Schrodinger’s dove By Farrukh Khan Pitafi

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A piece on international relations ought not to start with an illustration from quantum mechanics. But it will become abundantly clear to the reader in the ensuing paras that there is no other way. Most of you must be aware of the theoretical experiment called Schrodinger’s cat. For those who do not, I seek your indulgence.

In 1935, physicist Erwin Schrodinger used the case of a hypothetical cat to explain his thoughts on quantum superposition to Einstein. A cat and a vial of poison gas protected from the cat’s reach are locked in a steel box, with an automatic trigger mechanism which may or may not release the gas. Until the box is opened and the result is found, to the experimenter the cat is both dead and alive. Hence the quantum superposition.

Now, in this thought experiment replace the hypothetical cat with the universal symbol of peace — a metaphoric dove. The thought of this was triggered by the debate surrounding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulating the people of Pakistan on its national day. This letter did not materialise out of a vacuum. Only a few days ago Modi had wished the Pakistani Premier a swift recovery from the Covid infection in a tweet. After a two-year hiatus, the Pakistani team was already in India to talk about the Indus Water Treaty dispute resolution. And in February, the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMO) of both sides got in touch and put out a statement vowing to strictly observe all agreements and ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC). In the intervening period we heard the PM and the Army Chief’s speeches at the Islamabad Security Dialogue (ISD).

The last bit is a constant. Pakistani leaders have indefatigably extended the hand of friendship to India. From the Indian side however, the response has been incredibly temperamental ever since India decided to cut off its democratic nose to spite the Pakistani face and elected Modi. Since then the dove of peace is caged in the steel box with a vial of poison gas and an automatic trigger mechanism, both dead and alive simultaneously.

The commentary on the recent developments has been quite remarkable to say the least. Immediately after the DGMO talk, as I pointed out back then, the Indian media went berserk. More than usual. India’s Ajit Doval, it claimed, in an unmatched display of statecraft had pulled off this diplomatic coup of sorts through an ongoing back channel engagement. Perhaps he came here looking for the downed F-16 and met his counterpart. When democracy is dying, all you are left with is the glorification of ordinary mortals in power.

Then came the Bloomberg story about a UAE-led diplomatic push. And recently another about a UK-sponsored back channel between the two countries. The reports are all over the place. I am sure every country that has the remotest interest in the matter would badly want the two to make peace. Actually, I know for a fact that the United States, China, Russia, the UK, Turkey, the Arab world, Europe, the SAARC countries especially Afghanistan and even the one that shall stay unnamed, all want this. But what do these two want?

This, of course, is not our first rodeo. Throughout my life I have heard the “good news” of the two countries working on peace building. It invariably starts with a few confidence building measures (CBMs). Then some sports diplomacy in which the expectation is for Pakistan to throw the game. Then the media builds the hype. Leaders of the two sides meet. Then their teams start a structured dialogue. Then a press conference with a leading question or two from Muhammad Saleh Zaafir or Muhammad Hanif Khalid. After agreeing on almost everything else, when it comes to Kashmir and recently Siachen, the talks fall apart. When India doesn’t want to talk, a terror attack somehow conveniently appears and the talks go out of the window. I am not claiming that every attack that takes place is a false-flag operation. I do not have all the facts to do that. All I do is study the context, the immediate background, the atmospherics, who wants what and who gains what in the end deeply. To you some of this may sound like conspiracy fiction. To me it is a lived reality.

But what has changed this time? The nature and the quality of the CBMs. In the past it involved creating a genuine climate of cordiality. Cultural exchanges, improvement in visa policies, freeing of caged fishermen and gradual easing of tensions through the visits of business, media and religious delegations. The Indus water talks and the DGMO hotline were constant parts of the bilateral architecture independent of both the CBMs and the structured dialogue. Now they are not. Modi himself doesn’t understand the slow but steady dance of peace. At times his government embroils itself in newly and unnecessarily added caveats and red lines compromising all diplomatic wiggle room, at others he does stuff like reaching Lahore unannounced to attend the wedding ceremony of the former PM’s granddaughter. How is this diplomacy? In fact, matters of diplomatic niceties like wishing an under-the-weather colleague or congratulating a country on its national day now amount to confidence building. Mind you, if Modi, with all his learning disabilities, himself wrote that tweet and the letter, he has my sympathies for the hard labour that must have gone into it. I can see him with a pen and a paper agonising for hours to find the right words, pouring over dictionaries, writing and deleting the unneeded lines. But something tells me, he did not. And from our side the CBMs involve all leaders constantly signalling the desire for peace atop their voices.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a peacenik. The said dove. But this is too little to go on. The onset of talks about the talks which may or may not lead to another round of talks which may or may not seriously address any of the real issues does not inspire confidence. The Modi government due to its mastery of all modes of social control can resurrect the hitherto defunct constituency of peace in India in a heartbeat. But on the day when these commentaries were dominating media discourse here and abroad, a viral video on social media was showing a BJP-allied RSS goon beating a poor Muslim man to the pulp in New Delhi asking him to say “Pakistan murdabad (death to Pakistan)”. I think the message was loud and clear.

I promise I will break my Sunday best out and dance the conga, if you insist, when the moment of peace comes. Until then, may I humbly suggest that you stop declaring victory without opening the steel box in which sit the peace constituencies of India and Pakistan, in a quantum superposition, both dead and alive at the same time. It is not funny, you know.