Dear Abhijeet, please come to Pakistan

Beena Sarwar

"There is nothing in Pakistan," said the Indian playback singer with finality. "They have no auditoriums, no facilities, there is nothing there. Everything is here (in India)."

Another example of the misconceptions about Pakistan, I thought, waiting to respond. The playback singer, Abhijeet Bhattacharya, and I were participating in a talk show for NewsX TV in New Delhi. Participating from a studio hired in Karachi, I could hear, but not see, the others. 

When I tried replying to this comment, the Indians couldn't hear me, although I could still hear them through my earpiece connected to a phone line. I was no longer on air. NewsX had booked a live uplink from Pakistan for 20 minutes, which was over. Symbolic?

Mr Bhattacharya, please do come and visit Pakistan before pronouncing judgment. Like other visitors from India and elsewhere, you might be surprised by the vibrant cultural scene, which includes cutting-edge art, fashion, music, dance, media, literature and theatre (partial listing at 'Danka', www.danka.com.pk). You might be moved by the outstanding voluntary work in fields ranging from women's rights and human rights, to education and healthcare. 

Experiencing all this, and the warmth and hospitality of Pakistanis, you would realise that the people did not approve the policy initiated by military dictator General Ziaul Haq with US and Saudi support during the Afghan war, of cynically turning a war of liberation into a religious 'jihad'. 

The current elected government clearly does not support such policies. For it to succeed, the political process, that has been interrupted all too often, must be given a chance.

And yes, we do have auditoriums - although it's possible to have a lively theatre scene without them as theatre activists proved during the Zia years, when they used backyards and open spaces in poor localities (some groups still do this to raise awareness). The few auditoriums we have remain solidly booked all year round. 

Indian journalists, who saw a local production of Mama Mia in Lahore, couldn't believe the talent (live music and singing) on display and the slickness of the production. Other Indian journalists were left somewhat dazed by a fashion show in Karachi.

Unfortunately, it's difficult for Indians and Pakistanis to obtain visas to visit each other's country. It's a time-consuming, lengthy, frustrating procedure, held back further by increasing 'security' concerns. Visas that are granted are restrictive: city-specific (not for the entire country), single entry, limited validity. Enter and exit from the same point, using the same mode of transport. Report to police within 24 hours of arrival and departure. 

We allow only two journalists from the other country to live and work with us, restricted to Islamabad and New Delhi, requiring special permission to go elsewhere. Despite our shared border, languages, food, music and culture, we don't even grant each other tourist visas. 

Our cellphones, on roaming elsewhere in the world, stop working when we step into each other's country. 

We have banned each other's newspapers and TV news channels - ridiculous in this Internet age. India doesn't even allow Pakistan's cooking, sports or entertainment shows or live uplinks; Pakistan allows live uplinks and Indian soap operas - but for fear of a backlash, the beleaguered government is cautious about allowing relief or aid workers from India to help with the aftermath of unprecedented floods. 

Meanwhile, The Arms race continues. In an age of remote-controlled nuclear weapons and drones, how much sense does it make to keep armies amassed at the borders? Our people - one-fifth of the world's poor - need schools, hospitals, shelters and infrastructure, not more missiles and bombs. The European states came together, despite the bloodshed and bitterness of the past, because it made economic sense to do so - as it does for India and Pakistan. Recognising this, Indian and Pakistani businesspeople endorsed economic ties at a well-attended meeting organised by Aman ki Asha in New Delhi earlier this year. 

Let people meet, travel, and engage in commerce and trade. This is essential in order to counter negative stereotypes about each other. Reinforcing the negative stereotypes only strengthens the militant Rightwing on both sides. That nihilism is something that neither Pakistan nor the world can afford.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2010