A human-centric paradigm for Pak-India relations
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a quarrel, as it occasionally happens in a marriage. One word led to another, and suddenly Prince Albert angrily left the bedroom, went to his study, slammed the door and locked it. Queen Victoria ran after him, knocked on the door and demanded, “Open!” There was no answer. She pounded the door with her fist and shouted, “Open at once!!” No answer. She shouted at the top of her voice, “I am the Queen of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the Empress of India and of the entire British Commonwealth, I am the Commander‑in‑Chief of all the British armed forces, and I order you hereby to open this door!!!” No answer. Finally she said in a soft voice, “Albert, I am sorry, I love you and miss you.” Only then did the door opened.
A kind professor, Dietrich Fischer shared this story with me some years ago. The account makes it quite clear that in the heat of the moment things happen, egos flare, conflict exposes itself, and violence can occur. Regardless of what else went on for the couple to actually reconcile, there are a few important lessons to learn from this story.
The first step towards harmonious relations that one must take, which is perhaps the hardest, is to forego one’s ego. One must come down from an egoistic pedestal to a more human(e) level in order to connect with the other by undergoing a self-transformation. The second step is to practice empathy by looking at the conflict from the other person’s perspective. The third step is to offer a genuine and sincere apology, if merited, or at the least show regrets. Mere human compassion will win over and the door to engagement and understanding will ultimately open.
This is not simplistic idealism. It has been a very real experience for Qais Hussain who was a PAF Flying Officer during the 1965 war with India. On an interception mission, he shot down an Indian aircraft following a calculated decision of his superiors, and civilian lives were lost. Hussain showed discipline and commitment in his duty to serve the country. But regrets surfaced after the incident and never left the pilot once it was confirmed that the plane carried civilians. Four and a half decades later, Hussain reached out to the families of the people who died in that incident and extended his sincere condolences and regrets through email first and a televised link later. He did not offer any apologies as it was not his decision to shoot. “I never had a guilty conscience or I would not have been able to sleep. I was filled with sorrow for the unfortunate loss of lives,” Hussain clarified. He also wanted to set the record straight after some speculations in the Indian media about the incident. However, reaching out to the ‘enemy’s’ side and offering condolences for the death of civilians alone is to connect at a very human level and has its consequences.
This act, in a way, ignores the divide between the two states of India and Pakistan, both of which behave in an egoistical manner towards each other. It is a reminder that human loss and suffering has no territorial affiliations since there are humans at the receiving end on both sides of the conflict. These tragic experiences are universal and exactly the same for a Pakistani and an Indian. One must also hail the response of the families of the people killed. They were touched by the action of the former Pakistani pilot and graciously accepted his remorse and returned it with equal compassion. It was indeed a moment to celebrate humanity.
In this action and reaction we see a foregoing of egos, connection at a human level instead of a state level, empathy for the other’s perspective, transformation of an imaginary and conflicted relationship between people of opposing sides, and as a result of all this, an opening of doors for further engagement, dialogue and understanding.
The act of Hussain does not make him a lesser soldier or a lesser Pakistani or even a lesser Muslim as some have suggested. Quite the contrary! Allama Iqbal rightly described the delicate balance between terror of an attacking warrior and the compassion of his humanity in the person of the believer: jis se jigar-e-laalah mein thandak ho woh shabnam / dariyaaon ke dil jis se dehel jaaen woh tufaan! The shabnam and tufaan are not mutually exclusive; in fact they are complementary and of the same essence. Hussain has acted in the tradition of the popular vision of a chivalrous Muslim warrior and by its extension an ideal Pakistani soldier.
As for the conflict between India and Pakistan, the action of one man on the Pakistani side and the reaction of others on the Indian side are not going to change anything overnight. But it does three important things. Firstly, it furthers the people-to-people diplomacy at the grass-roots level which helps to build pressure from the bottom-up on the governments to take positive action. “Only good can come out of this,” Hussain said.
Secondly, it challenges and transforms the collective sub-consciousness of the two countries. Each side has inflicted injuries on the other. The historical narratives – that are often based on religious and cultural stereotypes – on each side, enhance the suffering by invoking the troubled past and consequently instill further animosity against the other. These narratives are part of the collective memories of the society and trigger a knee-jerk reaction against the other. By replacing, to some extent, the old memories of bloodshed and hatred with new memories of human compassion, the collective sub-consciousness is transformed, and both sides become able and ready to deal with the present in a less hostile environment. These acts do not remove the scars of the past but help in better healing and moving on from the negative past towards the positive future.
Lastly, such acts bring the focus back on the human cost of the conflict. From a power-centric paradigm of India-Pakistan relations, it brings focus to a human-centric paradigm – a paradigm that is much more realistic in its approach towards enduring peace and harmony in the region.
The writer is a faculty member at LUMS.