By Mohammed Hanif
Sept. 26, 2018
Four years ago when India elected the
right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) to power, Pakistan’s iconic feminist
poet and peace activist Fahmida Riaz recited a poem of despair, comparing new
India to old Pakistan:
Turns out you were just like us,
Where were you hiding all this time,
In Pakistan, Ms. Riaz is not only
considered a hopeless peacenik but also a bit of an India lover. She has reason
to be. In the 1980s, like many writers and activists, Ms. Riaz was made to
leave Pakistan by the then military regime. While others took refuge in Western
countries, Ms. Riaz chose to go into exile in India, where she then lived for
more than six years. She is a much-loved poet who is not afraid of speaking
truth to power at home and abroad. She is also not afraid of hoping.
Last Thursday other peaceniks in Pakistan
and India were hoping, too, as the two countries agreed to resume talks. The
wave of optimism lasted a day.
Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Imran Khan,
had written a letter to the Indian government suggesting that the Pakistani and
Indian foreign ministers meet during the United Nations General Assembly’s
annual session when it opened this week. India had accepted, but made it clear
that the meeting would be not a resumption of talks, only a meeting.
Given that the last meeting of the foreign
secretaries, three years ago, was called off at the last moment, this was seen
as a good enough development. There had also been reports earlier that
Pakistan’s army chief had approached his Indian counterpart in an attempt to
restart some sort of peace process.
And then India and Pakistan did what India
and Pakistan do. On Friday, the Indian government, in a harshly worded
statement, suddenly declared that it had just seen “the true face” of Mr. Khan
and there would be no meeting. It claimed that Pakistan had issued a series of
postage stamps about what Pakistan calls “occupied Kashmir” and celebrating a
slain anti-India Kashmiri militant. India also accused Pakistan of killing
three Indian policemen along the Line of Control.
Only, the stamps were issued before Mr.
Khan became prime minister. And killings along both sides of the border, of
soldiers and civilians, have been a horrific routine for many years.
From there, the media in both countries
went into an almost-default war-hysteria mode. Mr. Khan tweeted, in clear
reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, “all my life I have come
across small men occupying big offices.” The Indian Army chief said that
Pakistan should be punished for its barbarism and made to feel pain. The
spokesman of the Pakistani Army declared that it was ready for war but was
choosing peace. Pakistan’s seasonal jihadists chimed in to say that the army
should put them on the border as a first line of defence.
Within a matter of 72 hours the situation
went from “Let’s sit down to talk about talks” to “I’ll smack you in the face.”
Schoolyard brawls have a more nuanced build-up.
In contrast to the Pakistani Army, the
Indian Army is seen as subservient to the civilian authorities. Pakistani
democrats like to remind us that the Indian Army stays away from politics and
that’s why democracy has flourished in India. But after the Indian Army chief’s
promise of pain, the Pakistani government’s spokesman declared that he was
acting like a B.J.P. functionary.
Here is the Pakistani army, which has ruled
this country directly for more than half its life, accusing the Indian Army of
interfering in political affairs. Irony said a final Namaste and jumped
into the Ganges.
Pundits say Friday’s turnabout is all about
elections in India. Mr. Modi faces a tough election next year, and his
government is rankled by a scandal involving more than $9 billion given to an
Indian tycoon for manufacturing French jet fighters. The tycoon has never built
anything remotely looking like a plane before. Mr. Modi is being called corrupt
by his political opponents. His answer? Look behind you! Pakistan is planning
to kill us all.
A few months ago when Mr. Khan was
campaigning, his mantra was that the incumbent Nawaz Sharif was soft on India.
His supporters declared Mr. Sharif “Modi Ka Yaar” (Modi’s bestie)
because Mr. Sharif had attended Mr. Modi’s inauguration as prime minister in
2014 and the Indian premier had paid a surprise private visit to Mr. Sharif’s
estate outside Lahore in 2015. Now the B.J.P.’s ruling party head honcho, Amit
Shah, says: Look, Pakistan wants Mr. Modi gone, as does the Indian opposition
leader Rahul Gandhi. If there is trouble at home, you throw your trash at your
neighbour and call your fellow countrymen traitors.
On Sep. 28–30, India is scheduled to hold a
mega celebration to mark the so-called surgical strikes, or the lightning
attack, it waged on Pakistan two years ago, in which Indian soldiers crossed
the Line of Control and taught Pakistani forces a lesson. Pakistan denies that
any such strikes took place. Then again, it routinely celebrates wars with
India which it never won. Now India is going to celebrate a battle that
Pakistan says never happened.
This warmongering helps cover up some basic
issues on both sides. In a recent TV interview, the son of a slain Indian
soldier was asked whether he wanted revenge for his dad’s death. The boy seemed
confused, looked around as if he didn’t know why he was being asked the
question. My dad can’t come back, he said, but can you guys get my younger
brother a job? “How many times do I have to ask for a job for my younger
Do people want revenge or do people want
jobs? While on both sides millions struggle to feed their families, for many
people, beating the war drums is a lucrative job. A perma-war means a
India and Pakistan have many things in
common besides food and music. India has blinded more civilians in Kashmir with
pellet guns than any other regime in the recorded history of the world.
Pakistan has abducted many of its own citizens and disappeared them for years.
Both acted in the name of national security.
An Indian journalist recently mentioned to
me Ms. Riaz’s poem in a phone conversation. She said: You Pakistanis must be feeling
pretty smug about what’s going on in India, quoting Ms. Riaz to one another.
She was talking as if India becoming
Pakistan’s murderous other was a consolation for our failings. No, I said, most
Pakistanis don’t go around quoting that poem.
I reread it recently, and it’s not a
bugger-off, you-are-just-like-us poem. After much lamenting and comparing our
base urges, the poem ends on an intimate note, almost like a bored lover’s
When you do reach your promised land,
Do write us an occasional letter.
But India and Pakistan have reached a stage
where they can’t even leave each other a Post-it note.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”
and “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” and of the upcoming “Red Birds.” He is a
contributing opinion writer.