By Mohammed Hanif for The Guardian
Two months before President Asif Zardari’s unexpected visit to India, a newly formed political alliance, the Council to Defend Pakistan, unveiled its slogan. “What is our relationship with India?” it asked. And then in a rickety Urdu rhyme it answered: of hatred, of revenge.
The council is an alliance between recovering jihadists, some one-person political parties and the kind of sectarian organisations whose declared aim is that Pakistan cannot fulfil its destiny until every single Shia has been killed or expelled from the country.
The council is not likely to have much impact on Pakistan’s electoral politics, but it is a clear reminder that there are strong forces within the country, which want a return to the days when India was Pakistan’s enemy No 1. Back then all you had to do to malign a Pakistani politician was to somehow prove that they were soft on India. Things have changed. When President Zardari went to India, his bitter political enemy and the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif welcomed the visit.
President Zardari’s visit on the one hand was a reminder that India is right next door. If you plan carefully, you can do a day trip, have lunch, visit a shrine and make the correct, polite noises that visitors make about their future intentions.
But the president’s visit was also set against a reminder that India and Pakistan have raised their animosity to a brutal art form. As the president’s plane landed in Delhi, rescue workers were trying to reach the Siachen glacier, where more than 120 Pakistani soldiers had been buried after an avalanche obliterated their military post. Siachen is often proclaimed the world’s highest battlefront – as if it’s a Guinness world record and not a monument to our mutual stupidity. As I write this, not a single survivor or body has been found. India offered help in rescue efforts. Pakistan politely declined, because that would compromise its military posts.
President Zardari’s visit was billed as a private one, but the pageantry surrounding it was state-visit like, complete with dozens of cameras broadcasting empty skies where the presidential plane was about to appear. And, of course, the media had scooped the menu for the state lunch a day in advance.
Did the visit achieve anything? An 80-year-old Pakistani prisoner in an Indian jail was released on bail. The leaders’ sons and probable heirs – Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Rahul Gandhi – got to hang out.
There are peaceniks on both sides who have held endless candlelit vigils on the borders. They would like the borders to melt away, for all of us to come together in a giant hug and live happily ever after just like we did in a mythical past when we were all either little Gandhis or sufis and got along fine. There is another minority on both sides that would like us to live permanently in the nightmare that was partition. There are Pakistani groups who want to raise the green flag over the Red Fort in Delhi, and there are Indian hawks who go to sleep thinking of new ways to teach this pesky little country a lesson. But the vast majority – and given the size of population and ethnic diversity, that majority is really vast – would just be happy with cheaper onions from across the border.
There is another kind of coming together: Pakistani writers and artists can attend both Indian and Pakistani literary festivals and art expos, and although it’s great that they can peddle their wares to a curious audience, the rest of the population are denied that privilege. A Punjabi farmer, for example, can’t sell his often perishable produce in India, a couple of hours away, but is forced to transport it a thousand miles to southern Pakistan. If India and Pakistan could take tiny steps which weren’t just meant for the rulers and cultural tourists, it might make some difference. For instance, if there were only a couple of thousand Pakistani and Indian students studying in each others’ countries, the appetite for a war rhetoric might wane. At the moment it can’t happen because the security establishment fear infiltration. The same establishment forget that infiltrators usually don’t apply for a visa, and no suspects so far have been to an IT school in Bangalore or an arts college in Lahore.
I mention education because one in 10 children who doesn’t go to school lives in Pakistan. One in three children in the world who is malnourished lives in India. And these countries insist on sending young men to a frontline where there is no war, where there is nothing to fight over, and where 4,000 soldiers have died, mostly because it’s just too cold. Tens of thousands return with serious mental ailments because it’s so lonely and depressing. Twenty three years ago a withdrawal agreement had been agreed upon, but according to Indian defence analyst Srikant Rao, the then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi backed out because withdrawing troops wouldn’t look very good in pictures. Well, troops buried under miles of snow don’t look very good either.
If India and Pakistan can’t leave each other alone, they should at least leave those mountains alone.