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Mainstream, Vol XLIX No 17, April 16, 2011

Reflections On A Visit To Pakistan : Hope Survives amid Despondency

Thursday 21 April 2011, by Kuldip Nayar

It is easy to slot Pakistan, but difficult to comprehend how it ticks. The West tags the country with terrorism and many others consider it a failed state. For India, it is a potential enemy which is still to punish the terrorists who attacked Mumbai on 26/11, nearly three years ago.

Yet the 16 million people want the same secure conditions which the inhabitants of other countries cherish. But they live in constant fear, the children praying for their father’s safety and wives of their husbands when they leave home. Security forces with their finger on the trigger guard the streets of key towns.

We were part of 12-member delegation visiting Pakistan to promote people-to-people contacts; we saw the same scene of fear-stricken people in Karachi, Hyderabad, Islamabad and Lahore. At some places, there were bunkers on the roadside. Still, nowhere did we see panic. Nor was there any effect on the turnout for the series of events arranged for us. People seem to have learnt to live with terrorism. So life goes on.

Can you write off Pakistan? Suppose it were to go the fundamentalist or Taliban way? It will be the land training, nourishing and sending out the worst elements. How does India gain if the country disintegrates? The situation does not need indifference but demands a systematic programme all over the world to roll back terrorism and fundamentalism.

A rash observer will blame Pakistan for the plight in which it has landed itself. To some extent, this is true. But the real responsibility lies on the shoulders of America. After winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the US dropped Pakistan like a hot potato. That was bad enough. Worse was the policy of Washington to let the arms and ammunition lie around for anyone to pick up. It saw to it that the Taliban were fully armed. This was the force of the fundamentalists the US had constituted and ingrained in them the belief that their religious duty was to kill the irreligious Communists.

The successive governments at Islamabad were short-sighted. They used the Taliban to have its “strategic depth” in Afghanistan on the one hand and to trouble India in Kashmir on the other. At one time even the late Benazir Bhutto hailed the Taliban as “my children”. It was the Frankenstein which Pakistan gave birth to and it is now regretfully conscious of that.

TODAY Pakistan is reaping the whirlwind it had sown. The Taliban have penetrated the police, the security forces and even the Army. They can strike anywhere, anybody, at any time. It is not the lack of the government’s determination that stalls punitive action. It is the division in the Pakistani nation which makes a concerted action difficult. Many are afraid to even strike, much less wound. Some have come to believe that the type of Islam the Taliban preach is “after all, not bad”.

Spreading this kind of thinking is the religious fringe which is gaining strength day by day. I had never noticed the burgeoning Islamisation before. Some people have begun wearing long robes as the Arabs do to register their proximity to them. My last week’s visit to different cities of Pakistan has left me cold. I saw more hijabs on the faces of women and men sporting long beards than even five years ago. The number of women in the workforce has not, however, lessened. Offices and shops are still efficiently handled by them.

Religious parties have more clout than ever before. In the wake of the government’s attack on the Lal Masjid, at least 12 more masjids have been built in the vicinity. And more are coming up with the munificence from abroad. It is an open secret which country is acting like a Santa Claus for the fundamentalists.

Therefore, I was not surprised to hear less criticism on the release of Raymond Davis, an American who had shot dead two Muslims who he feared were assailants. Some outsiders played a key role in striking a deal: giving blood money to the relations of the deceased. Naturally, in this atmosphere there are very few who speak in favour of Governor Salman Taseer or Minister Shahzad Bhatti who were murdered because they dared to suggest reconsideration of some clauses of the blasphemy law.

The civil society has dwindled and the persons talking of liberalism as such can be counted on the fingers. Members of the civil society tell in private that they are afraid to express their views in public lest they be killed. Salman Taseer’s son, quite articulate in following the line taken by his father, said that the number of people visiting them has shrunk. Even close relatives avoid contact with his family.

When would the atmosphere of free thought and free expression that followed the success of lawyers’ movement return? The hope behind this query is something which the civil society clings on to. Therefore, the World Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan was considered a godsend opportunity for a better atmosphere in the region to change things in Pakistan too.

Although Pakistan was in the semifinal, all hopes—and prayers—were directed towards India beating Australia to take on Pakistan. I was at Lahore at a gathering when Australia and India were playing for a place in the semi-final. There was an uproar of joy when India defeated Australia.

By itself the cricket match does not mean much. But it offered an opportunity to both sides to go beyond the handshake and sit across the table to take up knottier problems like Kashmir and water as soon as possible. As regards water, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has offered the integrated development of the Indus basin if Pakistan does not favour the three-river allotment under the Indus Water Treaty. Priority should be given to travel and trade.

I have come back from Pakistan with the conviction that the common man wants to live in peace and amity with the people in India. There are elements, strong enough, to keep the two countries distant. I was told that the Army did not favour peace with India. Even if this is true, the friendliness writ large on the faces of the people I addressed sustains my hope for a détente. India may not be their refuge but they have a lot of hope in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to retrieve their country which is teetering at the brink of elimination. India can ignore this at its own peril. Perhaps the time is ripe to talk about a South Asian common market. I found this idea acceptable even to the religious elements in Pakistan. But New Delhi has to take the initiative to make it possible.

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