Borders are so yesterday

It’s time to open the doors of our borders. It’s possible, this dream sequence of hope 

Sanjay Kapoor Lahore/Islamabad 

Before the faithful can enter the long marbled pathway to the legendary Sufi shrine of Data Durbar in Lahore at Bhati Gate, he/she is frisked three times. The final frisking is annoyingly done by a security person sitting on the floor who expertly feels for any suicide belt worn below the waist. These precautions are necessary. On July 1, 2010, two suicide bombers blew themselves up and killed 50 people and injured hundreds. The attack at the shrine was one of the many that took place in Pakistan in the past few years and raised serious doubts about the survival of a country on the brink. 

Although the number of attacks on these shrines have lessened since then, the ideological war going on within Pakistan’s Islamic society between the followers of mystic Sufis and the relatively strict Salafis and Wahhabis has intensified. 

Ignoring political turbulence and the challenge that the higher judiciary has posed to his government, President Asif Zardari made a dramatic visit to the Ajmer Sharif shrine in India. This visit was not only meant to give strength to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s attempt to lend impetus to Indo-Pakistan ties and kick-start trade between the two countries, it was also meant to send a message to India and the western world that his government was keen on de-radicalising Pakistani society. Patronising the Sufi faith or Barelvi school is one way of doing it. 

While people in Pakistan have grave doubts whether the sectarian violence will end by engaging in such symbolism, what is really clear is that the country is involved in a difficult battle to save its soul. This has become a major existential challenge. Questions are being raised on Pakistan’s extremely aggressive TV news channels about the very purpose of partition from India and whether the objectives behind carving out a country on the basis of religion have been met. 

“Why has India done better than us?” is a question born out of anger and envy that is heard at street corners in drawing rooms and news studios. Answers to this question range from India’s commitment to democracy and secularism to policies of economic self-reliance. 

Such intensive introspection is reshaping the way the people of this country are interpreting their past and present and trying to see how they can manage their future. The most important outcome of this reflection is the intense hatred people have developed for the United States of America. Drone attacks that undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty and the recent killings of Pakistani soldiers have inflamed these passions. Former cricketer and leader of Tehreek-e-Insaf party Imran Khan is one of those politicians who is riding high on the anti-American plank. 

A section of the intelligentsia and political class, too, has been aggressively promoting this viewpoint suggesting that all the ills the country suffers from can be traced back to the support Pakistan gave to the US in its fight against, first, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and later, against terror. This fight against terror, bankrolled by Saudi money, many scholars believe, contributed in devaluing the Indo-Persian character of Pakistani society and tried to shift its cultural and religious locus closer to the Arab world. The fratricidal killings and the denial by some Pakistanis of their south Asian origin has been responsible for this unending bloodletting. 

Now, the government of Pakistan is desperate to change its circumstances. It wants to project itself as a modern society with whom countries can transact regular business rather than one that fosters terrorism and uses it as an instrument of State policy. Besides, engaging in relentless nuclear blackmail of its neighbours and all those who deal with them has not helped its image. This projection of being a modern State with a professional army is strategically necessary as the US troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan. 

The reason behind this projection is that the Pakistani government has tried to clean up its act in many ways. The determined manner in which it has smoked out the Taliban from Swat and other parts of tribal agencies that dot the area around Pakistan’s rugged border with Afghanistan is one such example. A government official told Hardnews that untill 2009, a large part of the tribal areas that sustained radical elements were not under the government’s control. After three years of relentless military operations, there is only a thin strip around Mohmand agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that is still not in its control.

In comparison, the 43-nation International Security Force (INSAF) has failed to meet this objective after 10 years of occupation of Afghanistan. “We have shown better strategy in stabilizing the tribal region and fighting the Taliban. Surely, we have the credentials to play a larger role in Afghanistan,” says a top official in Islamabad. He argues that the army is determined to restore the primacy of the civilian government and rule of law in society. “We will not allow the radicalisation of Pakistani society,” he asserted. 

When a question was asked about why the Pakistani State gave protection to some extremists like Mumbai attack-accused Hafiz Sayeed against whom the US government has announced a bounty of $10 million, he said that it was a matter of time before the issue would be sorted out. “We don’t want to open all the fronts at the same time.” 

Pakistan’s colourful interior Minister, Rehman Malik, who is extremely active on Twitter, claimed that his government has tried hard to take action against Sayeed, but the courts have bailed him out. According to him, Sayeed was detained by the police on the allegation of radicalising the people, but managed to get relief from the court. Malik claimed that India-Pakistan relations have never been better and hoped that the new visa regime will bring the people of the two countries closer. “Now, we do not accuse each other’s spy agencies if there is a blast,” he says. 

