Mirroring neighbours

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Comment by Naeem Sadiq

For an otherwise sane and normal world to so readily surrender its options, imagination, discretion and rationality - all in a single day - is a very disturbing realisation for the ordinary members of this human community.

You are either with us or with the terrorists - these are the only options, dead or alive are the only possibilities, war till victory is the only conclusion, and seeking revenge the only rationality. There is no space for dialogue. Simply take positions, join sides, indicate alignments, draw lines and prepare for a holy or unholy war (depending on which side you speak from).

Few have challenged the emerging new world disorder that is being shaped by the infinite wisdom of George Bush, who has little idea of where Afghanistan is, and that of Mullah Omer, who has no idea of where the US is. While the world chooses to voluntarily plunge itself into this unimaginable madness, my thoughts repeatedly return to events near home, in the country where I live, and the subcontinent that it is part of.

These are certainly not the best of times, but then the times have never been even remotely good for the ordinary people of India and Pakistan. They belong to the unfortunate generations of the subcontinent, who have contentedly continued to cope with ignorance, hunger and disease, oblivious of the remarkable opportunities that could have changed their world for better. The progress and prosperity of so many has never been a hostage to the folly of so few for such a long time. Come 11 September and India and Pakistan took many steps beyond the call of duty. The "To Let" signboards were promptly put up at places and bases, as if that was what they were meant for all along. Even the ordinary people of the two countries felt a loss of self-respect at the keenness of their great nations to allow themselves to be misused so willingly.

For too long the two neighbours have suffered from each other's unwise mirroring behaviour. While one would pointlessly support the Taliban, the other would woo the Northern Alliance. While one would be foolish enough to make nuclear bombs, the other would eat grass to do the same. While one would demolish one mosque, the other would undo two mandirs. While one would bend backwards to seek favours from one superpower, the other would respond with yet greater obsequiousness. While one would go out of its way to please the intolerant and militant mullah, the other would allow a field- day to the Hindu extremists. When one relocates a battalion to a sensitive border location, the other promptly responds by a sending a division.

Even when not engaged in a formal war, the official spokespersons of the two nations would be outpouring regular statements that would outdo each other in malice and contempt. This perpetual knee-jerk ill-will response has now become a standard operating procedure in both countries. It has developed a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own, often losing sight of the realisation that playing to galleries is not in the interest of either country.

What makes the two nations continue in this spiteful and malignant mirroring exercise? It is certainly not the ordinary people of the two countries, who at people-to-people level have always shown outstanding friendship and fraternity for each other. It is the bureaucracy and the religious extremists on both sides of the divide who have kept alive this tradition of hatred and malice. The bureaucracy in both countries is uniquely incompetent and irrelevant, while the religious extremists use violence and cult-like traditions to impose a format on society that is neither recommended by Islam nor by Hinduism. The ordinary people of India and Pakistan have lived together peacefully for centuries. They realise that while tracing many ancestral trees, one can find that at sometime, one brother became Muslim and the other remained Hindu. Any hatred or dispute that they ever had was fermented by vested interests who voluntarily assume the role of caretakers of God Almighty's interests on this earth. Could India and Pakistan have viewed 11 September in a context far beyond its tragic obviousness? Did the crisis also create an absolutely new opportunity and the possibility for a new defining moment in Indo-Pakistani relations? Was this an event traumatic enough to shake the two countries to a new inner realisation, which could lead to breaking the shackles of incompetent bureaucracies and fanatic extremists? The answer to all these questions is a candid yes. The fact that it did not so happen is only a reflection of our surrendered options. The fact that it can still happen is an admissible possibility. If the leaders of India and Pakistan have even a faint coating of wisdom, and if they are willing to stop being so strongly remote-controlled by their own clerks and clerics, they could still use the September events to trigger a new wave of peace and friendship in the subcontinent. Working together, as friends, neighbours and allies, the two nuclear states can represent a major world power, which would be looked upon by world with serious respect and significance.

The dimension and the intensity of the unfolding events have put these two nations at an extraordinary cross-road of opportunity that could be channelled to initiate a new era and a new approach. An approach based on the concept of a peaceful, stable and mutually supportive sub-continent. Are there people in these two countries who would walk up to Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf to explain that history has once again created a moment that could be captured to change the destiny of a billion people of this subcontinent?