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Mainstream, VOL LI No 21, May 11, 2013

Pakistan: Reporter’s Jottings

Saturday 11 May 2013, by Nikhil Chakravartty


From N.C.’s Writings

A week’s trip to Pakistan to attend a workshop on South Asian problems—part of the emerging people-to-people movement—may not have been adequate to get a comprehensive view of Pakistan’s problems and prospects, but it did provide an insight into many facets of life in Pakistan today which is valuable for a reporter’s notebook.

Kashmir is the talking point in almost every circle one meets, much more than what the present writer noted during his last visit there to monitor the general elections as part of a SAARC team nearly two years ago. It is worth recalling that at the general elections, neither India nor Kashmir figured at all as a major item for electioneering by any party. This cannot be said of today when Kashmir has become the headline news all over.

For an average Pakistani, it has come as a surprise that practically all sections in the Kashmir Valley have become estranged from New Delhi. The continued use of the govern-ment’s armed forces has created the impression that the urge to break away from the Indian Union has become almost irreversible in the Pakistani eye. Practically nobody in Pakistan believes that India would ever recover even the semblance of authority in the Valley.

Reactions to the large-scale use of the Indian security forces in the Kashmir Valley have been varied. For one thing, the news about every attack or killing by the government side got a lot of publicity and many friendly elements wonder how Nehru’s India could permit such brutalities. The fact that the human rights activists in India have themselves been campai-gning against excesses by the Indian security forces has had a sobering effect, but the question widely asked is: how does the Indian Government expect to end this veritable armed conflict?

One gets the impression that the present crisis in Kashmir evokes diverse response in different segments of Pakistani public opinion. For instance, some people look upon the present Indian predicament over Kashmir as a rebuff, if not revenge, for India’s help to the Bangladeshis in 1971 which led to the slicing off of the eastern wing of Pakistan. This is natural in the case of the old Army hands who still seem to smart under the defeat in 1971. At the same time, it needs to be emphasised that in all circles that one met, the prospect of a full-scale war with India is ruled out. The continuation of the low-intensity proxy war is more or less taken for granted.

In this context, there is reticence to discuss the question whether at any stage Pakistan would accept independence of Kashmir instead of its annexation to Pakistan as the Azad Kashmir leader Qayyum elaborated quite openly. There was curiosity to know if New Delhi has been making any efforts to placate Shabir Shah and his supporters, to isolate the aggressive pro-Pak Hizbul elements.

The more intransigent elements do not seem to trust India. They say that it was India which on its own took the Kashmir case to the UN Security Council, and then when the Security Council diplomacy indicated the solution through plebiscite, India backed out of it. In Simla, it was a defeated Pakistan on which India imposed its terms that henceforth all outstanding problems with Pakistan would have to be solved on bilateral basis. Hence, today India’s insistence on talks is taken by this angry old group as just stonewalling and not an earnest move for settlement. Incidentally, there was curiosity as to what Prof P.N. Dhar, who was Indira Gandhi’s Secretary, had to say about what had transpired at Simla. Not unexpectedly, the old bureaucrats deny Bhutto had given any oral assurance to Indira Gandhi, while others are non-committal. However, there is a lot of curiosity as to what Prof Dhar had written an the subject. One could detect an urge to discuss the subject—as a sort of joint post-mortem between the Indian and Pakistani participants at the Simla talks. An idea which is certainly worth exploring.

The need for talks with India is not denied but the initiative, they say, must come from India. Also, there is expectation that India could take some initiatives preparing the right ambience for talks between the two governments. With-drawal from Siachen is mentioned as one such item. It is interesting to note how different leaders view the question of breaking the ice with India. Nawaz Sharif, for instance, emphasised its need and took the credit for himself having held discussions with Chandra Shekhar and Narasimha Rao. As for Mrs Benazir Bhutto, she had met only Rajiv Gandhi about whom one can detect a special feeling in her circle.

Incidentally, all Pakistan leaders appear to have a soft corner for V.P. Singh about whose health they all enquired. This is because they look upon V.P. Singh as one who risked his tenure as the Prime Minister but did not give in to the communal clamour over the Babri Masjid. In contrast Narasimha Rao, in the Pakistani perception, suffers from the handicap that the Babri Masjid was dismantled without his having taken any steps to save it. This is an aspect of Indian politics which baffles Pakistani observers. Quite a few of them have a good impression of Atal Behari Vajpayee as the Foreign Minister, but they are disturbed that the BJP could gang up with the Shiv Sena for the purpose of election politics.

