January Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

In January 2006, I went to see Banarsi Lal Chaaki Wala in the small town of Majeetha near Amritsar. He was sitting outside his small shop, reading an Urdu newspaper. Surprised at the sight of an Indian man reading an Urdu newspaper years after partition, I exclaimed, “So you read Urdu newspapers?” His response was, “It is the most beautiful language in the subcontinent.”

partition-jan07I had gone to meet Banarsi Lal in search of my own past. My mother was born and raised in Amritsar and I was in India looking for her house and her grandfather’s village near Amritsar. The only thing I remembered was that my mother’s ancestral village was a few miles away from the small town of Majeetha. A day earlier, I had found her house in Amritsar’s new mohalla ‘Islamabad,’ where I was warmly welcomed by the people. I was admonished by the local residents for staying in a hotel. How could I stay in a hotel in my mother’s home town?

We talked about 1947 and all had their own stories to tell. No one actually remembered how the looting and killing started. “We heard that the Hindus coming in trains from the other side were butchered and then people went on the rampage.” I told them we had heard similar stories on the other side of the border. As a French scholar studying the Partition and Indian history once remarked: “The mass murders during partition were intellectual killings in which people were slaughtered and bodies maimed to deliberately draw a reaction.”

None of the people that I talked to in Amritsar had anything but fond memories of the time before partition. In fact, Banarsi Lal got very excited when I told him that I was from Pakistan. A lot of other people from the bazaar also gathered around us, wanting to know if we made tractors in Pakistan or whether our women went to schools and worked in offices.

Later, I also met the mother of a Delhi University professor, Veena Kukeraja. The old lady had migrated from Multan and had vivid memories of the place. Although she turned down my offer to come to Pakistan — she was extremely bitter at having been forced to leave her home — she couldn’t hide her happiness at meeting a person with whom she could speak fluently in her local dialect, Seraiki. No one in her family, including her daughters, could now speak the language. I was delighted to note the similarity in expressions used by Veena’s mother and some old women of my own family.

The pleasant memories of my 45-day stay in India are a personal experience, which surely have no bearing on the reality of India-Pakistan relations. Indeed, when I moved among the policy-makers for my project to study the Indian military and politics, I was constantly reminded of the major hurdles that hamper contact and communication between common folks. The general goodwill of the people has no bearing on the bureaucratic machinery of the two governments and their respective plans for the politics of the region.

Today, the two neighbors seem to have covered some distance from the years of bitterness and conflict. Clouds of war had overshadowed South Asia during the 1980s and the 1990s and had remained there even until much after the 2002 military standoff when the two militaries stood poised at the border ‘eyeball-to-eyeball.’ The situation began to change after Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to Islamabad in January 2004 when Islamabad and New Delhi re-engaged to negotiate peace. The two sides decided to hold a composite dialogue that included negotiations on trade, a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, solving the Sir Creek issue, working out a mechanism for the release of prisoners, especially fishermen that often get arrested for inadvertently straying across the border, increasing people-to-people contact, starting cultural exchanges, solving the problem of terrorism and withdrawing troops from the Siachen glacier, in addition to several other issues. There has been a relative increase in people-to-people contact, facilitated by the launch of the bus service between the two Kashmirs and Punjabs, and the Khokrapar-Munabao rail link.

After a few hiccups and some anxieties about whether the peace initiatives would be able to survive them, the foreign secretaries of the two countries met in Delhi in November. The meeting was aimed at continuing with the talks and agreed in principle to exchange information to combat terrorism and to strengthen communication and confidence-building for strengthening their respective nuclear deterrents.

Talks and confidence-building are imperative for both countries. Given the subtle changes in the overall global and regional environment, it is vital for India and Pakistan to bring greater sanity in the overall tenor of their relations. The Asian region has the potential of becoming a critical geo-political zone, especially if the two bigger states, China and India, manage to make their bilateral relationship more constructive. In fact, the visit of the Chinese President to India and the offer of signing a nuclear cooperation agreement in the civil nuclear sector, increasing bilateral trade and eventually solving the border dispute will boost their bilateral ties tremendously.

