January 26, 2020
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Hesitant Advice From An Old Friend

Pakistan needs to look beyond its over-riding preoccupation with the Kashmir issue

Hesitant Advice From An Old Friend

For an Indian liberal, a visit to Pakistan is always a mixed delight. Our estranged brothers say they prefer dealing with the cold-blooded realist who posits no theories of special affinity, or shared past, or one-people-two-nations, but sticks with established national objectives. The Indian liberal, meanwhile, because he lights midnight candles at the Wagah post, admits his country has occasionally behaved intolerably and abominably towards its oversensitive neighbour, urges a search for the middle ground that takes into account Pakistan’s fragile ego, even goes so far as to suggest that, because of its size and strength, India must go the extra mile and extend the hand of friendship, conciliation and goodwill-that kind of Indian is especially suspect in Islamabad and Lahore and Karachi.

Some years ago, a Pakistani friend told me: "We can deal with the Indira Gandhis and Narasimha Raos, even the Malkanis, but you lot with your overbearing sentimentality only complicate matters, make the job of accommodation and compromise that much more difficult." He was arguing with some passion against persistent liberal meddling. Not only were we marginalised as a pressure group in our own society but at the end of the day, after all the sweet talk and pious reasonableness, we stood firmly and squarely behind narrow and inflexible national positions.

After a brief halt at Lahore-Islamabad-Rawalpindi, I can announce with a degree of confidence that the Pakistani suspicion of the Indian liberal has in no way diminished. Since I am a card-carrying bleeding heart, I kept my counsel on this trip preferring the cowardly, but safer, approach of listening, looking, and reading. I cannot honestly claim I have returned better informed, or have a clearer perception of our various antagonisms, or that I have a more sanguine view of the future.

Scholars from the Brookings Institute in Washington to our homegrown experts and specialists deep in meditation over subcontinental history will give you a fairly precise roadmap of how and where a country born in such high hope went wrong in its journey from freedom to nationhood. "Insufficiently imagined state", though loaded, is a favourite of academics; "flawed at birth" is another.

I am neither a scholar nor an academic, just a simple-minded hack in search of answers to a few incredibly abstruse questions. And in my list of incorrect turns taken on the journey is a marker called "Kashmir". Indeed, the plain-speaking, seemingly guileless chief executive of Pakistan, Gen Musharraf, in his opening remarks to us journalists, made the essential point. "Kashmir," he said, "is central to the life of Pakistan." If, and I take the liberty to paraphrase him, you take the Kashmir dispute away from the political-economic-social-cultural-religious imagination of Pakistan, the rationale for the existence of the Islamic republic would disappear.

Four days is no doubt exceedingly short a time for irrefutable conclusions but the Indian in Pakistan can’t help but feel slightly suffocated as he is assailed, pounded, bombarded, harangued and engulfed with the ‘core’ issue. From the opposition leader to the TV pundit to the edit-page writer to the bell-boy to the taxi driver to the mineral water shopkeeper, Pakistanis have convinced themselves that their country’s destiny is inextricably and irrevocably linked with a quick resolution of the Kashmir issue. Everything else can wait. The country has invested nearly all its intellect, energy, diplomatic attention and engagement with the rest of the planet into the Kashmir argument. (We are guilty of the same aberration, though to a lesser extent.)

Doubtless, Pakistan’s relations with India are a crucial foreign policy concern for the country and in that relationship the centrality-another buzzword in Islamabad-of the Kashmir dispute is undeniable. I frequently told friends and colleagues in Pakistan that while Indian politicians may avoid the word ‘core’, an overwhelming majority of people in the country would willingly admit that Kashmir is the "core issue" and also admit that any meaningful dialogue between the two countries is impossible without addressing it. The question, nevertheless, needs to be asked: is the single-minded obsession with Kashmir healthy for Pakistan?

Most thoughtful Pakistanis concede that even if the core issue were formally tackled, it would take an inordinately long time before the end result became visible. It is not as if talks begin on Monday and an agreement is reached on Friday. No government in Islamabad could survive for 24 hours if it publicly diluted its well-known stand on Kashmir. Similarly, no government in New Delhi could survive for 24 hours if it publicly went beyond closely-monitored autonomy. If a shift in declared positions occurs at all, you are looking at an extended time-frame. There is no quick-fix here.

