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Can we ever be friends with Pakistan?

September 22, 2004

Of late, Indians who visit Pakistan -- politicians, businessmen, journalists -- invariably return to gush over the hospitality shown to them during their stay.

"Why, they are just like us!" they echo in awe, as if they had been expecting aliens before they set off. "They love India and Indians, and want an end to this eternal conflict which has damned both our nations," they parrot.

Of course, neither country grants tourist visas to nationals from the other. But if and when that group tourism visa proposed at the recent talks (visas for 20 or more tourists, with a carefully planned itinerary) for Indians wanting to visit Pakistan finally takes off -- and that's a big if -- chances are they too will return singing the same song of love and longing.

Things were not always like this. I remember a correspondent I had cultivated in Islamabad a few years ago, who suddenly stopped writing.

Why? Because his wife had answered the doorbell one evening to have chili powder flung into her eyes.

"If your husband keeps writing for Indian dogs, we will return with acid," warned the assailants before escaping.

Then there was this Indian journalist based in Islamabad who was granted a special allowance by his employers to have a salad lunch at a five star hotel.

Why? Because the ISI and other intelligence goons who trailed him ensured that even if he asked for dal roti at a normal roadside restaurant, the dal would always have pieces of meat in it.

Then there's this tale recounted to me by a very senior official who had served at the high commission in Islamabad in the early 1990s.

This diplomat had gone to offer his prayers at an Islamabad mosque on a religious occasion accompanied by his wife, who was obviously not allowed to enter.

While she was waiting outside, a burly bearded man suddenly lunged at her from the crowd and slapped her on the bottom before being overpowered by policemen.

Her crime? She was wearing a sari, instead of the burkha.

When Pakistani officials expressed the hope that the diplomat would not make a big diplomatic deal out of the incident, he agreed. Provided the offending mullah was handed over to the diplomat's Indian bodyguards for half an hour, to teach him some 'courtesy.'

The Pakistanis concurred, and the man was released after half an hour as agreed. Minus some front teeth. And his beard.

Of course, Pakistani diplomats love to recount similar tales of harassment while posted in India. I remember two men followed me to my house in New Delhi and asked the neighbours pointed questions about me after I had lunch with a visiting Pakistani journalist.

Weeks later, the same journalist, a woman, was singled out for a beating with iron rods when she participated in an 'anti-government' rally in Islamabad. Her dog had been poisoned days earlier.

What, if anything, has anything changed since then? I don't know.

What I do know is that the apparent bon homie shared by the people of the two nations is certainly not shared by their governments.

Even at the best of times, and I can't recall many of those, our bilateral relationship has been marked with mutual suspicion, acrimony and belligerence.

At the risk of repeating myself, the problem was doubly compounded when India helped dismember Pakistan by helping create Bangladesh in 1971. Many Pakistani soldiers and bureaucrats involved in that war are senior officials and generals now. And peace is the last thing on their minds.

So how does one explain this apparent disconnect, this dichotomy between the people and the leaders of each nation? How come the people of the two nations apparently love each other, but the leaders don't?

The trick word here is 'apparently.'

I am proud to have many Pakistanis -- mostly journalists -- as my friends. I even envy some of them, like Ayaz Amir of the Dawn, whose weekly columns are a must read for those looking for style and substance.

But I must also admit that despite the overt hospitality shown to the Indian scribes and delegates during the January SAARC summit in Islamabad, not just by their counterparts but by almost everyone they met in Fortress Islamabad, the undercurrent of suspicion and even hatred was also quiet palpable if you looked for it. And paranoid I am not.

The last SAARC conference was held in the state of the art Jinnah Convention Centre in Islamabad. Wedged between an obese African and a Nepali journalist, I was nodding off as speaker after speaker droned on and on.

Mistaking me for a Pakistani official (owing to my bandhgala, and not my tendency to doze off at every opportune moment, I hope) a man behind me remarked in Punjabi: "look at that poor man, exhausted after negotiations with those Indian dogs," sparking off loud guffaws from his colleagues.

It later turned out that the man was the editor of an influential Urdu daily from Lahore, who, upon discovering my real identity a while later, without batting an eyelid invited me to be his 'honoured guest' at his farmhouse in Lahore.

Perhaps he thought I had really been sleeping, or that I didn't understand Punjabi.

I declined.

India's mantra of people-to-people contact is all fine and dandy.

I would have unconditionally supported India's decision last week to grant of multiple entry visas to accredited journalists, academicians, doctors and senior citizens from Pakistan, and granting all Pakistani nationals permission to visit '12 places during each visit (as against the current three).'

Except that I remember that when then prime minister I K Gujral tried something similar in early 1998, it led to a flood of people from Pakistan who conveniently 'disappeared' in India.

Except here is a country, where, according to a recent Pew survey, sizable segments (46 percent) of the population endorse suicide bombings and eulogise bin Laden (61 percent).

Don't we ever learn from the past?

Then we have this Time magazine report, subsequently denied by New Delhi, that India was considering making some territorial concessions on the LoC -- they called it adjustment, but concessions is probably a better word -- to placate Pakistan.

For what? Would that ensure an end to the fight over Kashmir?

Whoever believes that obviously also believes the good general when he repeatedly assures us, ad nauseam,  that he will not permit any terrorist activity on Pakistani soil. Yet we have Indian journalists, who should know better, asking whether India is prepared to make concessions to get peace from Pakistan.  

Why can't these votaries of concessions understand the basic fact that making any concessions would be buttressing the Pakistani position that terrorism works? Is that the message we want to send out?

Yes, no doubt, the spate of 'medical tourists' who arrived in India post the latest peace initiatives go back with splendid memories of Indian hospitality. Take the case of baby Noor Fatima, who came over on the revived Lahore bus route July 11 last year..

Here is a quote from her father, Sajjad, in the Daily Times:

'(Cardialogist Dr Rakesh) Sharma has carried out surgeries on 62 Pakistani children in last two years,' said Sajjad. He said he had paid Rs 140,000 from his daughter's treatment in India but the amount was returned to him. He said he donated the money to the Bangalore hospital for treatment of poor children.'

He said the governor and chief minister of the Indian state of Karnataka gave him Rs 10,000 each. 'I also donated that money to the hospital.' Fatima's mother said the treatment they received in India was beyond their expectations. 'Both Hindus and Muslims came to us showing extreme goodwill.'

Forget the fact that many Indian children are denied similar privileges. It's all for a greater cause. But note the fact that the little girl's mother specifically mentioned 'Hindus and Muslims' -- not Indians.

Ah well. Like I said, people-to-people contact is fine, and is surely necessary for building bridges between the two nations.

But it is important to ensure that our kindness is not mistaken, as it always is, for weakness. 

It is important not to make concessions without ensuring that we get something equally worthwhile in return.

Our foreign policy cannot be based on promises and hot air. It is not our fault that we are bigger, more powerful nation.

Perhaps the American plan for Pakistan -- publicly endorsed by none other than General Pervez Musharraf -- makes more sense after all. 

Educate them. Teach the poor toiling masses that there is far more to life than Kashmir, Palestine and jihad. 

But given the military's natural aversion to any such attempts to erode its stranglehold on the nation, this is a very, very long term plan. 

Until then, let us keep one hand of friendship firmly extended.

While the other holds the biggest stick we can find.


Ramananda Sengupta

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