South Asia needs mutual accommodation in solving problems. It needs a feminist foreign policy.

Written by Nirupama Rao |

Not much distinguishes Indian and Pakistani women from each other. Not much distinguishes Indian and Pakistani women from each other.Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day, four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves. While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: “There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?” One of the monks replied: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”

“Your head must feel very heavy,” observed Hogen, “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”

Source: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones



In 1959 I was a school-going eight-year-old in the city of Lucknow. My father, a mid-century embodiment of the news junkie, who was my idol, succeeded in getting me hooked to newspapers and radio broadcasts. Dad would listen to the evening news on All India Radio and I would sit by his side. After the Indian news bulletin was over, he would switch to Radio Pakistan. That was when I discovered the etymology of hostility. Every word in those broadcasts, it seemed to me, was spoken against India, my home, me. To an eight-year-old, this was unfathomable.

And there was Fatima Jinnah. My father told me she was the sister of the founder of Pakistan. To me, she was the Voice. The Voice came on air every night, almost, and delivered what was a constant tirade against India. That hostility seemed to project itself across ether and land right in the small living room where we sat. For me, it was an introduction to the politics of the Subcontinent, to the problem of Kashmir(which seemed to obsess Ms Jinnah) and the tangled, inter-woven histories of both India and Pakistan.

I have retrieved this shard of memory because even to this day, children in both countries are fed a diet of ignorance and propaganda about the other country. Almost 70 years since Partition and independence for both countries, even as the world has changed around us, time has stood still as far as India and Pakistan are concerned. The old players have gone, replaced by new voices, but the crumbling sets are the same, the cobwebs of the past distort vision, the chorus is a broken record, and the detritus of 70 years in our relations accumulates on the stage. From the galleries on both sides, the bellicosity has grown, and there is a götterdämmerung feel about the place. To top it all, both countries are nuclear-capable now, so we tend to be upbeat about our possession of weapons of mass destruction. Having stirred poison, we seem ready to imbibe it.

I often wonder what a feminist foreign policy for South Asia would look like. (In Europe, the Swedes have it; we do not.) Can we not consider a discourse that speaks of matters beyond war and peace (peace in the South Asian subcontinent seems to be associated with white flags, surrender, submission, weakness)? Do we think of a South Asian Commons? Not an arena for mutual jousting where we bait each other in blood sport, but a space for maturity of peaceful purpose, robust civility, and mutual accommodation. We have built towering babels around ourselves, but we have not cleared a way for the Commons.

Not much distinguishes Indian and Pakistani women from each other. We share similar genealogies, and labour under the same masculine patriarchies. We care similarly about our children, our homes, our environments. We are programmed to be peacemakers, each in our own small way and we weep similarly for lives lost. We want literacy, empowerment, liberation from hierarchies that keep us confined in spaces and prevent the full flowering of our talents as capable, gifted, human beings. So why, then, do we women subscribe to the popularly expressed shibboleths about India and Pakistan, the endless litany of retributive give-and-take?

This cannot be a relationship that has nuclear weapons at its core. Neither can it just be about victimhood: Indians as victims of cross-border terror or Pakistanis as victims of perceived Indian arrogance or inflexibility. It is about our future, and whether we wish to sentence ourselves to the nightmare we have made our own because win-win is not a concept we understand. Through it all, there is the festering problem of Kashmir — Kashmir, the incomparable, the Valley that embodies the crucible of our opacity and rigidity (in both India and Pakistan), of sorrow, of alienation.

A feminist foreign policy would embrace the idea of a South Asian Commons; it would speak and act in favour not of ravishing disunities, but of rationalising unities, of merging capacities to build, to develop, to link. It would exercise vetoes to block war, not peace; it would emphasise the right to food, the right to health, the right to knowledge and learning, the right to reject the disconnects, the worn clichés and mental barriers that divide us. It would weigh the interests of humanitarianism against the interests of power with far greater precision and wisdom. It would say no to violence, against all, but particularly crimes against women and children. It would reject the voices of the far right and the far left. It would feel the true pulse of the unknown, the marginalised, the excluded. It would have a people-centred approach (on both sides of the divide across the LoC) to healing the wounds in Kashmir. It would promote business-to-business engagement, building the infrastructure for trade, removing non-tariff barriers, facilitating commerce, understanding the economics of proximity rather than promoting proximity as a peril. Why sacrifice these benefits at the altar of history? Rather, promote these possibilities as assets that can alter the narrative of the past, and realise the prospects of peace that have hitherto been so elusive. That is the killer app that the India-Pakistan relationship must possess today.

Is this an idea for our time? Cynical, public trials conducted in the Indian or Pakistani media do not provide the answer. We need sense and sensibility, not pride and prejudice, in relations between India and Pakistan. Yet another feminine voice of our region, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, once said to a global audience: “Let us sweat in peace, not bleed in war”. Can we, as South Asians, particularly as Indians and Pakistanis, have the courage, the boldness, the foresight to think differently? Learning the art of mutual accommodation in solving the problems that have kept us in this state of hostility and mutual enmity is not a loss of manhood. It may just signal the dawn of a truly feminist region.