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EFSAS Commentary

A Pakistani General advises dialogue with India and an eminent Bollywood personality reminds Pakistanis of the Mumbai attacks


Over the past week, peace between India and Pakistan encouragingly figured in at least two events held in Pakistan. A retired Pakistani General, who had headed the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the publicity wing of the Pakistan Army, at the 14th Karachi Literature Festival underlined Pakistan’s need for dialogue with India. Separately, the respected Indian writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar, at a festival organized in memory of renowned Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, called for a thaw in bilateral relations but reminded Pakistan of its responsibility to bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks to justice. Meanwhile, some of the reactions from prominent Pakistanis to Akhtar’s pitch for peace, as also the charged response to a Bollywood event organized in a university in Lahore, also this past week, threw some light on why pursuing much needed peace remains such a daunting task both for Islamabad and New Delhi.

At a panel talk titled ‘Search for peace and security among neighbours’ at the 14th Karachi Literature Festival on 19 February in which the other speakers included Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center and senior Pakistani journalist and columnist for the Dawn daily, Zahid Hussain, Former Director General (DG) of the ISPR, Major General (Retd.) Athar Abbas, said that dialogue with India on levels other than that of the military establishment was “a need of Pakistan”. General Abbas stressed that “Dialogue is, at present, a need of our country...The way forward is not just the State apparatus, because if you leave it (solely) to the security establishment, there will be no move forward. It will be like taking one step forward and two steps backwards. There has to be an initiative… like track II diplomacy, like media, like business and trade organizations, like academia… and they can interact and create their space within Indian society. That builds pressure on the Indian government and State authorities that they must look into what the people are saying. This is a requirement of time that dialogue is a need of Pakistan”.

Referring to the political and security strife that Pakistan had brought upon itself, General Abbas asserted that for Pakistan’s adversaries it would be hard to talk to a State that “is at war with itself”. Saying in this context that instability in Pakistan could also spill over into India, he stressed that “we should not only wait for the establishment” but look towards other options as well. When asked how soon he thought talks with India could potentially take place, he responded, “You cannot change your neighbour. Eventually, they will have to come to the negotiating table…even if it (India) feels it is a great power”. General Abbas rued the “missed opportunities” of the past, and recalled former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus diplomacy as well as the Agra Summit in 2001 that Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf had travelled to India for.

While the former General did dilute some of the weight behind his other meaningful recommendations by suggesting that if Islamabad met with resistance from New Delhi in holding talks, Pakistan could involve “external actors” such as the United States (US) and the European Union (EU). India has steadfastly opposed any external influence in bilateral matters with Pakistan. Nevertheless, General Abbas’ articulation of the hard reality that peace talks with India had become a necessity for Pakistan was significant, as it is a position that many in the circles of power in Islamabad and Rawalpindi also hold.

This significance was highlighted by Michael Kugelman in a series of tweets. He said, “I was grateful to participate in the recent Karachi Literature Festival. One of the most interesting moments was when I said – expecting to be booed – that the time may come when Pakistan needs to look beyond the Kashmir issue and move on. Because nothing is likely to change. Surprisingly, many in the audience applauded the comment. I didn’t expect that. Of course, that’s more a reflection of the view of the KLF audience demographic than of wider public sentiment. But I still didn’t expect such a response like that, especially in a public setting”. At the Festival, Kugelman had pointed out that even though India and Pakistan would always have tensions, the Line of Control (LoC) has been “relatively quieter” in recent years. Expressing doubts about the prospects for improvement of relations between the two neighbours, he had opined, “I think that’s a shame as both countries can benefit from economic relations”. Commenting on the US’ South Asia policy, Kugelman observed that “The US would prefer to see a region where China is not a dominant power”. In response to a suggestion from General Abbas that the US wanted to see “controlled chaos” in Pakistan, Kugelman had said that the US did not desire instability in the region as “Pakistan is a nuclear power and controlled chaos is never far away from becoming an uncontrolled chaos”. He had also said that Washington desired peace and stability in the region, and “certainly better relations between India and Pakistan”.

Even if it is Pakistan that today needs normalization of relations with India more desperately than the latter, there can be little doubt that India too would welcome normalization if its primary concern over terrorism is addressed. The immense and multifaceted benefits that such normalization would yield are not lost on the leadership in New Delhi, but trust in their counterparts in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, given the history of betrayals and back-stabbing, is what is sorely missing. Generations of Indian leaders, including in recent times Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, and Narendra Modi, have all made overtures or discussed peace with Pakistan, and the efforts of every single one of them had been sincere and well-intentioned. That not one of them achieved their goal till date is not because of any fault on their part; they were just not allowed to succeed.

