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Neighbours fumbling in the dark

August 15, 2012

IT is unlikely that any mainstream political party in Pakistan, let alone a purportedly progressive organisation, would today issue an election manifesto containing sentiments such as these: “Towards India, a policy of confrontation will be maintained until the question of Kashmir, Farakka, Beruberi and other pending matters are settled.

“Entirely in consonance with the principle of supporting liberation movements, Pakistan will support the cause of the people of Assam who are fighting for their independence.”

These sentences can be found in the Pakistan People’s Party’s manifesto for the 1970 elections, and two of the references therein became redundant shortly thereafter, once Bangladesh gained independence. Assam tends to erupt every now and then, but Pakistani support for the rebels is hardly an issue.

Kashmir is a different matter, but even in that context chances are that only fringe groups would vow to pursue a broad “policy of confrontation”.

Does it follow that after 65 years as reluctant neighbours the two countries have evolved a less hostile code of coexistence? Perhaps even one that may make way in due course for something akin to friendship?

There have lately been signs of incremental progress, which is gratifying. But anything more than a flicker of optimism would be hard to justify, given the number of occasions on which hopes have been raised only to be shot down or blown to bits.

Six and a half decades of accumulated mistrust — now there’s something worth exploding or consigning to a bonfire of competing vanities. But it’s very hard to envisage such a development, barring a miraculously auspicious configuration of the stars or, more realistically, the coincidence of clear-sighted, sure-footed governments in New Delhi and Islamabad.

After long years of mutual vilification, propaganda and parallel distortions of history, a reversal surely wouldn’t be an easy task. But, given the political will, it wouldn’t be impossible either. At a popular level, fraternisation across the divide, whenever it is allowed, tends to be fruitful. Perhaps that is why it is rarely permitted.

There’s lately been talk, not for the first time, of more lenient visa protocols. Let’s see where it leads. One of the primary problems, of course, is that politicians and other vested interests on both sides have grown accustomed to scoring easy points off the ‘enemy’ paradigm. The rival defence establishments grow fat on the prospect of confrontation.

There can be little question that both countries could have been considerably better off in various ways had the resources frittered away on arms purchases and other martial pursuits been more productively expended. Judicious investment in energy generation, for instance, may have spared India the embarrassment of giving the impression that it was trying to outdo its neighbour in terms of electricity shortages.

Indian citizens are no strangers to loadshedding, although the situation is hardly as precarious as it has become in Pakistan. More disturbingly, substantial swathes of territory in both countries are yet to witness the wonders of electrification.

India and Pakistan have ostensibly followed different trajectories since their independence, yet many of the problems they face are remarkably similar. Corruption, for instance — although Pakistan may have had something of a head start — and poverty, malnutrition and rapid population growth.

India’s economic ascent has spawned incredible disparities of wealth. “India may have fewer billionaires than China,” Perry Anderson wrote recently in an extended dissertation on the nation in The London Review of Books, “but they are also richer, and their share of the national wealth is far greater: just 66 residential billionaires control assets worth more than a fifth of the country’s GDP.”

The disparities in Pakistan are barely less grotesque. And wealth tends in both cases to trickle out rather than trickle down.

There’s a more unexpected parallel, too. “The [Indian] Supreme Court,” Anderson writes, “which had not played a particularly distinguished role under Nehru, disgraced itself by rubber-stamping [Indira Gandhi’s] emergency. Thereafter, spurred by the reaction against it and no doubt ashamed of its past servility, the court has moved in the opposite direction, becoming the principal breakwater in India against threats to liberty, abuses of power and theft of public goods.…

“Today, the court is so proactive that it can not only annul laws passed in the Indian parliament if it decides they are unconstitutional (the normal prerogative of a supreme court), but also demand that parliament pass laws it determines are urgently needed — a juridical innovation without precedent in any other country.”

It may stop short, though, of prescribing a particular course of action for the opposition, as Pakistan’s Supreme Court lately appeared to do while mulling over a contempt-of-court law of which it disapproved.

It now appears poised to pronounce judgment on the letter-writing skills of Raja Pervez Ashraf, who was hastily ensconced as prime minister after his predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was sent home for disobedience. The latter declared this week that if the court reprised its earlier verdict, his party would not take it lying down (as it did in Gilani’s case) because “every day is not Sunday”. Will this enigmatic warning provoke their lordships to decree a month of Sundays, just to prove him wrong?

There’s something peculiarly schoolboyish about the clash between the executive and judiciary in Islamabad, but then there are a number of respects in which both Pakistan and India betray symptoms of juvenility. There are taboo areas, intellectual barriers that it’s considered unwise or unpatriotic to transgress. They revolve around matters of faith, interpretations of history, questions of territorial integrity.

A common cause is lack of confidence, which is less easy to understand in India’s case. Pakistan is still caught in an intermittently violent argument over notions of national identity and is wrestling with various other demons. It is not surprising that there should be unilluminated areas in a secular democracy, too, but surely the logical way of dispelling the darkness would be to bathe them in light?

Perhaps one day the two of them will grow up, accept their shared history and immutable geography, and learn to coexist, if not as the best of friends then at least as congenial, cooperative neighbours. Perhaps.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com