontation, it seems the tide is turning, giving way to ideas of reconciliation.
That doesn't mean the forces of hate will automatically give up their role as propagators of aggression.
However, in the near future, it is possible that ideas based on reason and pragmatism will prevail, reshaping responses towards violence, pessimism and stagnation. Take the Mumbai blasts of July 13, 2011. Despite that heinous act of terror, sanity prevailed and - instead of falling into the trap of terrorists and hardliners - the Indian leadership decided to go ahead with its normalisation process with Pakistan. It thus defeated the forces that propagate hate and sow paranoia in both nations. Millions of people in both India and Pakistan suffer because of terrorism. Without meaningful cooperation in counterterrorism, neither country can effectively deal with the menace.
Today, four indicators hold up a positive vision for South Asia. First, the growing irrelevance in the region of ideas augmenting hostility and confrontation. The feeling that South Asia has lagged on key indicators of human development is strong. There is a realisation millions have paid a heavy price because of their regimes' misplaced priorities. There now exists a broad popular consensus on the real issues facing South Asia: bad governance, corruption, terrorism, poverty, illiteracy, lack of basic necessities and environmental degradation. In this context, there is the feeling that without normalised Indo-Pak ties, the region will remain backward and poor.
Second, it's felt that if regimes in South Asia focussed on welfare rather than conflict and warmongering, it would automatically bring stability and security to the people. A positive vision for South Asia is associa-ted with a desire to improve the quality of life of the impoverished as much as with free movement of people, goods, services and capital. This was the crux of the talks between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers.
Third, a positive vision for South Asia means shared ownership of culture and civilisation across the region. From Afghanistan to Bangladesh, from Nepal to Sri Lanka, the regional culture of tolerance, coexistence and peace is to be reclaimed, so that the world can have a positive image of South Asia. Again, it's in India and Pakistan where qualitative change should take place so that the baggage of corruption, bad governance, poverty, illiteracy and intolerance can be shed.
It will be an uphill task to change the mindset of those who consider conflict as their bread and butter and see their own survival at risk if the forces of positive change alter state policies to promote cooperation and peace. Given the stakes - South Asia's place in global power structures - it's the right time to try. As time goes by, the legacies of the partitions of 1947 and 1971 will diminish. This is a real opportunity for those growing up in today's South Asia to see their region free of armed conflicts and functioning as an economic powerhouse by 2047. A hundred years after the subcontinent's partition, will it not be fitting if new generations that didn't experience the bitter and violent events of the past can transform South Asia?
What matters for India and Pakistan now is how serious and responsible their leaders are about providing their people quality of life and respect on the international stage. If the two nations perform in terms of economic and human development, South Asia's future will be different from its past and present.
(The writer is professor, department of international relations, University of Karachi. )