Free treatment for Pakistani children may be shrewd PR, but its promise of warmth should not be undervalued
Children as messengers of peace is an overused image. And it cannot retain its pristine perfection when brought into contact with real life, especially when that life has to do with the tension-filled, violent, falsehood-ridden relationship between two hostile neighbour countries. It is therefore fitting, if sad, that the springs of sympathy have opened up with the successful heart surgery on a two-and-a-half-year-old Pakistani girl in Bangalore. It is sick children, desperately in need of immediate, state-of-the-art care, to whom the reopened Delhi-Lahore bus service has come as a boon. Now a little boy is coming from Pakistan with the same hope, and New Delhi has expressed its willingness to take care of all his expenses. In the same spirit, it has promised to “fully fund” the travel, stay and treatment of 20 Pakistani children who are similarly ill, and also to ease the visa procedures for all Pakistani children who wish to come to India for medical care. Although as a public relations gesture this is remarkably shrewd, its promise of warmth should not be undervalued. It is an index of the sickness of the adult political world that it needed ill children to make a point.
A point has been made, however, certainly for the people of Pakistan and India. Maybe even a little brownie point has been gained in the sentimental Western world. But the message here is not simply that of the warmth, willingness and peaceableness of India. The foreign minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, has said that the response of people in India to the sick Pakistani girl has been partly responsible for New Delhi’s decision. While Mr Sinha is speaking of an immediate contributory factor, it is necessary to acknowledge the significant part played by friendship gestures of ordinary people. A movement has grown up slowly, and not very noticeably, of non-political people — activists, intellectuals, students, professionals from various spheres — crossing the borders and speaking to their peers in the adjacent country. Certainly, this kind of Track II diplomacy could not have continued without the approval of the respective governments, but it was never part of the big scene. It can stop neither terrorism nor threats from either side. Yet the human factor is overwhelmingly important in any move for peace, however slow it may be in coming to the surface. The result was at last obvious in the response to the Pakistani child lying in a Bangalore hospital.
When the normal flow of sentiment and warmth is stopped up, it seeks acceptable, if formal, channels for outlet. The governments of India and Pakistan will find it difficult to ignore this almost ritualistic expression of a feeling that is really an assertion of the need for peace, normalcy, the need to end the violence and distrust, to work things out, in agreement and disagreement, at the level of everyday exchange. It is the way people are making their voices heard, and are also speaking to one another across the border. It is unlikely that a public relations exercise will in any way affect the core issues of divergence between the two countries. But again, if human issues take a very long time to change the course of international politics, it does not mean they never do.