Veteran peacenik

Ammara Ahmad talks to peace activist Sudheendra Kulkarni about Kashmir, CPEC and, of course, peace

Veteran peacenik
Ammara Ahmad: You were on the first bus from Lahore to Delhi in 1998. Now, this trip is used as an argument against the peace process because it was followed by Kargil. How would you respond to that?

Sudheendra Kulkarni: I would say that we should leave the past behind and look to the future with hope, confidence, and commitment. If we are committed to peace, as we should be, then we should not be deterred by anything. Irrespective of what happens, we should persevere. And that is, in fact, what Vajpayee jee did after his bus yatra – the peace mission to Lahore. What happened thereafter is well-known but at the first opportunity, he invited Musharaf sahab to Agra. Again, somehow that summit did not succeed but he did not give up. And I want to tell you: I worked very closely with him. In 2004 he lost the election – as did the party with which I was also associated. One day, when we were sitting together, just the two of us, he said that if he had one more chance, he would have resolved the Kashmir issue and normalised relations with Pakistan. He was very confident and that is the kind of confidence we should all follow.

AA: The Line of Control nearly became an international border in that era. How much do you think Vajpayee jee contributed to that peace process?

SK: The Kashmir issue requires that the people of India and Pakistan should sit together, along with the people of Kashmir, and come to a just, amicable solution which is peaceful and not militaristic. You know there are many formulae being talked about. Making the LOC an international border or making the LOC ‘irrelevant’ so that the two sides of Kashmir can have borderless movement to and fro. It all depends on what is most acceptable to India, Pakistan and Kashmir. The bottom line is that we should accept that Kashmir belongs to India, Kashmir belongs to Pakistan and Kashmir belongs to first of all to Kashmiri people. On this basis, we will find a solution.

AA: Do you think there has been a resurgence of the Hindu right-wing? How can we negotiate while the right-wing is so powerful in both India and Pakistan?

SK: In my opinion, everyone is a stakeholder. They cannot be completely ignored. They are a part of your nation and they are a part of the Indian nation. The common objective is to find a solution that is acceptable to all stakeholders – which is possible only if there is an attitude of cooperation and compromise. The very nature of this problem is such that we have to find a solution that is acceptable to all three. If you find such a solution, then Kashmir, instead of becoming a barrier between India and Pakistan, can actually become a bridge between India and Pakistan.

AA: Is it accurate to suggest that there has been a rise in an extremist mindset in India?

SK: Unfortunately, there most certainly is a communal mindset which also manifests as a Bharata nationalist mindset. It is a mindset that is anti-Muslim and by extension anti-Pakistan. It has become intensified and vocal. But it does not represent the Indian opinion. The Indian opinion is, by and large, still an opinion that is one for peace and reconciliation. I am absolutely confident that this opinion will ultimately prevail. And I am very happy that even in Pakistan that opinion is prevalent.

AA: How did you reach the conclusion that this opinion prevails?

SK: I can only speak for India. India is a multi-faith, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic nation. Perhaps the kind of diversity we have is unmatched in the world. And this diversity cannot be erased. For example, the majority might be Hindus but can we really say that the Muslim community – which numbers close to the population of Pakistan – is a “minority”? It is more than the population of most countries in the world!

AA: What is your view on the official stance taken by India that militancy should stop before any peace process begins?

SK: Soldiers are losing their lives on the Indian side and on the Pakistani side. When Indian soldiers lose their lives, there is naturally a sense of outrage. And the same feeling comes up in Pakistan when Pakistani soldiers lose their lives. Every life is important. Every life is valuable – whether it is the life of a soldier or a civilian. We should think of a solution in which no one gets killed. Far too many people have been killed. And that itself should propel us towards an early solution – a solution in which there is no violence of any kind. We are referring to the violence of any government or the violence of any group. No violence. Let us make Kashmir, a land that has suffered so much, a land of peace, a land of non-violence, a land of harmony.

AA: In one of your social media posts, you mentioned that the late journalist Shujaat Bukhari was your friend.

SK: I came to know Shujaat Bukhari through his writings first. He was a long-time correspondent for one of our leading newspapers The Hindu. His reports on Kashmir always left a mark and ten years ago he started his own paper, Rising Kashmir – which became mandatory reading for anyone following the reality of Kashmir. Early last year we had organised a conference on Kashmir in Bombay. I invited him. He came and presented views that were very sane and objective. He made a strong case for dialogue and rejection of violence. It so happened that on the 12th of June, I received a call from his office. An editor said they wanted to carry my piece. On the 13th the piece came out. And the next evening, he was no more. India has lost – in fact, not just India but our part of the world – has lost a very important peace-promoting journalist.

AA: On social media, Shujaat’s death was deemed part of the case for not indulging in peace talks or diplomacy. People from India seemed to be saying that negotiating with Pakistan opened doors for violence.

SK: Of course it is dangerous. Why should someone who was striving for peace in Kashmir and between India and Pakistan pay with his life? For doing the right thing? That should be set as an example of what happens when you are not following the path of dialogue. It is absurd. It is, in fact, dangerous. This is how they try to create obstacles and a fear-based psychosis. But those who believe in peace and dialogue between India and Pakistan must persevere. We should make our voice stronger and stronger. The voice of peace is always stronger than the voice of violence. For the situation in Kashmir to improve, we need “boli” not “goli”. It is the responsibility of the government to initiate dialogue[…] When I used to work with Vajpayee jee, he went to Kashmir, and he said he will resolve this problem within the “confines of humanity.”

AA: Why do you support the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which has otherwise stoked controversy in India?

SK: Firstly because CPEC will bring prosperity and Pakistan’s prosperity is something India should rejoice in. A prosperous Pakistan is also good for India. A prosperous Pakistan means a more peaceful Pakistan. A more prosperous India is good for Pakistan, likewise. So we should rejoice in each other’s prosperity. I would take that approach rather than think as some ultra-nationalists in India – who believe Pakistan should not be prosperous and Pakistan should not progress. There are also other reasons why I support the CPEC. I think it has the potential to contribute to a solution for the Kashmir issue.

AA: Because the northern areas are a gateway to China?

SK: That’s the geographical point of view. CPEC passes through a part of Kashmir and that is why India is opposing it.

AA: Gilgit-Baltistan, you mean?

SK: Yes. Let us look at it positively. If India joins the CPEC with Pakistan and China, then the same roads that go through Kashmir and go to Gwadar can also be brought downwards into India through Delhi to Bombay and Calcutta. So we would have a land route which will give us access to China – which we do not have today. Similarly, we can then have access from Delhi to Amritsar to Lahore.

AA: You think China should become the catalyst?

SK: No, we do not require China to tell us that we should be friends. But China is a good partner for both Pakistan and India.

AA: What are the chances of this becoming a reality?

SK: In my view, in history, whatever is good someday becomes inevitable. Let’s not think only in terms of profit, GDP growth and this or that. The peace process brings people together.

The writer is based in Lahore and tweets as @ammarawrites. Her complete works are available on