THERE’S no gainsaying that vested interests within and without do not want India and Pakistan to have friendly relations. In the early days, conjured falsehoods placated a vile nationalist streak in Pakistan, with an evenly distributed belief among a section of the elite and the masses that Hindus were a weak and cowardly lot, no match for muscular and valorous Muslims.
In the absence of the push-button media we have today, there were fortunately fewer avenues to express this absurd and ignorant formulation, which mostly circulated by word of mouth. Any mention of a federated South Asia was shouted down as a leftist plot. The lacuna was spurred partly by ignorance of Mughal history that average Pakistani students were tutored to be inheritors of. The fact that without the Hindu Rajput warriors forming its iron frame, the Mughal Empire could not be imagined was airbrushed from history books. That without the fearsome guerrilla warfare of the Marathas, Jats and Sikhs, it would be inconceivable to think of the great empire collapsing with the death of Aurangzeb remains a mostly unshared fact.
The boot is on the other foot today, exacerbated by the rise of a mindlessly self-regarding Indian middle class. While the advent of TV, pirated copies of movies and other forms of connectivity helped in disabusing Pakistanis of their long-held prejudices about Indians, the same contraptions and gadgets have become a means to vent ill-founded prejudice against Pakistan, which is then stirred and spiced up with vicious invectives against Indian Muslims.
Prime Minister Modi is, of course, singularly responsible for honing this narrow-mindedness into a full-blown political faith that sponsors marauding Hindutva mobs to run amok against everyone and everything that challenges the right-wing trope. Fahmida Riaz anticipated the blinkered India in a poem she recited at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2002. “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle, ab tak kahaan chhupe thay bhai?” described Hindu middle classes as imitating the worst in Pakistani Muslims.
Calls to boycott Pakistan and in particular its cricketers have intensified as Mr Modi prepares to face the voters in May. A grudging World Cup match between India and Pakistan has been assigned to Ahmedabad, a city that Hindutva politics has turned into the BJP’s ideological factory. That the rest of India doesn’t quite share the enthusiasm for the BJP’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric was evident in Chennai, for example, when the stadium gave a standing ovation to Pakistani players after their narrow victory over India. On the other hand, the other day at a cricket stadium in Colombo, the camera panned on to a young Pakistani girl who gushed about her journey to Sri Lanka to watch India’s Virat Kohli in action. Implicit in the applause for the Indian player was a regret that she could not watch him in India or Pakistan because of India’s narrow politics.
On a different canvas, persistently, despite the odds, there have been partisans of peace and goodwill on each side of the border. Among them Mani Shankar Aiyar stands out for his outspokenness, wearing as he did different hats as diplomat, politician and author. His recently released first tranche of a two-part memoirs is suffused with heartening reminiscences from his days as India’s consul general in Karachi starting with his arrival there in 1978.
This was followed by countless trips to what he told Karan Thapar in an interview was his second most favourite country. A few pointers would help track Aiyar’s maverick but distinctly democratic politics. He says he hated Indira Gandhi’s Emergency even as he quietly supported someone calling her successor, Morarji Desai, by an unpublishable name. An ardent critic of Hindutva, Aiyar gives credit to its leaders where it is due.
When Desai took charge as the Janata Party’s short-lived prime minister in 1977, he appointed Atal Bihari Vajpayee foreign minister. “I was deeply disappointed,” says Aiyar, “for I thought Vajpayee, as an RSS man, would base his Pakistan policy on the deep-running anti-Muslim prejudices of the saffron brotherhood to which he belonged. Instead, to my delight, he promoted a most constructive approach to Pakistan.” Aiyar’s praise for Vajpayee’s Pakistan policy comes with a somersault of sorts, however, as he backs Desai’s refusal to plead with Ziaul Haq to spare Z.A. Bhutto’s life.
Determined to restore the flow of Pakistani visitors to India Aiyar immediately set about increasing the capacity to process the teeming requests. The move fetched him an uncanny spotlight on a momentous day for Pakistan for quite another reason.
When, in early February 1979 the Supreme Court finally confirmed Bhutto’s death sentence, it was, of course, the lead story in all newspapers. “And, in the widely circulated Sun newspaper then, the second lead on the right-hand front-page boomed, ‘Visa Office to open shortly: Aiyar’”.
People were desperate to visit their relatives, and some came with spurious telegrams to expedite the Indian visa. One applicant was wailing that he must be given a visa immediately to visit India to see his ailing mother. Aiyar found the telegram mentioned his father, not his mother. The man grabbed the telegram and swore barely audibly, “That bas***d Hindu!” The reference was to a Hindu tout who charged Rs50 to forge telegrams.
On another occasion at L.K. Advani’s pleading, a Hindu sadhu was permitted by the Pakistan authorities to return to Sadhu Bela, near Sukkur, to provide spiritual succour to Hindus there. A problem arose when Muslim murids (devotees) of the Hindu saint insisted on meeting the visiting priest to secure his blessings. “Would I please give him permission to let them do so? I could barely believe that this was going to be my first task as consul general. Somewhat grandiloquently, I granted the permission. It was my first — and lasting — lesson in how gaping was (and is) the abyss between the stereotype of Pakistan and Pakistanis that most Indians carry in their heads, and the ground reality.”