Koreas and South Asia
There are some obvious similarities and some very crucial differences between the Korean Peninsula and South Asia.
WE’LL destroy you. We’ll rain fire and fury on you. We will talk to you. We look forward to talking to you. We have forced you to talk to us. Let the opponents go on with their hundred emotional somersaults. The important thing is to remain sensible, preferably with a smile, while doing your own pirouette, if for no other reason than to keep the rival guessing.
That’s what Kim Jong-un just did with Donald Trump. The North Korean leader Trump reviled as a nuclear-trigger happy buffoon is being lauded as a potential harbinger of peace in a fraught region of the world. Trump who believes he can discipline anyone with his forbidding military arsenal looks set to lose the mid-term polls for his party.
Both sides of the Korean Peninsula have heaved a big sigh of relief as has the neighbourhood and beyond. All it took was for the young North Korean leader to cross the demarcation line with a knowing smile. The line he crossed is a Cold War relic that has lingered on like the grin of the Cheshire cat, which was the last to vanish.
The most photographed embrace between the estranged Korean leaders, their globally watched stroll, the watering of a shared tree of blessing and the spontaneous banter, the promise to end nuclear brinkmanship, the resolve to go to the Olympics as a joint team are all stories that have been dreamt and even pondered in South Asia by people in India and Pakistan, together and separately.
There are some obvious similarities and there are very crucial differences between the Korean Peninsula and South Asia. One was divided by the Cold War, the other created by colonialism. A cursory glance at the map would reveal a curious feature. Most countries divided by the Cold War have been reunited. Germany, Vietnam, Yemen come to mind. The Koreas look primed as the next. The fact remains that those divided by colonialism remain estranged, in Africa most notably. Palestine and Ireland are prime examples.
One doesn’t have to look too hard to see the obvious similarities and how the Korean situation replicates itself in broad contours in South Asia. For that we need to ignore the historical detail.
Consider the main similarities that really matter today. Pakistan’s worldview is aligned with China as is North Korea’s, while India looks betrothed to the US-led West not unlike South Korea. The Cold War equation was drastically different in South Asia, when the proverbial boot was on the other foot, when the American and British embassies in Delhi lionised Kashmiri resistance. Today, the main global anchors in South Asia and the Korean Peninsula are almost identical.
We don’t know the essential details of the meeting that took place last week between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The public face offered a reminder of the 1993 event in Beijing when Narasimha Rao and Li Peng signed the landmark agreement on peace and tranquillity on their borders. Reference to that agreement, handiwork of a typically Chinese draftsmanship, was heard again at the Xi-Modi summit. There was also mention of some kind of cooperation in Afghanistan.
There is an important event ahead when the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meets in China in June. Indian and Pakistani leaders would be there. But already a far-reaching agreement seems to be in place whereby Indian and Pakistani troops would be for the first time involved in a joint multinational military exercise in Russia to combat terrorism.
The agreement announced by the Indian defence minister masks a philosophy deeper than the fact of sending their troops to a multinational exercise under the aegis of SCO. It is an inescapable fact that both sides would be participating together in an anti-terrorist drill. In other words, they have to first accept that they have a common target, a shared understanding of the foe. That is a formula that seems to go back to the Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf agreement when they decided that their talks would not be derailed by acts of terrorism. Ironies!
On a larger canvas, the ascendant rulers in Pakistan and India are precisely those that did not want a partition in the first place. But they were vehemently opposed to it not because they believed in inclusive secularism or democracy but because they wanted the entire landmass of India to themselves, one eyeing it as a Muslim empire the other drooling at the prospects of a Hindu hegemony. The RSS and the Jamaat were both opposed to a divided Indian subcontinent and they are both controlling if not directly wielding power in their respective domains today. This is different from the Koreas where both sides that met for a handshake and a landmark photo-op represent the ideas that divided them. To work around those differences is civilised. That is what democracies were meant to do.
Where there is hope from the Korean Peninsula, there’s not much positive energy trickling through for a South Asian encore. That, however, doesn’t mean there is no need to work for a rapprochement nor that it isn’t doable. Today, Jinnah would be scratching his head with disbelief at the narrow ideas they have imposed on his country to stifle women and random communities.
Nehru and Gandhi are openly accused of betrayal. It would be news if they weren’t. A few months before his death in 1964, Nehru had said that India wanted a confederation with Pakistan. “But every time we mention it, they get frightened.”
Consider this: what was so frightening about crossing a demarcation line that nobody on the peninsula saw as terribly helpful? Jinnah saw the need for Pakistan as a last resort. Gandhi accepted it grudgingly. And their admirers don’t see the point even when their dreams are exploding.