Saturday, July 24, 2010

Handcuffed to history in South Asia By: Aijaz Zaka Syed

I sometimes wonder if Shakespeare had India and Pakistan’s leaders in mind when he wrote those immortal lines in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.”

No matter who is in power in Delhi or Islamabad, the script of the carefully choreographed diplomatic spectacle never seems to change. From their famous encounter at Tashkent to the tense handshakes at Simla and Agra, and from Vajpayee’s historic bus trip to Lahore to the bitterness of Kargil, the more the narrative changes, the more it remains the same.

Still, the bitterness and open hostility that hung in the air as S M Krishna and Shah Mahmood Qureshi addressed the press conference in Islamabad took your breath away. They sat side by side, yet avoided looking at each other like estranged husband and wife. Tension in the air was so thick you could have carved it with a knife. 
One almost felt sorry for the soft spoken Krishna. A widely respected figure in and outside the governing Congress for his liberal outlook, Krishna deserved better. Never a part of India’s powerful foreign policy establishment, the former Karnataka chief minister isn’t perhaps cut out for the zero sum game that is India-Pakistan diplomacy.

I am not sure if Qureshi, who’s accused Krishna of being out of his depth and forever being on the phone taking orders from Delhi, was reading from the script or speaking his own mind. But he did look and sound abrasive even to a distant observer like me. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Pakistani foreign minister is younger and appears rather fascinated with the sound of his own voice. Or maybe it’s just the way he speaks.

Whatever the explanation, the new chill and unpleasantness in an already edgy relationship is unfortunate. And, yes, we are back to square one, where we had been after the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai landmarks – or the attack on Indian parliament, blamed on Pakistan based groups. As usual, the latest round of dialogue, if it can be called that, began amid great euphoria and goodwill only to end up in bitter acrimony with accusations and counteraccusations flying thick and fast.

It’s not clear why and how things went so horribly wrong. But as in the past, they seemingly unravelled when the Indian side confronted Islamabad on action against militant groups like the one led by Hafiz Sayeed, allegedly linked to the Mumbai attacks. And Pakistan seems to have played along pointing out it’s all linked to the “core issue” of Kashmir and that the militants cannot be reined in as long as the K question remains hanging fire. An argument not easy to counter. It’s a vicious cycle, indeed.

While Islamabad remains preoccupied with Kashmir and begins and ends every discussion with the K word, Delhi is prepared to discuss everything else but the K conundrum. Understandably, India is concerned about the terror threat from across the border and the issue remains top of its agenda in its engagement with the neighbour.

And the other side accuses it of not seeing the big picture and ignoring the underlying, associated causes of the problem. So it’s like an endless merry go round. They go round and round in circles, trying to catch their own tail, fighting shadows and demons of an unforgiving history.
The most obvious victims of the Indo-Pak conflict and blow-hot-blow-cold war have been the Kashmiri people, forever stuck in a limbo or time warp, created by the conspiracy of geography and history. They are paying for the sin of being born in the beautiful prison that is the post Partition Kashmir. But it’s not just the Kashmiris who’re paying for a crime they didn’t commit. We all are.

The people of India and Pakistan, in fact the whole of South Asia, have been paying for the myopia and moral timidity of their leaders. 
In his Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie uses the clever and apt term “handcuffed to history” to describe the predicament of South Asian twins. India and Pakistan are indeed prisoners of their past.

What is more, instead of trying to break free from these shackles, we’re doing our best to strengthen and fortify them with our selfish, petty politics. The two countries spend trillions of precious dollars every year on arming themselves to the teeth with fancy weapons that are never going to be used – thank God for that—while their people crave for basics such as food, water, housing, electricity, education and healthcare.

According to a recent survey by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, more people are mired in poverty in eight Indian states than found in the 26 poorest African countries.

While we pat ourselves on the back for multiplying the number of millionaires by 50 per cent over the past few years, a whopping 421 million of the world’s poorest of the poor live in India today, more than the sub-Saharan Africa. 
The picture on the other side of the border is equally depressing. 
While Pakistan’s cities and villages get to see power only for a few blessed hours, inflation is touching sky-high levels. The humble roti becomes scarcer by the day. Education still remains a luxury and the privilege of the elite. And when it comes to other basics that are essential for life, the situation in Pakistan is little different from India. And to think the neighbours are members of the elite nuclear club!

Will things ever change for the subcontinent? They can, if our leaders change. This week, responding to my recent piece on Kashmir, a friend Sashank Sharma wrote back saying a solution would evade us as long as India and Pakistan do not stop looking at their problems from an Indo-Pak prism. And it doesn’t apply just to the Kashmir knot. We see everything from behind the blinkers that we put on our eyes when we parted ways some 63 years ago. 
It doesn’t have to be like this. With our rich natural and human resources, we can be a great deal different – and better. Look at Europe today. It’s impossible to imagine it as a continent that witnessed two of the deadliest wars in mankind’s history only six decades ago.

A total of nearly hundred million people perished in the two World Wars. Germany fought bitter and devastating wars with the entire Europe including France, Britain, Poland, Russia (Soviet Union) and the US of course. And before that virtually every European nation fought each other. 
Yet France and Germany are the thickest of friends today. So are Russia and Germany. They put behind their divisive shared past to build a new, brighter and better future for their people. They vowed, ‘never again’ and have stuck to their promise. Travelling freely across the borderless, peaceful and prosperous continent today is a sobering experience. 
If Europe can do it, so can we. Especially when we have so much more in common than EU nations ever did. After all, we were one country and one people not long ago. It’s time to bury the past and look to the future.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of 
Khaleej Times. Write to him at

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