Living with a big neighbour

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE Dawn News-The Indian Express-CNN-IBN opinion poll conducted in 30 major cities of India and Pakistan on the 60th anniversary of their independence has come under attack from cynics. How can 30,000 urbanites represent one billion plus and 160 million people, the majority of whom live in the countryside?

Without doubt, no pollster worth his salt would give this exercise serious credence. But if the poll is used as a pointer to show which way the wind is blowing it can be quite instructive.

It has exploded some myths perpetuated by the establishments on both sides of the borders. The perception of the other being an enemy country has been propagated every so often that India-Pakistan relations have come to be based on the false premise that their ties can only be of an adversarial nature. This has served the vested interests in both countries who have exploited this impression to create a crisis situation from time to time.

The above-mentioned poll indicates that a substantial number of people on both sides of the Wagah border think otherwise. They do not want another war. They would prefer to see their disputes resolved through negotiations — that is how 80 per cent of Pakistani respondents and 78 per cent of the Indians answered the relevant question.

True, the people on the two sides do not see eye to eye on many issues that form the landmarks of the history of the subcontinent, the most notable being Partition. But what is encouraging is the pragmatic approach of many who want to leave the past behind and move on. The direction in which they want to proceed now should lead to peace. There is a fringe element in both countries that still speaks of war being the only method to resolve disputes.

Of course, the question to be asked is will an India-Pakistan détente be achieved? Even the most scientifically conducted survey cannot answer this question.

There are two aspects of this situation that cannot be ignored. First, détente is achieved by the concerted policies of governments and not the people. In our part of the world, government policies do not always reflect the wishes of the people.

The flip side is the desire of a substantial number of Pakistanis to cling to the past and the despondency in them that prevents them from hoping for an improvement in India-Pakistan relations. The Indians, as the pro-status quo power, are more confident.

This should leave us wondering as to what should be Islamabad’s policy line vis-à-vis India?

There is a section of opinion in Pakistan which believes that we have to respond to India’s adventurism especially its tendency to act as the ‘bully in the region’. It must be emphasised here that the need is for pragmatism and rationality from Pakistan as the smaller state.

In the first place, the composite dialogue should be sustained with a new political commitment. In no case should we revert to the earlier state of deadlocked relations marked with vitriolic exchanges.

The problem that has obstructed progress in the dialogue is the distrust that marks the ties between the two countries which is symbolised by the dispute over Kashmir.

It is ironical that Pakistanis focus so sharply on Kashmir when the Kashmiris themselves choose not to reciprocate this sentiment.

They would prefer to be independent. For this reversal of opinion — in the early post-Independence years they favoured accession to Pakistan — we have to thank the militants who went to fight a jihad in the Kashmir Valley and Jammu and only succeeded in antagonising the local population.

At the moment, Pakistan has been destabilised by its domestic constitutional and political crises and the war against terrorism that has been thrust on it thanks to President Musharraf’s policy of using the Islamist militants to promote the military’s strategic goals. This is no time to open a new front with India. Don’t we have enough on our plate to keep us occupied?

In case the opinion poll has not got it right and the people do not support a peace initiative, it is time to educate them about the advantages of peace, especially for a country that is not in a position to take on a neighbour seven times its size in terms of population and that has an economy that is seven times larger. It is counter-productive for Pakistan to enter into an arms race with India. This race will drain us of all our resources and destroy us more effectively than a war ever would.

The deleterious effects of our high defence expenditure (3.3 per cent of GDP) are already evident. In spite of its own massive defence budget (three per cent of GDP) India has enough resources to spend $22.8billion on education. Pakistan’s education budget is a measly $1.9billion. Small wonder, India has 130,000 researchers engaged in R&D when Pakistan has only 13,700.

It cannot be denied that the man in the street takes a cue from the government.

Had our leadership been preaching the virtues of pacifism and building the defences of peace in the minds of men, no sections of Pakistanis would have emerged as advocates of war as they are made out to be in some quarters.

In a television programme screened by Dawn News on the opinion poll, Imran Khan, our cricketing hero-turned-politician, could not have put it more aptly when he remarked that a country cannot change its neighbours. One may add, you have to learn to live with them.