The third participant, Dawn columnist Zahid Hussain, opined at the Festival that the “mood in Pakistan (regarding relations with India) has also changed” in recent times. This change was visible at, and in the aftermath of, the 7th Faiz Festival that had been organized in memory of the celebrated Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and which commenced in Lahore on 17 February. Acclaimed Indian lyricist, screenwriter and poet, Javed Akhtar, an admirer of Faiz who went all the way from Mumbai to participate as a keynote speaker at the festival, generated much interest with his frank and incisive comments and observations during it. He was asked during the event that “You have visited Pakistan many times…When you go back do you tell your people that these are good people, they aren’t just bombing us but also greeting us with garlands and love?” Akhtar responded by referring to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taibah terrorists and said, “Let us not blame each other. That won’t solve issues. The heated atmosphere needs to cool down. I am from Bombay (since re-named Mumbai), and all of us witnessed the attack on Bombay. The attackers weren’t from Norway, or from Egypt. They are still roaming freely in your country, so you should not be offended if an Indian complains about this”.

Both the question that was asked and Akhtar’s answer to it were telling. For a Pakistani to say “they aren’t just bombing us but also greeting us with garlands and love?” only indicates how deeply internalized and accepted the fact has become even among common Pakistanis that Islamabad habitually sends terrorists to India to bomb it. Ahktar’s response was brave. For an Indian Muslim to address an almost entirely Pakistani audience in Lahore and remind it of the atrocities perpetrated in Mumbai by State-backed Pakistani terrorists requires gumption. It also signaled to those in India who had questioned Akhtar’s credentials that he was a true patriot who deserved to be celebrated.

Akhtar also reminded the gathering that even though Pakistani artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Mehdi Hasan have been welcomed with open arms in India, Pakistan has never hosted a Lata Mangeshkar show. An Indian singer of the highest standing, Lata Mangeshkar, like many others in Bollywood, has been hugely popular among successive generations of Pakistanis. Akhtar elaborated, “Mehdi Hassan was a cult figure in India. When he visited India, Shabana (Azmi) hosted it, I wrote for the event which was graced by the likes of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. When Faiz sahab visited, it seemed like an authority was visiting… it was broadcast all over. Have you ever seen Sahir (Ludhianvi), Kaifi (Azmi) or (Ali) Sardar Jafri’s interviews on PTV? It was shown in India, it happened there…So the communication blockade is from both sides and perhaps more from your side”.

After his return to India, Akhtar was asked by NDTV about the reaction of the audience in Lahore to his remarks. Saying that many people in Pakistan “admire India” and want the two neighbours to “have a relationship”, he added that his comments about the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks had been well-received in Pakistan. Akhtar elaborated, “They all clapped. They agreed with me. There are many people who admire India, want to have a relationship with us. We tend to think of countries as monolith. That is not the case. How do we connect with millions of people, who want to connect with India”. Akhtar also displayed a fair degree of maturity when in response to a question from NDTV on whether this was the right time for talks between India and Pakistan, he humbly and wisely said, “I don't have that kind of calibre (to respond to this query). People who are in power, who are holding that position, understand what is happening, what the situation is, how to go about it. Pakistan Army, Pakistani people, Pakistani establishment are not on the same page... People who run the country know better. My information is little. We in India have very limited information about the Pakistani people. Same is the case with them”.

One of the core problems in the India-Pakistan relationship came to the fore in the aftermath of Akhtar’s remarks. Without bothering to delve into, or think about, the truth and the significance of what Akhtar had said, or to consider that he was only speaking in favour of peace, a string of Pakistani politicians and influential celebrities summarily got down to criticizing and vilifying him. The Pakistani Geo News channel reported that Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) leader Sharmila Faruqui had berated Akhtar for his “controversial” remarks, and demanded that he be ordered to go back to India. Popular Pakistani actor Shaan Shahid, who in the process came across as palpably under-informed, questioned Akhtar’s search for the 26/11 terrorists in Pakistan while maintaining silence on Gujarat. Shahid even questioned the grant of a visa by Pakistan to Akhtar. Taking to Instagram, Pakistani actress Saboor Aly also criticized Akhtar’s statement on the Mumbai terror attacks. She said, “Someone has insulted your country on your own soil, and you are celebrating him, honouring him with such joy, sitting at his feet. What a shame!”

An unrelated event from Lahore this past week also highlighted the impediments to peace that the highly charged atmosphere in both countries presented. An innocuous function at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) that celebrated ‘Bollywood Day’ as one of its farewell events for students of the senior batch, also came in for much public criticism. The Pakistani daily The Express Tribune reported that despite the popularity of Bollywood among all sections of Pakistanis, the students who organized the event were hauled on social media for their “vilifying” behaviour and for “shamelessly” representing an industry that “regularly aims to create anti-Pakistan movies”.

Peace talks and return to normalcy are highly desirable in the India-Pakistan context, today more so for Islamabad as General Abbas has pointed out, but the lesson to be learnt from the reactions to Akhtar’s views and to the Lahore university event is that the venom that is routinely spewed in abundance by the State amongst the masses against the rival country is as toxic as it is dangerous, as controlling it when the need to sue for peace arises is no easy task.