Pakistan has changed in some ways since my last visit one year ago. Terrorism is absent from most parts of the country. Punjab has not experienced even a single incident in the last 15 months or so. Above all, terrorism is no more a topic in any discussion. I did not see any armed security person on the streets of Lahore. Still people do feel uneasy and even insecure, but appear to have reconciled to the circumstances and the conditions.
In the same way, the Taliban do not figure in the daily discourse as was the case last year. No doubt, they are there and it is contended that the Pakistani army does not go after them as much as it does in the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is apparent that fanaticism is not thriving any more, although an appeal in the name of religion has not lessened in effect. The maulvi is still a bugbear for all, more so to the liberals who seem to have toned down their voice of dissent.
Sensing that the establishment is not with them, the rightist forces have arrayed themselves on a platform, Council of Defence (DAFA), to pounce upon those who dare to think of peace and harmony. Leaders include Hafiz Saeed who is connected with the terror attacks on Mumbai and the India-baiter Gul Mohammad, former ISI chief. They fear that Islamabad may even make up with their top enemies, America and India.
However pernicious their hate campaign, there is a genuine desire among the people to have good relations with India. Despite all pressures, the common man on both sides has nourished good feelings towards one another. Yet I have never seen before the surge for friendship which exists today in Pakistan. “We have wasted last 65 years in animosity,” said many leading people. “Let is not waste any more time.”
Elderly persons have a feeling that if the hatchet between India and Pakistan is not buried in their lifetime, it might not happen after they are gone because the youth is indifferent. However, I found many young girls and boys keenly interested in India and want to interact with their counterparts. But their main problem is the visa which is “impossible” to get.
Trade with India is awaited with abated breath, not only because it would give a break to the deteriorating economy of Pakistan but also because it would provide an opportunity to have contact with India. The bonds of common culture, common traditions and common ethos are convincing more and more Pakistanis that their long-term interests lie with India, not with the Islamic world which the rightist forces are trying to sell all the time. This, however, is not the case with the media which I found too involved in domestic happenings like our newspapers and television channels.
A few businessmen told me that the extremists have already begun threatening them of dire consequences if they were entering into any trade relationship with India. Most significant is the news that cantonments have their walls full of slogans against India written in chalk. (Chalking is the common practice to spread an idea).
No doubt, the general perception is that the army is strong. But I did not find it throwing its weight about as happened even in General Musharraf’s time. The military seems to have realized that a takeover would not be easy this time. The political parties are daggers drawn but they have let it be known that martial law is out of the question. Nawaz Sharif told me that they would all stand by the Asif Ali Zardari government if there was any attempt by the army to push it out. I believe that Zardari has got such a message from Sharif who wants the army to be like the one in America or India.
I think the killing of Osama-bin Laden at his house in Abbotabad is the watershed for the army. People’s confidence in it has been greatly hit. They find it “too flabby and too close” to America. A story openly told is that President Zardari had a meeting of top army officials including General Parvez Kayani and some senior ministers to find out how far Islamabad could go to push America for having killed some Pakistani soldiers. The army top brass is said to have indicated that it could not withstand the pressure of Washington. Although the US drone attacks are criticized, the people admit in private that but for the drone attacks Pakistan would not have got rid of Taliban leaders like Osama and Mullah Omar.
No doubt, the anti-American feeling is stronger than it was last year. But this is primarily because of Washington’s pro-Kabul policy. Islamabad still wants Afghanistan as it strategic depth and it is irritated over Washington’s policy to make Kabul strong. That the latter is close to New Delhi aggravates the situation.
Kayani is no friend of India but he does not see any purpose in wearing his anti-Delhi feelings on his sleeves. He finds America pressing him relentlessly to give up hostility towards India. Kayani realizes that if Pakistan wants to get the military wherewithal he has to favour steps to lessen the distance with India. The decision to extend the status of ‘Most Favoured Nation’ to India had his nod. What he probably does not realize is that the peace lobby in Pakistan has expanded beyond his estimate.
Nawaz Sharif has no hesitation in saying that he won against Benazir Bhutto in 1991 on the plank of peace with India. He proposes to raise the same issue in the next election in 2013. Some elements in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party too see the point. It is not, however, surprising to find the emerging Imran Khan not following suit. Maybe, the army, his biggest supporter, still wants to reap some dividends by not settling problems with India once and for all. EOM