Consider one more setback for our impatient neighbours. Ever since the Indian economy opened up, America, Europe, Southeast Asia, even the Arab world, is lining up for a share of the vast Indian market, not to mention a share of its expertise in information technology. The international community’s interest in Kashmir is dwindling fast and will dwindle further. History, moreover, shows that morality, justice, legality, inalienable rights, etc, stand little chance when confronted by business interests. Pakistan may occupy the high moral ground but in the nasty realpolitik which exists today, India is quite comfortably placed on the low moral ground. Gen Musharraf has only the nuclear card to play in order to keep the West engaged-unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns operates here.

Already, in Washington, London, Paris, why even in Beijing, there is a sense of mounting irritation with Islamabad’s one-point agenda. The truth is that the world-or at least the western world-is bored with Kashmir. Pakistan, I am sure, has observed with some alarm the number of its erstwhile western supporters who now publicly declare that the freezing of the present Line of Control is the only realistic and achievable solution to the dispute.

The only time I had a prolonged conversation on the troubled Valley in Pakistan was with a Mohajir journalist known for his middle-of-the-road views. Supposing, I put it to him, through some sorcerer’s trick or madari’s magic, the Kashmir problem were to go up in a puff of smoke never to return again, supposing tomorrow Pakistanis woke up to find all their other problems intact (including those with India) but the core issue miraculously erased from individual and collective memory. Would the Islamic republic benefit or be damaged?

He looked shocked and then smiled uneasily. I guessed what he was thinking. Here is some new ploy of the Indian liberal, some new evasion package, some new sleight of hand. Pretend your heart bleeds for Pakistan’s political and social betterment so that you can duck removing the decades-old ‘poison’ which vitiates normalcy.

I did not pursue the conversation further because I felt however interesting the line of enquiry, it would be deemed suspect. For 50 years and more, successive governments in Pakistan, both civilian and military, have vociferously repeated that peace, stability and progress in their country were unattainable unless the Valley was annexed. I am not sure if all Pakistanis have bought the argument but few are prepared to challenge the thesis in public.

We all know the core issue for India and Pakistan. It is the poverty and deprivation which millions of our citizens endure. At first glance, compared to Big Brother, Pakistanis appear better clothed, better fed. There is less dirt, less pollution, less noise, less traffic, less chaos. The kind of shameful and grotesque hovels one routinely sees in Delhi are absent. Beggars are few and far between. I did not see a single legless/armless pauper at traffic lights tapping car windows. A small girl who pursued us in the market seemed more interested in talking than in money.

What I did miss was any trace of significant economic and industrial activity. Among the numerous road signs in Pakistan, I failed to detect one marked "Industrial Estate". (I am sure it exists.) On the highway from Islamabad to Rawalpindi, the only smoke one saw coming out from a chimney was from an establishment called "Pindi Bakery".

The business pages-there are no pink papers-in Pakistan’s otherwise robust and lively English press make for depressing reading. The lead story on the day I was leaving said something to the effect: "Malaysians take liking for Pakistani mangoes." No announcement of any foreign or local investment, or the opening of a manufacturing unit. No information about acquisitions or mergers. No first quarter or six-monthly financial results. No launch of a new product or an agreement of a marketing arrangement. In fact, there seemed very little sign of any economic or business life except, of course, the vigorous and commendable steps being taken by the military government to persuade traders and shopkeepers to pay sales tax.

I must be careful here. More than liberals, Pakistanis dislike preaching Indians. Even so, Pakistanis must surely introspect and enquire if they have sold themselves short, dug themselves into a hole, engaged with the rest of the world on less-than-equal terms. By placing at the very summit of their priorities what they regard as a life-and-death matter, while relegating all other aspects of nation-building to fifth place, has a monumental error been committed? And having committed that error, is there any way Pakistan can dig itself out its self-made hole? In short, can Pakistan, like other countries, juggle simultaneously with several core issues rather than get possessed by one?

There is no dearth of talent, enterprise, skill and money in Pakistan. There is also no dearth of formidable problems. The country’s quarrel with India, too, is largely legitimate and cannot be wished away. But all this has to be put in perspective, a sense of calm and balance is urgently required. Hain aur bhi gham zamane mein Kashmir ke siwa (There are other woes in the universe besides Kashmir). Pakistan needs to get on and find its rightful place in the world. And stop looking obsessively at the past.

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