When states are not talking or are busy making media circuses, while daring each other publicly, the citizens’ groups come to the rescue of stalled process. They smile at the other side and try to make conversation, difficult to continue otherwise by the formal channels-the Track-II as they say. One was a part of a rather lively round of Track II Dialogue between Pakistan and India last week. Supported by The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) – a German public interest institution – the event offered an opportunity to do exactly that-talk and smile. God knows what would happen if even these channels are closed. 

By its very nature, the Track Two Diplomacy has to be an unofficial and informal interaction between citizens groups of adversary nations and is aimed at developing strategies to influence public opinion and offer policy options that could be considered by the Track One diplomatic channels, to resolve conflict between those nations. Not bound by official protocols, it gives an opportunity to look beyond the stated positions of the states and find innovative, out-of-the-box solutions to the conflict.

Having been a part of different Track Two missions since last many years, one is rather flabbergasted to see how the spirit of this channel has gradually been compromised in South Asia.

In the case of a South Asian process, it is commonly seen that the majority of participants are retired military officials or civil bureaucrats who tend to be mere extensions of the national security establishments of their respective countries and keep parroting the official stated positions of their establishments. In case of Middle Eastern Track Two process, the participants from various sides adhere to their entrenched ideological position, which makes most of the discussions extremely heated and many a times, counterproductive too. But there would be none denying the ultimate usefulness of the Track Two. Its very existence makes things look different between adversarial nations.

When we used to attend these Track Two meetings some fifteen, twenty years ago, the whole exercise had an entirely different flavor. We would go to each other’s countries on rotational basis and would meet the real people, would enjoy home hospitality in indigenous settings, taste their food, shop from their markets, see their art and listen to their music. When they would come, we would show off our side of the story. Now we see how a huge peace constituency was created within a decade and a half, parallel to the jingoist mayhem of 1970sand its spill over in 1980s and jihadi rhetoric of 1990s. Even most of the first decade of new millennium was not considered bad.

Enter 26/11 2008, and everything blew apart. Things could never be same again. Citizens’ diplomacy still continued with one-step-forward-two-steps-back pace, depending upon the moods of the states. And now we meet in the ‘spicy’ capitals, like Bangkok. The change of geography meant change of flavor, and not only of the soup. Former officials and security experts, who would make major portion of Track Two delegations, were seen having strongly entrenched positions, which were in most cases imitated those of the states.

The Track Two thus became bland, banal and run-of-the-mill exercise that at best provided junketing opportunities to the Track Two Elite. The ‘second track people’ with alternative point of view and independent opinions started vanishing from the rosters of such conferences. The hardliners were seen on the tarmacs hopping from one destination to the other making it difficult to distinguish between a Track One &a Half and the Track Two. In this entire hubbub it is but a fresh air how the independent minded people have started appearing on the track-two diplomatic scene once again.

With all credit to the India and Pakistan Country Offices of FES, the presence of scholars like Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, youngsters like Taha Siddiqi and Samavia Batool, sector experts like Khalid Mohtadullah and Zubair Malik, led by the old guards like Amb. Ashraf Jehangir Qazi and veteran journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai, was but a much needed fresh air. Despite his views on civil military relations typically closer to those held by the boys, General (R) Athar Abbas offered a thoughtful departure from the lack of tolerance for the ‘other’, otherwise quite peculiar to his parent institution.

It is high time to de-shackle the process of citizens’ diplomacy at the second track level, from the shadows of the extensions of formal machinery on both sides. Bringing hardliners together might be a smart strategy in some situations, but limiting the process to only them is an exercise in the depths of uselessness. Bringing ideological individuals along with the pragmatic ones might be a better strategy if the intended outcomes of the interaction are clearly delineated by the support institution.

The South Asian Track Two threads, especially the ones between Pakistan and India, also point to the problem of the potential for misinformation in the absence of a dynamic civil-military dialogue back home in Pakistan. This missing link is seen as the main reason why the independent minded people – who are normally seen by the establishment as the ‘other’ – remain isolated and are kept from accessing the information. This, coupled with the lack of transparency of any information coming out of the military institutions, makes all information being discussed at these interactions dicey. Before the final cross-border interaction, there has to be a lot of homework by the participants, which may be led by the hosting institution.

The organizations supporting the track-two process must consider instituting a broader process of identification of the delegates. Too many of the individuals close to the official machineries and establishments are seen to resist change and pull off a sustained status quo. For checking their propensity of barring fresh ideas, it is important to expand the circle of Track-Two Elite. More and more youngsters, sectoral experts and practitioners, the social groups that face exclusion from the official decision making processes (like peasants, farmers, women, students, minorities, traders, agriculturalists, businessmen, artists, intellectuals, sector experts, etc.) need to be included in this exclusive community of delegates.

In the current form, this track of diplomacy is increasingly becoming superfluous and counterproductive. It is nonetheless, the process worth exploring albeit with constant introspection, review and analysis on what could work and how things could be made to work. A bit of strategic thinking perhaps would make the process start yielding results in whatever modest manner is possible keeping in view the peculiarities of Pakistan-India conundrum.

Track Two then, might become a meaningful smile rather than a smirk imitating states’ stubbornness.