Beijing, like the rest of the world, has realised that South Asia, especially India, is part of the future of the Asian region. Major European companies have begun to invest in India, and China does not want to lag behind in capturing an important market. New Delhi has successfully managed to sell the idea of India as a potential economic and military giant to most of the world. So, while the country still has its abject poverty and sub-regions of violence and underdevelopment, the world seems interested in building India’s economic potential. Hopefully, the poor will also eventually benefit from the windfall of this economic development. Needless to say, India’s consistent track record of electoral democracy and strong democratic institutions and its cultural diversity have served it quite well in projecting itself as an attractive place for foreigners. More important, economic progress and development appear to be backed by a consensus among the various ideologically diverse political parties such as the Congress, the BJP and the leftist/Communist parties. The bottom-line of this consensus is that the political class will not allow their respective ideologies to hamper economic and political growth.

The journey towards progress, however, must be analysed carefully for what it means for bilateral relations between India and Pakistan. In India, in particular, the move towards economic progress coincides with the coming of a new generation of young middle class people, that are earning good money through IT and call centres all over the country and want to move on without being bothered by the threat of war and conflict. Today, India has a much younger population as compared with China which is attractive for the rest of the world. This new generation does not want to be disturbed by terrorism and war and, hence, it is getting uncomfortable with all state and non-state elements which are seen as perpetrating violence. The Mumbai blasts of the 1990s or the recent blasts add to their hostile view of Pakistan. The neighbouring country is no more than just a trouble-maker and an irritant that is constantly pulling India back from its journey towards material advancement and glory at the global level.

This is a generation which has not seen Pakistan and they have no vision of the country other than that of a poor and troubled neighbour that lacks democracy, that is teeming with mullahs, and where the military takes over power more often not. Since the Kargil crisis, this new generation and those far off from Delhi are joined together much more resolutely in fighting a war. There is little sympathy with Pakistan’s position on Kashmir.

I recall a conversation that one of my Indian journalist friends had with a filmmaker who had called him to seek his opinion regarding the mechanism of a hand-held nuclear detonator. Despite the fact that my friend advised him that a nuclear trigger could not be carried around in one’s pocket, the filmmaker insisted on of making one of the actors run across valleys and mountains with a nuclear detonating device in his pocket (I suspect it was Amir Khan in Fanaa). Listening to the conversation, all I could think of was how the film would add to the hostile image of my country. The sad reality is that most young Indians have no idea about Pakistan. Following the Mumbai blasts, which have been blamed on Pakistan, they will have even less interest in knowing about it.

The opinion in Pakistan regarding India is also partly based on suspicion. Despite the genuine fascination with India and its culture, a lot of people, especially in the Punjab, would like to approach relations with New Delhi quite carefully. There is greater talk of the Indian media invading Pakistani culture and changing the language that children speak or affecting their moral values through its cinema. Today, Pakistan’s younger generation is equally vocal about the threat posed by India. They have been made to think about the issue of cultural interaction in terms of the threat it poses to Pakistan’s identity as a Muslim country, to its norms, values and ethos. During a course that I recently taught at the Quaid-i-Azam university my question was how could cultural interaction be stopped since it was not just about commercial films. These young people had no concept of cultural interaction beyond cinema. More interestingly, they could only think about bilateral relations from a classical realist paradigm with no room for alternative perspectives. The popular notion that is encouraged, especially in public sector universities, is that India is behind most problems in the country, including the current water crisis.

The deep mistrust of India becomes more pronounced among the younger generation of bureaucrats, especially diplomats. They believe Pakistan’s security will always be threatened by India. One is reminded of a mid-ranking information ministry employee posted in Pakistan’s High Commission in New Delhi who is known for painting a horrible picture depicting poverty in India hung on his office wall to his Indian visitors and telling them that things are much better in Pakistan. The official’s behaviour not only demonstrates a lack of knowledge of diplomatic norms, but also represents the anger and the ideological divide between, at least some peoples of the two countries, which remains unbridged.

