Neighbours in the dark

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:

By Mahir Ali (Point of View)

Published: Wed 15 Aug 2012, 9:29 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:30 PM

“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 independence, yet many of the problems they face are remarkably similar. Corruption, for instance — although Pakistan may have had something of a head start. Poverty, malnutrition and rapid population growth. The disparities in Pakistan are barely less grotesque. And wealth tends in both cases to trickle out rather than trickle down.

There’s something peculiarly schoolboy-ish 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 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 Ali is a Sydney-based journalist

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