Since the November 26, 2008 attack, attempts at peace have been stepped up between journalists and activists from India and Pakistan. They have been calling for closer ties despite the strained relations between the two governments.
During a recent visit to Karachi and Hyderabad, Sindh, by a delegation of the Mumbai Press Club, the focus was on people-to-people contacts to pave the way for clearing mistrust and suspicion. There was widespread condemnation of the Mumbai attack and it was felt that this must never be repeated. Karachi itself witnessed two blasts while the delegation was visiting, and much like Mumbai, the people seemed to take them in their stride.
Over the years, from a liberal cosmopolitan city, Karachi too has been under attack from extremist elements that are targeting co-education schools, Sufi mosques and creating an atmosphere of fear and terror. People being robbed at gunpoint of their cars and mobile phones is not uncommon and as Ghazi Salahuddin, a senior journalist, writes inThe News, “Pakistanis are hostage to a society that is infested with religious extremists on the one side and with violent crime on the other. We all feel extremely vulnerable. The breakdown in law and order is more serious a threat to our survival than any conspiracies in a political context.”
Mr. Salahuddin writes about the wife of an industrialist, who was shot in broad daylight while resisting an armed robbery. A woman activist too has had her car robbed twice at gunpoint. While Karachi and the rest of Pakistan grapple with their own insecurities, the need for peace and easing up visa restrictions between India and Pakistan was underscored at various meetings with the media, academics and politicians.
Muhammed Badar Alam, Editor of theHeraldmagazine, says the problem with interactions between the people of India and Pakistan is that often they tend to become emotional and that was not surprising since they shared the same history and culture and were divided later. However, he says, interactions must end in concrete gains. Visits generate instant goodwill without any tangible benefits. It is important to create constituencies of peace within a society and for instance the recent granting of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status by Pakistan to India can be a turning point, he feels.
The role of the media in promoting peace is reiterated by Kamal Siddiqui, Editor ofThe Express Tribune. The media in the two countries are vibrant and free though the rate of journalists being killed in Pakistan is one of the highest in the world. The Karachi Press Club has a fiercely independent history and has held elections regularly despite the troubled times, he says. The media demands better access in both countries. Senior journalists point out that during the November 26 attacks, no Pakistani journalist was allowed to visit and report the attacks, except for the two permitted in India. Even Indian books and periodicals are hard to come by and cost the earth in Pakistan.
Activists like Karamat Ali and B.M. Kutty from the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research condemn 26/11 and stress the need to push for free exchange of media. They have been making strenuous efforts to promote peace. “Good things are happening now in both countries and the momentum must be kept up,” Mr. Kutty says.
In Hyderabad, Sindh, the local chamber of commerce and industry is optimistic about the MFN status which can open up huge opportunities in Pakistan. Importing raw materials from India is cheaper and trade can go up to $6 billion in the next few years, says Gohar Ullah, president of the Hyderabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Why should we get Lays chips from South Africa when getting it from India will be so much cheaper,” asks another businessman. Many Pakistanis say the current atmosphere of peace between the two countries should be tapped to promote trade and set up joint ventures.
Businessmen also dispel the notion that they fear Pakistani industries will be hit by the MFN status. Instead of spending on the Army, the government should focus on improving trade and business relations, says another businessman.
Farheem Mogal, a member from the Sindh Provincial Assembly, speaks of the liberal Sufi traditions of Sindh and recent protest marches against the killing of three Hindus in a riot. The Movement for Peace and Tolerance, facilitated by the Sindhi Language Authority, has tried to spread the Sufi influence and the protests focussed on spreading tolerance and secularism, apart from offering support to the minorities.
Hoteliers like Dinshaw Avari, a member of the small Parsi community and director of the oldest five star hotel in Karachi, feels the MFN status would help hotels get cheaper and better quality sanitary ware, lifts etc, and it would be a good exchange for Pakistani businesses. India too could benefit from cement and other products.
In Karachi University, where 70 per cent of the students are women, researchers and professors speak of the need for open access to Indian documents. Original material is very hard to come by and this hampers research. Peaceful relations between the two countries can go a long way in improving access, they say.
Vice-Chancellor Pirzada Qasim Raza Siddiqui says the university is collaborating extensively with Indians, political differences aside. Many students come from India and two years ago he too had visited India. The Department of International Relations in the university is working to foster peace, despite attempts to hijack it by extremists, says Professor Mutahir Ahmed. Confidence-building measures (CBMs) and people-to-people contact programmes are their contribution to changing the vocabulary of bilateral talks. In fact, the course on CBM is highly popular and things are different from say 20 years ago. “Today, because of our academic contributions people are accepting more of peaceful relations and engagement,” he says.
The Muttahida Quami Movement, whose leader Altaf Hussain lives in exile in London, calls itself a secular party with large middle class support. MQM leader Dr. Farooq Sattar says “India and Pakistan have old ties. You cannot stop Lata Mangeshkar's voice coming across to Pakistan. We are the strongest proponents of removing all restrictions between the two countries.”
This article has been corrected for a factual error