January issue 2004

By | Editorial | Opinion | Published 20 years ago

Are winds of change blowing in the SAARC region as India’s foreign minister Mr. Yashwant Sinha remarked at the SAFMA journalists meeting in Islamabad? Is the winter of our discontent finally behind us?

Year 2004 most certainly took off on an upbeat note, with Pakistan and India making the right noises and the right moves. Whether driven by economic and international compulsions, or domestic realities, the two erstwhile adversaries initiated a series of confidence-building measures, among them resumption of bus and air travel between the two countries and a relaxation on travel restrictions, to clear the air. End December saw a steady stream of traffic from across the border — filmstars, media persons, peace activists, lawyers, parliamentarians et al. It was one big Indo-Pakistan bash.

So, have our quibbling leaders finally seen the light? Or, more to the point, have they finally woken up to the bitter reality that Pakistan is left far far behind in the race for economic progress and prosperity. India, meanwhile, has marched on. Its GDP growth stands at 7 per cent as opposed to Pakistan’s 5.1 per cent and its reserves have touched 100 billion US dollars, while Pakistan’s reserves stand at 12 billion. Additionally, roughly one-third of the US-based IT development outsourcing work is sited in India.

Pakistan spent most of the year 2003 fighting the US’s and its own war against terrorism. However, despite the government’s much publicised year-long campaign against extremist organisations, and its tepid attempts to streamline the workings of the madrassas, they are nowhere near eliminating the menace of extremism. The two assassination attempts on General Musharraf within a span of seven days have sent alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power. Obviously the jihadi network has spread its tentacles far and wide, and infiltrated the most sensitive quarters.

Asked by a foreign newsman as to who would assume power in the event of his death, Musharraf said he had not even considered the possibility. The fact that there is no apparent provision in the present system on a matter of such grave consequence, is frightening.

On the face of it, we’ve been through the rigours of an election, but the last one year has seen a parliament splitting hairs over the LFO and thumping desks to chants of, “Go Musharraf, go,” with the MMA crying the loudest. However, as things stand now, Musharraf has gone nowhere, neither has the LFO; the MMA is also in the loop, despite its threats to do otherwise. And true to form, its party members have returned to doing what they do best — serve as the minders of everyone’s morality. On New Year’s eve, they threatened to use their dandas on anyone who dared to celebrate in Peshawar — according to their reckoning, “good” Muslims only celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Azha. Since there were no takers, they wielded their sticks on the mannequins adorning the shop windows. Obviously, the mullahs’ faith does not extend beyond their limited definition of morality. Incidentally, at the SAFMA moot , a Jamaat representative demanded that foreign channels be banned because they promoted obscenity and threated to swamp our culture. The maulana obviously assumes that Pakistan’s rich culture is as fragile as his faith, that it will get blown away with the first whiff of another culture.

Some things simply never change in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The world, meanwhile, is moving at breakneck speed, Pakistan or no Pakistan on board. And the sooner our religious parties face this fact the better for Pakistan’s 148 million people.

Referring to the people who inhabit the SAARC region, one of the SAARC leaders said: “Our people need food, not fighter aircraft; books, not bombs; medicines, not missiles.”

India and Pakistan have pledged to go the extra mile in their quest for peace. Jamali and Vajpayee have mercifully seized the moment. Will they build on it and carry the momentum forward?

Rehana Hakim is one of the core team of journalists that helped start Newsline. She has been the editor-in-chief since 1996.