A striking aspect of the present Pakistani scene is the widespread feeling against the USA today. There are many reasons for that. The denial of US arms and aid to Pakistan under the Pressler Amendment has offended the senti-ments of the Pakistani public—a development that needs to be clearly understood. The Pakistani argument is that throughout the Cold War Islamabad had remained loyal to Washington, and after that threat was over, the USA has been ditching Pakistan. Secondly, the US pressure on Pakistan’s nuclear weapon programme is resented, as the bomb has become a symbol of power in world affairs since Bhutto’s days. Thirdly, it is mentioned that the US side had contracted to sell a number of F-16 aircraft for which payment was duly made by the Pakistan Government, but not yet delivered on the excuse of the Pressler Amendment ban. There is also a feeling of resentment that the US authorities had made use of Pakistan as their base of operation against the Russians in Afgha-nistan which has led to the notorious injection of Kalashnikovs and drug traffic into Pakistani life breeding anti-social elements on a monstrous scale. One hears such grudges even among those who are at home in the American intellectual circles. There is also a feeling in Pakistan that the USA is now tilting towards India which, in their view, has been assiduously cultivating the USA, particularly the American business circles and the Fund-Bank high-ups, for large-scale investment in India—thereby the advantage that Pakistan had in the past vis-a-vis the US over India is now negated, and as the bigger supplicant India would get more from the US.

It is in this background that Prime Minister Benazir’s recent elaborate visit to the USA is viewed by different sections of Pakistani society. Her own circle of admirers and supporters think that she is the one leader who has kept open the window to the world for Pakistan. They say that her campaign in the USA would help to soften the rigours of the Pressler Amendment and perhaps the F-16 aircraft which Pakistan had bought might be delivered. It is also generally conceded that Benazir has an active lobby in the Democratic Party, but the recent Congressional election has negated that advantage with the Republications being now on top in the Hill. Benazir’s supporters say that it was to rectify this position that her extensive public-relations campaign in the USA this time was necessary and has been useful. Generally it is known that the Pak military brass enjoys a special relationship with the Pentagon, and it was because of this that she, with her old ties in Washington, has been able to enlist friendly support from the military bosses in Pakistan, as could be seen from the days of the elections.

In this context, it is worth noting that Nawaz Sharif is more or less a persona non grata with the Generals. While he gets the support of all the anti-Benazir forces including the influential religious lobby, it would be a mistake to think that his influence is confined to Punjab alone. One has to look at the poll figures to note that Nawaz’s Muslim League has made a sizeable dent even in the Sind politics.

Even a brief visit to Pakistan makes it abundantly clear that the old euphoria for Benazir Bhutto, which was evident at the time of the general elections, has gone. Apart from other reasons, the crisis in Sind, particularly Karachi, accounts for it. The sustained Army operation against the Mohajirs has brought her no kudos, while in the interior of the province, the Sindhi landlord community is not infatuated with her. In fact her mother, Nusrat Bhutto, seems to have more possibilities in that consti-tuency. To some extent, the taint of corruption associated with her husband has become a sort of liability for Benazir.

The impression that one carries back from Pakistan is that although Benazir Bhutto still commands the support of her father’s followers, she has the rather difficult job of keeping in good humour the very Army junta which had killed her father. This is sometimes rationalised by the rather unconvincing distinction sought to be made between the image of the villain in General Zia-ul-Haq and the rest of the top brass who are presented as decent chaps. Benazir has supporters among the educated intelligentsia, for standing up to the mullahs, particularly with regard to women’s rights. On the other hand, she has hardly consolidated the huge mass support that her father had whipped up with his strident call for roti, kapra aur makan—the euphoria that she had inherited but had not been able to sustain. Nor has she been able to reconcile the contending interests of the diverse regions that constitute Pakistan. The Pakhtoon area has been badly messed up with the aftermath of the Afghan civil war in which Hekmatyar has been playing a major role but totally negative. The Balochis have never been admirers of the Bhuttos after the military operation that Benazir’s father had ordered against them in 1973-74—the fatal flaw that undermined his democratic standing and made him dependent on the Army which led ulti-mately to his imprisonment and execution at their hand.