Malik slowly caressed his chin and claimed that he had information that men with “long beards” (Taliban) may be crossing into India and there was a need to fight this extremist threat together. He also explained that his government was taking active steps to de-radicalise the madrassas that have mushroomed all over the country. In barely 20 years the number of madrassas, he said, has gone up from 300 to 20,000. Malik claimed that their curriculam were being monitored and the government was trying to reform madrassa education. 

Pakistan wants to project itself as a modern society with whom countries can transact regular business rather than one that fosters terrorism and uses it as an instrument of State policy

Despite these brave noises emerging from the government and agencies, there is a feeling that things are slipping out of control. The Center is just not able to hold. Sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis has acquired bizarre proportions. Shias have been pulled out of buses and killed. Similarly, in Gilgit, Baltistan, the State has been embarrassingly slow in responding to the spurt in violence. In
many parts, Hindu women are being kidnapped, forcibly converted, and in many cases, forcibly married off to Muslim men (see: ‘The Lost Girls’ pg 31).

Newspapers and news channels give the impression that the panic seems to have captured an insecure middle class. Articles are appearing in national newspapers to rationalise why there is no shame in leaving Pakistan. There is an underlying bitter realism that ethnic cleansing is taking place in Pakistani society and in the future only Sunnis can live in the country. 

Among Sunnis too, there is a view that certain core issues between Sufis and Salafis have to be settled. Scholars attribute this conflict between the sects to the aggression displayed by the majority sect to force their interpretation of Islam on others.

Weaponisation of the religious outfits to fight the Soviets and later to support the
‘Kashmir struggle’ resulted in empowering the majority sect, which is forcing its will through the gun. For protection, even the Shia community has formed militant outfits. The consequence of this mutual war has resulted in blunting Pakistan’s demand for the liberation of Kashmir. 

At a recent interaction in Islamabad, a lady activist questioned the resumption of trade with India and said that “180 million Pakistanis will not rest easy till the Kashmir issue is sorted out”. The response to her emotion-filled speech came from a Baluch intellectual who wanted to know whether the figure of 180 million would also include Baluchis, who are being subjected to brutal repression by the Pakistani establishment. Similarly, he asked, would the Shias, Christians and Hindus — all Pakistanis — agitate for Kashmir? 

An aggressive free media in Pakistan has become a factor in itself to guarantee democracy in this country where no civilian government has been able to complete its full term. The media is articulating the many concerns of ordinary Pakistanis. One of them is fear of the future. 

This does not pertain only to violence in society, but also reflects the state of its economy. The gloom and despair is deepened by long power cuts and inflation. 

In many ways, the Pakistani government has been able to push through trade ties with India despite opposition from radical street rallies headed by the likes of Hafiz Sayeed. The move suggests that the condition of ordinary people would become better after the two countries do business again. Manmohan Singh’s promise to supply electricity to a power-starved Pakistan has generated great excitement all around.

The Business Council of Pakistan has been fiercely championing the opening up of trade between the two countries as a crucial move to jump-start an economy whose rate of growth has fallen to 2.9 per cent, which is less than half of what it used to be before 2008. Also, its investment ratio in 2011 has been the lowest since 1947.

The media is articulating many concerns of ordinary Pakistanis. One of them is their fear of the future

There is also a view that economic development around the Indus route, encouraged after Partition to unhinge its economy from India, has plummetted and if Pakistan has to grow then it has to restore the traditional routes that link the sub-continent with Central Asia. The trade volume between the two countries is pathetically low.

Once all- round full trade ties are restored across the borders and it is allowed to reach its full potential, it should touch $50 billion from the current low of $2.7 billion.

Once the respective regulators allow Foreign Direct Investment in the other country, the stakeholders for peace will gather more muscle. Mian Mansha, Pakistan’s richest businessman, who was in Delhi recently, said that trade is in the interest of common people. He urged that the gas pipeline project be expedited. 

Trade would be a stepping stone for undoing much of the damage that Partition and its divisive politics have brought to this region. Besides unnaturally keeping this region trapped at a low level of growth, it has militarised the two countries —  normalcy can be disrupted by a mere strike of a matchstick, so distrustful are the respective strategic thinkers and security forces of each other. 

Manmohan Singh's promise to supply electricity to a power starved Pakistan has generated great excitement all around

The restoration of trade ties with India, to be preceded by a liberalised visa regime, is a big opportunity for Pakistan to extricate itself from the yoke of loathing of India. The latter, too, would benefit from this process by reaching out to Central Asia and spending less on mindless weapons’ acquisition that it is so desperately engaged in. 

Clearly, it’s time to open the doors of our borders wider. It’s possible, this
dream sequence. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2012

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