A more powerful India, it is believed, would like to treat Pakistan like Nepal and Bhutan. Under the circumstances, there is no other way to keep India on its toes than by encouraging internal conflict in India. There is a sufficient number of disgruntled people in India who would become willing partners with militants or any one that wants to help them fight a war with New Delhi.

A glance inside the corridors of power in Islamabad would show that those proposing peace with India might be running out of steam. This is despite the fact that both sides have continued with the peace negotiations. Reportedly, there is a lot of discomfort in the foreign office and GHQ regarding India’s lack of action on a resolution of the Kashmir issue. Although the hawks are not proposing war or greater conflict, they argue that Pakistan has knelt too much before New Delhi and that it is time to regroup, at least, politically. Recently, the director general, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, Dr. Shireen Mazari and Lt. General (retd) Asad Durrani questioned the logic of Islamabad providing greater space to India. Consequently, very little has been achieved on trade negotiations and the foreign office seems to be faltering on issuing visas to Indian travellers. An Indian diplomat in Islamabad, in fact, complained about Pervez Musharraf being the only one wanting peace with New Delhi. The diplomat further said that while the Pakistani President took critical decisions such as opening the Khokrapar-Munnabao rail link, the Indian High Commission officials had to chase him several times to get some action on this score because the foreign office was dragging its feet.

Currently, India-Pakistan relations seem to comprise two disjointed layers. The top layer represents the peace talks and an effort to curtail tension between the two states with an intention of reducing the threat of war. The second layer, on the other hand, is about the growing ideological divide and mistrust between the two. So, while policymakers on both sides want to contain the possibility of a military conflict because it has a high financial and opportunity cost, there is little interest in altering the fundamental dynamics of the bilateral relations between the two countries.

The foreign secretaries talks, hence, do not indicate any major change in bilateral relations. In fact, the two countries have come to a point where there is little possibility of any major breakthrough even on smaller issues such as withdrawing troops from the Siachen glacier. Since the Indian military faced an embarrassing situation during Kargil and is quite out of sorts due to the slow pace of its modernisation and restructuring, it is fearful of committing itself to a withdrawal without seeking guarantees that the glacier will not be occupied by Pakistan at some future point.

The political leadership, on the other hand, is too divided about taking responsibility for withdrawing troops without getting its military on board. The past experience of India being embarrassed during the 1962 war with China because the political leadership did not listen to its military leaders is a situation that New Delhi would not like repeated. Under the circumstances, a major change in the geo-political environment does not appear likely in the foreseeable future. In addition, there is complete distrust in India regarding Pakistan’s intent to close down the jihad project.

More important, what a number of policymakers on both sides have not begun to problematise is the fact that the entire region is undergoing a generational change that involves the natural replacement of those that could connect with each other’s territories at an emotional level with a new generation that has only grown up on hostile rhetoric and negative images of each other.

I remember being questioned in the University of Madras about the change in the tenor of bilateral relations once the 1947 generation is replaced by the younger lot that does not carry the baggage of Partition. My response then was that it was important to be careful about such a proposition due to the fact that while the younger generation does not have any memories of 1947, they also do not have any emotional ties with Pakistan. It must be noted that this is the last time that the army chiefs of the two countries are men that were born in each other’s countries. The Indian general is from around Multan and the Pakistani general is from Delhi. During my 45 days in India, I got a chance to interact with Muslims, people from the southern states and the younger generation. A lot of them were eager to hear what Pakistan was all about. However, the southerners, said that Pakistan was least relevant to them. All they knew about the country was through seeing the Muslims of India and the action-thriller Bollywood flicks in which all terrorists were portrayed as having some links with Pakistan. Recently, a friend visiting India was asked by a taxi driver if all Pakistanis were “atunkwadis” (terrorists). The majority of the lower and lower-middle class Indians including the Muslims had no notion of Pakistan, and what’s worse, the younger generation saw Pakistan as a pariah state. None of these people talked about Pakistan with the fondness and longing that I heard in the voices of Wassan Singh Jaat or Banarsi Lal Chaki Wala.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter