Feb 19, 2009

Calling on the middle class

Rehan Ansari speculates on the challenges which face this country in future years as part of Dawn.com's launch special 'Flash-forward Pakistan: where do we go from here?'
Through anecdotes I want to tell a Pak-India story. This piece is aimed at middle-class and poor Pakistanis and Indians, that is, anyone who wants to make a living. Those who get by in Islamabad by holding a gun to their head – to slightly adapt Stephen Cohen’s description of General Musharraf’s argument for his indispensability to the West – and those 70-year-old congressmen or congressmen-in-waiting in New Delhi need not read ahead.
In 2005, the publishers of a new English-language daily newspaper in India out of Mumbai were interested in Pakistan coverage. They thought that my experience of living and working in Pakistan would be an asset for them. Of course, that was not the only reason for hiring me. They were also interested in my experience as a journalist in the US, and the fact that I have been writing for the Indian media for a decade. But the point is, my Pakistani origins were an asset. The paper also planned to place correspondents in both Karachi and Lahore as they were keen on non-political news as well.
In 2006, the business editor of the paper – currently the editor of the paper – wanted a profile of the business houses of Karachi.
In 2007, Zee, one of the owners of the paper, started the Indian Cricket League and wanted Pakistani players to play in it. In reaction, the BCCI created the Indian Premier League, which also hired Pakistani players. This last story is well known.
In 2008, the Mumbai festival approached me to recommend a Pakistani event for them. The convener of the festival, a Konkan politician, was so interested in programming from Pakistan that he came over to my house in Bandra to talk to me about it. I recommended that they bring Zeb and Haniya from Lahore and the Aunty Disco Project from Karachi, since I had recently seen them perform in Karachi at a private party. I had thought that Zeb and Haniya’s bluesy numbers would find a fine home at the Blue Frog in Mumbai, a venue that stylishly recalls old-world European cabarets. But then came the Mumbai attacks. The Mumbai festival got cold feet while I argued in vain that it would be just the right time to have a peace concert. Indeed, after the Mumbai attacks, as the Indian middle class’s goodwill towards Pakistan recedes, all such ventures will end or be severely curtailed.
Not that this culture shift does not pose a crisis for other kinds of Pakistani professionals. In my first week in Karachi after the attacks, I met up with three professionals. One worked for Shell, another for GE (out of Australia), and the third worked for an Arab venture capitalist firm. All three needed to go to India for work, but none of them were getting visas, even though two of them also had first-world passports. I grew up with these men and in the 1980s we looked to New York and London, not India. But now, whether we like it or not, whether our pride can take it or not, the India story next door has our attention. It’s too bad for professionals such as these if the Mumbai attacks retarded their career or projects.
But what does it matter if Pakistani cricketers don’t get to make money in India, if Indian papers don’t report out of Karachi and Lahore, if Pakistani musicians don’t get to perform in India, and if Pakistani corporates can’t travel for work to India.
It matters for India because if these Pakistanis had gone across the border to complete their projects, their networks back home in Pakistan would have probably heard some favorable things about Indian cities. Most Pakistanis who have already visited New Delhi and Mumbai have come away fascinated.
More crucially, Pakistanis not going over means that the vast Indian middle classes who already don’t know much about Pakistan get to know even less. I never thought that this would be a crisis for Pakistanis and Indians until the Mumbai attacks. That horror really made it clear that a lot of Indians as well as the Indian media – which, like mass media everywhere, is overwhelmingly nationalistic and parochial – make no distinctions between the many Pakistani cities, ethnicities, classes, social groups, media, government wings, and armed forces. It’s all one ‘Pakistan’ to them.
As I write this, A. K. Antony, the Indian defence minister, has said that the terror attacks in Mumbai have destroyed all the gains of years of peace talks between India and Pakistan. Minister Antony doesn’t compile a list of possible suspects who would want to disrupt the peace process, he simply says that the ‘onus’ is on Pakistan.
The first part of Minister Antony’s remark reminds me of what I was saying in Mumbai during the attack, in a city where I had been working as a journalist for almost four years. Even before the fighting ended, I was talking to people in Mumbai and Delhi and via chat programmes with Indian friends in Washington and London, arguing that even if we don’t know exactly who did it, we know why it was done. I pointed out that the attacks would disrupt the Pak-India peace process in a spectacular way, and so for this murder we have a motive. I felt I was only getting a patient hearing. The overwhelming feeling amongst Indians was that the attack was targeting them and that the Pakistanis did it! Meanwhile, I began to hear another argument from the liberal media as well as liberals in New Delhi: Pakistanis better be behind the attacks because if Indian Muslims are involved, then Gujarat 2002 will seem like a picnic.
Those conversations sparked some important realizations:
Partition was good for many reasons, but what use was it when the Mumbai attack and its aftermath show that India and Pakistan are still joined at the hip? Partition has resulted in nationalism, borders, and visa regimes that make sure that people know even less about each other. As a result, they are more likely to be taken for a ride by the agendas of lashkars, fascists, and the realpolitik of Islamabad and New Delhi. One of the disingenuous anti-Pakistan commentaries I read was by M. J. Akbar: in his column in the Times of India he wrote that Partition was good because Pakistan provides a buffer against the Taliban.
A United India – or even an India and Pakistan that were friendly states, much like contemporary France and Germany – would never have been vulnerable to an American agenda of jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the Soviets. Better relations would also have negated this ‘problem’ of Kashmir. Considering Pakistan a buffer zone, and therefore forgetting about it, is exactly the wrong thing to think after the Mumbai attacks.
One afternoon in Pune, a month before the attack, I had a long-ranging conversation with Major General Moti Dar, who has served in Kashmir and had been Sonia Gandhi’s point man in track-two diplomacy between former President Pervez Musharraf and the Congress High Command. He is amiable and drives a small car. He insisted that India is interested in the stability of Pakistan, given what is happening in the Frontier province. He added that Musharraf offered a lot, but admitted that in 2006, Congress did not have the political will to close the deal. He said he was very interested in trade with Pakistan and had tried to facilitate a deal between Bajaj Motors and some Pakistani party. The effort was scuttled by Musharraf with the comment, ‘We need to do something on Kashmir.’ General Dar rounded up the afternoon by saying that he wasn’t into India making unilateral gestures. He seemed genuinely apprehensive about the future.
Pakistan needs to make unilateral gestures. Or at least give Indians generous visas for visits and business. If Indians do not visit Pakistan or do little or no business here — keeping in mind that Hindu Indians have no family ties in Pakistan and only bear the brunt of attacks by sundry Pakistani-based lashkars – then for them and the enormously influential Indian dispora, Pakistan’s name means mud. There are a handful of Indian editors and writers who have visited Pakistan, and most of them write glowingly about the people of Pakistan. An example is the book by Amit Baruah, who as the Islamabad-based correspondent of The Hindu newspaper, is an Indian who has clocked the most time in Pakistan.
At a family wedding in Karachi this winter, I saw middle-class relatives who live in Karachi, the Punjab, London, the US, and Canada, and who have relatives in India. Overwhelmingly, the young have serious challenges with education and employment opportunities. The Mumbai attacks, the repercussion of Pakistani-based jihad, and the politics of Islamabad and New Delhi have hurt the interests of our wedding party here and abroad.
Rehan Ansari went to Karachi Grammar School, and then Vassar College. He was Foreign Editor with Daily News and Analysis, based out of Mumbai. He was Editor, Independent Press Association, New York. He was a writer on Chowk.com (I Love Nawaz Sharif), and was a columnist for Mid-Day (Mumbai) from 2000 to 2003. He is currently working on a book

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