Pak: Turning a new page or a turncoat still?
Many Indians still feel that we should not relent on Pakistan, use our diplomatic and economic clout to make it pay a nasty price for the Mumbai attacks. Maybe we can. Pakistan lacks the money without which wars can neither be fought nor won and has few international backers for a conflict against India today.
My long-wished-for trip to Pakistan last month cleared up two things in my head. Regardless of what we think — as ordinary citizens or foreign policy hacks – the Indian and Pakistani governments are already clearly decided on gradually achieving full normal ties with Pakistan.
Secondly, the Pakistan visit has helped me permanently conclude that the longstanding India-Pakistan conflict can bear no comparison to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, despite striking similarities. Like the Middle-east conflict, we too have disputed borders, with people’s roots strewn across it. And the main fight is still going to be about real estate. Kashmir after all is a much-sought-after piece of land. But unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the India-Pakistan story has never been about ordinary people being locked in a hateful conflict.
Let me narrate my meeting with an exceptional host in Islamabad to tell you about the kind of voices I heard.
In a darker era, the answer may have been different. Over dinner at a fancy place in Islamabad’s diplomatic neighbourhood, I asked my host what he thought of India. A “bigger, better-off sibling,” he said, but one without a “large enough heart”.
Take it or leave it, but this was a voice nobody heard before. It was that of a senior officer from Pakistan’s vaunted spy organisation, the ISI. And it gave a post-9/11 sense of reality in Pakistan: a growing hatred for America and the realisation that it’s time for India and Pakistan to move on.
The biggest flashpoint now, I am told, is not Kashmir, but America’s drone attacks. “I don’t have two horns and a tail. Don’t make the ISI look 15-feet-tall when it is no more than eight. There is a strong realisation within the military that we can’t live in perpetual hostility,” the plucky ISI man says, as a grilled bhetki arrives from the oven.
Then came a chilling admission: “It was mistake to have propped the Taliban with help from the CIA.”
What about the 2008 Mumbai attacks? “You tell me, why would we do it at a time when we are fighting a war inside our borders? How would 26/11 have benefited Pakistan?” The Americans, he said, may have come into Afghanistan ostensibly because of 9/11, but they also had their eyes on its “energy reserves”.
The cracks appear to be deeper. “In the ‘71 (war with India), the US 7th fleet never crossed the South China seas. We felt betrayed.”
Pakistan can’t project itself as an ideal country to anybody, least of all to India. But it is trying to sell the image of a nation trying to turn a new leaf.
The last time India happened to be a domestic election issue was in 1988. The ISI’s scheming political wing stands scrapped, and the 20th amendment makes the Pakistan election commission totally independent. Pressure from Pakistan’s chambers of commerce has forced the country to make trade with India a priority.
Mohammed Waqas Sajjad, director at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, likes to call the current bonhomie the “you’re my chammak challo (you’re my darling) phase”.
India’s rise is well recognised. Professor Umbreen Javaid of the Centre for South Asia Studies at Lahore’s Punjab University confesses to finding “satisfaction in the faces of your people” during a visit to India. “I don’t see that satisfaction in our people.”
Something changed between 9/11 and now: America has replaced India as the country Pakistanis are most hysterical about. “There is no constituency in Pakistan today that wants confrontation with India, the armed forces included,” says senator and former federal information minister Mushahid Hussain Sayed.
The war within, no assured external backing against India, and a battered economy have given bilateral ties a fighting chance.
What about right-wing spoilers like Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed? “You can’t turn around a big ship that quickly and easily,” says a top army general over dinner at Rawalpindi’s Pearl Continental, “It takes time.”
How much of all this, I thought at the end, should one take home or leave behind.
As that lazy, decadently rich dinner was drawing to a close, and lighting up a Marlboro, I left my host from the ISI with a question: “Despite 26/11, India has moved on. Faster than even most Indians expected. If that is not being large-hearted, what is?” I did not wait for an answer, shook his hands and made my way into my heavily guarded Toyota minivan.