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Same country, different script

Pakistan is changing in significant ways — for its own good and for the good of its neighbours

“Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is now jobless and withering away. It’s so starved of funds that it is trying to retrench its operatives by finding livelihood opportunities for them in mainstream society. Terrorist organisations in Pakistan have never felt so squeezed by the authorities as they do now.”

I heard this, and much more, from Imtiaz Alam, at his office in Lahore. A well-known mediaperson and secretary general of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), he is a battle-hardened activist for peace between India and Pakistan. One of the fiercest critics of Islamisation, he spent five years in jail during General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime. He has faced death threats in the past from LeT and other militant organisations. “But things have changed now,” he told me, as we got into his car to go to his home. “Look, this is a bullet-proof car. I still use it, but there’s been one important difference. Until last year, I used to have gun-carrying bodyguards travelling with me all the time. There is no need for them now. The Pakistan Army has broken the back of terrorist organisations.”

Yes, Pakistan is changing in significant ways, both for its own good and for the good of its neighbours. Specifically, my 10-day visit to Islamabad, Lahore and the Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara last month convinced me that Pakistan is now ready — more ready perhaps than ever before — for peace with India. Not just the civil society, not only the political parties, but even its military establishment has come to favour peaceful and cooperative relations with India. Figuratively speaking, both Islamabad and Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s two centres of power, are now on the same page in seeking “honourable peace” with New Delhi on the basis of “sovereign equality”. There is now broad recognition in most sections of Pakistani society and polity that their country has paid a very heavy price by supporting the forces of Islamist extremism and terrorism, and by using these for achieving mistaken foreign policy ends in Afghanistan and India.

Conducive for dialogue

My host, Dr. Abid Qaiyum Suleri, who heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), one of the best think-tanks in South Asia, and who serves as a member of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s advisory council on economic matters, said to me: “Pakistan has the best conditions now to support a fruitful dialogue with India. Domestically, there is consensus among all the stakeholders on this issue. Even our media is not as hostile towards India, unlike the jingoistic Indian media that routinely paints Pakistan as an enemy nation.” Sadly, these winds of change are not adequately noticed, nor acknowledged, in India.

Four factors have influenced the welcome winds of change in Pakistan. First, there is across-the-board realisation that Pakistan has suffered a lot, both domestically and in terms of damage to its global image, by supporting religious extremism and terrorism. Terrorists have killed a shockingly large number of civilians — certainly far many more than in India. Several thousand soldiers have lost their lives in the army’s “war on terror” — more than the number of casualties in all the wars with India. Furthermore, Islamabad is under relentless pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to act decisively and irreversibly against terrorist organisations.

Radicalisation on the retreat

Second, the ideological influence of religious radicalisation on Pakistan’s civil society is clearly on the wane, at a time when militant majoritarianism is on the rise in India. Let us hear the wise words of Fakir S. Aijazuddin, an eminent Pakistani scholar and a well-known friend of India, whom I met at his home in Lahore. “We Pakistanis have paid a heavy price — violent conflicts, sectarianism, extremism, intolerance and loss of rights and freedoms — because we allowed Islamisation of our state and society. If India wants to commit the same mistake by allowing its Hinduisation, you are most welcome. But remember that the price you will pay will be far higher.”

What has contributed to the diminished importance of religious radicalism is also the shrinking inflow of petro-dollars from Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries that promoted this agenda. Export of Wahhabism is no longer a foreign policy priority of the Saudi Arabian government. The United Arab Emirates has gone a step further. Under the leadership of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, it is pursuing inter-religious tolerance with a zeal that has surprised Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Three-nation links

The third factor is China, which has emerged as Pakistan’s most important economic and security partner. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has begun to modernise the country’s infrastructure spectacularly. China has urged Pakistan’s ruling establishment to take firm steps to curb the activities of Islamist groups, because they can easily foment trouble in China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang province.

Furthermore, Beijing is also engaged in a steady effort to improve relations with New Delhi, in recognition of India’s rising economic and geopolitical stature in Asia and globally. As was reported in this newspaper, China’s President Xi Jinping even mooted — in his second informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mamallapuram, off Chennai, last October — cooperation among China, India and Pakistan.

Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, told me that the “three-nation cooperation will be a game-changer”.

Lastly, I heard from several influential Pakistanis that the military establishment — in particular, Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, who has got a three-year extension in office — is now fully convinced of the need for normalisation of India-Pakistan relations. The opening of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor, perhaps the greatest confidence-building measure between the two countries since 1947, is almost entirely due to Gen. Bajwa’s personal commitment to the project. He is also said to be convinced of the need to open the doors for economic and trade cooperation between the two countries. According to one person who has direct knowledge of it, he even asked the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to conduct a study on this subject, which revealed that Pakistan, currently facing a serious economic crisis, would greatly benefit from cooperation with India. The source told me: “The Pakistan Army may also be ready to discuss a solution to the Kashmir issue on the basis of a formula Gen. Pervez Musharraf had discussed with your PMs Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh.”

As I crossed the Wagah border to travel back from Lahore to Amritsar, my mind searched for an answer to a troubling question: Will Prime Minister Modi seize, or miss, this opportunity to resume fruitful talks with Pakistan?

Sudheendra Kulkarni, who served as an aide to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the founder of Forum For A New South Asia — Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 9:56:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/same-country-different-script/article30618455.ece

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