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Drowning with the enemy

By Tahir Mehdi

September 12 2014

My daughter came back from school quite disturbed. “How can India do this to us?” she complained to me as if I was the ‘ambassador at home’ of India. “They have inundated the whole of our country,” she charged angrily.

I tried to explain that the flooding in central and north-eastern Punjab was from the two western rivers, Jhelum and Chenab, and India had nothing to do with them. “It is caused by the torrential rains that flooded all the roads of our city and you see, that’s why you couldn’t go to school for two days,” I reasoned further but she wasn’t satisfied.

“The Indian side of Kashmir is under heavy floods too. It naturally flows our way. It’s geography and nature and not politics, girl,” I was now using my knowledge to buttress my defense.

Also read: Hundreds of thousands marooned by floods in India-held Kashmir

She, however, was not fully convinced.

The floods were obviously discussed by her teachers and classmates that day. “OK, I will soon write to Amir Khan to dissuade his government from throwing away their extra water on us.” I sought some help from the India that she adores.

It ended in laughter but I had to really put in some effort to prove that I was only trying to be rational and not defending India.

I suffered a similar shock some time ago, when I was having a customary welcome-back conversation with my office maid who had just returned from her village in Okara after her Eid visit.

Besides her sick mother, and a vagabond brother refusing ‘a settled life’, she had one additional worry to report, “Agriculture is getting poorer. There is no water in the canals.”

“Where has it gone?” I quipped.

“It’s India that has blocked it all,” she retorted with such confidence as if she had seen with her eyes a dragon called India sucking our rivers dry. She, however, was unable to see any big landlord stealing water in connivance with irrigation authorities for their lucrative and water intensive crops.

A new narrative of hate that blames all our water woes on India is winning popular perceptions in Pakistan.

The counter narrative is too technical for the common person to comprehend and appreciate. A combo of pictures titled ‘River Ravi in Pakistan and in India’, with the Pakistani part obviously dry as dust, mounted on Jamaat ud Dawa vans is much simpler and more communicative. It builds on the hatred for India that has been cultivated on the issue of Kashmir for decades and it is now being extended to waters that flow from that region.

Also read: Pakistan’s water woes should not be blamed on ‘bogeyman’ India

The dispute of Kashmir was a ‘real issue’ for the generation that witnessed the Partition of 1947 as it was politically correct then to stake territorial claims on the basis of communal associations. It became a cause celebre for our next generation as Pakistani nationalism was perched on fervent pan-Islamist ideologies.

In the 1980s, we were distracted towards the western borders but by the time we returned from there, the axioms of freedom fighting were already confused with the rising notions of terrorism in global discourse.

In the past 67 years, we fought wars over Kashmir, ‘morally and diplomatically’ supported insurgencies, held negotiations, signed pacts but the dispute remained unresolved.

For the current generation, the issue of Kashmir has become a nationalistic ritual bearing no real political meanings and hardly representing any emotions. The media too, is fatigued by the unyielding nature of the issue. It does not get a fraction of the attention that it used to in the 1990s. Although attempts are made to revive the rhetoric, the dispute by and large has become too abstract and far-fetched for an average Pakistani.

Our water woes are, however, real and the ones that common people easily relate to and inversely linking these to India can melt the ‘Kashmir glacier’ into another flood of hatred.

Explore: Pakistan’s water crisis now at par with terrorism: report

Climate catastrophes are on the rise in number and intensity by any count. Climate change advocates predict a bleaker future for South Asia with the Himalayan glaciers disappearing altogether in the foreseeable future giving rise to floods, erratic rainfalls and a consequent drop in crop yield. Climate change will not only be, and is, hitting the poor the hardest; it will further generate and exacerbate poverty.

So what will our authorities do in such eventuality, besides, of course, blaming the enemy for conniving with the dreadful forces of nature?

Ironically, for a good part of the western Subcontinent, the most fatal climate change catastrophes will originate in Kashmir and these will neither recognise international borders nor any lines of control. The two countries will have no option but to cooperate with each other.

Find out: The tax Pakistan must pay

The present situation, however, offers no hope. India and Pakistan have no record of cooperating with each other even in the most distressed of the times. And I have good reason for being skeptical here.

Kashmir suffered the biggest disaster in recent history, when in October 2005 a massive earthquake had struck the region. The whole world rushed to Pakistan to extend a helping hand. Cooperation between the two neighbors, however, could not go beyond carefully drafted statements meant solely for global diplomatic consumption, just as they are doing now in the wake of current floods.

Teams of doctors flew into Pakistan from as far away as Cuba but those from across the border were not given visas. Pakistan wanted India to lend it some of its helicopters for rescuing people stuck in inaccessible mountainous areas but India wanted its own pilots to fly the machines which Pakistan did not allow. Pakistan wanted India to waive the flying restrictions that was in force in the area one kilometer on each side of Line of Control, India agreed but conditionalised each flight with separate prior approval.

The two countries, however, kept playing to the international gallery. They floated proposals and counter proposals to make it possible for divided Kashmiri families to walk across the LoC and help each other with rehabilitation work. The foreign office functionaries spent days fine fixing the ‘security aspects of the intended cooperation’ and then after a marathon session in Islamabad they announced well past midnight on October 30th to set up five posts to facilitate the LoC crossing by the Kashimiris.

On November 20, 2005, the 43rd day of the earthquake, 24 Pakistani Kashmiris walked back home from one of these posts. They were the ones stuck on the Indian side as the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service was suspended after the earthquake. No one else got the security clearance. So much for the cooperation initiative!

Pakistan and India have time and again failed to surmount their Himalayan egos and when pressed they either busy themselves in non-starter initiatives or hide behind feel good statements to avoid embarrassment at a global level.

They can probably manage to sit over the political issue of Kashmir for another 67 years but what will they hide behind when the climate change catastrophes hit harder? And rest assured, these are less than 67 years away.

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan

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