Benazir’s efforts at building a constituency abroad—on a number of occasions this reporter was reminded how many days she had spent in overseas trips in the last two years—did not fetch dividends within the country. Bouquets abroad can’t stave off brickbats at home. Rather she has come to be known as being more anxious to cultivate her American connections. But in Pakistan today, the reputation of being a favourite of the Americans is hardly an asset for any political leader.

The Pakistan Government’s forays into the Central Asian republics have hardly scored any point. For one thing, the situation in that whole belt stretching from the Caspian to the Karakoram is fluid, and Pakistan possesses no special credentials for establishing a niche in the region. Rather its record as providing the jumping off ground for the Americans in their superpower rivalry with Moscow during the Cold War, has earned Pakistan no passport to Central Asia. However, Benazir has not aban-doned the adventure as could be seen from her forthcoming visit to Tashkent. Pakistan’s relations with Iran are at a low key, and it is understandable there is curiosity everywhere to assess the impact of Presidnet Rafsanjani’s visit to India and the tripartite accord between Iran, Turkmenistan and India.

In the coming days with Washington’s blatant provocations to bully Iran, there is a danger of the country developing into an international crisis-point. The impact of such a crisis inside Pakistan may turn out to be imponderable. Benazir’s position certainly would not be rein-forced as a result, because to be marked out as an ally of the US does not make a leader popular in Pakistan today, while Iran standing up to the American bullying may get the applause of a large section of the Pakistani public, much beyond the Shia community. Nawaz Sharif’s party is bound to make hay in the circumstances. Can any government in Islamabad afford to side with Washington against Tehran?

Pakistan’s economy, on the face of it, carried no signs of an impending crisis. The social polarisation is obvious, but it has not yet created any tension. At the same time, few will vouch for its durability in the event of a war. The opening up to the market forces has taken place stightly earlier than in India, and the widening of disparites as a result, is acknowledged on all hands.

Which way would Pakistan ultimately turn? Geographically it is certainly an important limb of South Asia. But after the collapse of East Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh, Bhutto’s mandate for his countrymen was to go west—to the Gulf and the Middle East. This is a strategy which has certainly helped Pakistan through the Afghan misadventure but it has had a negative effect on the country. The Islamic attachment was more in the nature of a political ploy as could be seen in the persistent refusal to take back the thousands of hapless Urdu-speaking Biharis from Bangladesh. Even during her latest visit to Islamabad, Begum Khaleda Zia could not persuade Benazir to even hold any hope on this score. For Pakistan, these brothers-in-faith—the so-called Biharia Muslims stranded in Bangladesh—are as good as having been written off.

In this context, it is interesting to find among a section of intellectuals an effort to identify the ideological roots of Pakistan as a nation. They do not depend on Islam as the binding force for the nation, since today Pakistan has less number of Muslims than India or Bangladesh. They reject the view that Pakistan is just a split-away part of India. By this view, the homeland of the Pakistani nation stretches along the catchment and basin of one of the world’s greatest rivers, the Indus. It is argued that although the British imperial administration put this region under the Raj in Delhi, it has throughout retained an identity of its own. From Mohen-jodaro this ideological descent of Pakistan is stretched. Its protagonists are confined to some of the brightest intellectuals of the country—not just arm-chair scholars, but even such people who have been in the thick of politics, have suffered prison terms during the Martial Law regime, and became part of active politics under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. One of them has just signed a contract with a well-known publisher of international reputation, and the bulky tome is expected to be published before the end of the year.

While a thesis like this needs to be discussed in detail—which its author is very keen to hold—one realises that through five decades of tension, prejudices and misinformation we have ourselves built a high wall of quarantine between ourselves. There is the almost total lack of media interaction, the absence of exchange of news, the virtual embargo on exchange of books and publications, while an intense Cold-War propaganda is conducted by those who have made a vested interest in spreading misunder-standing. Irrespective of the views held, the appalling lack of information about our next-door neighbour is something grotesquely absurd and a total misfit in civilised society. The Partition has not only divided the country between two territorial entities but has succeeded in instilling into us with amazing emphasis the fear and hatred of the image of a monster living across the frontier. Whatever the politicians may say or do, it is time that at the level of the common people, there must spread the fresh air of freedom. It’s time indeed for people-to-people diplomacy between Pakistan and India.

(Mainstream, May 13, 1995)

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