Journey to Islamabad

National Assembly Islamabad (left) and the library are some of the landmarks of the gracious city

National Assembly Islamabad (left) and the library are some of the landmarks of the gracious city  

A TWO-DAY conference on `American Studies in South Asia' recently took me and my colleague, Dr. Prithwiram, a political scientist at the University, to Islamabad. At the American centre at Pakistan's capital, ambassador Nancy J. Powell spelt out the American objectives in Pakistan: "What I would like to stress today is not the length of the list of US economic support programmes, but rather the commitment it has undertaken to work with Pakistan in a sustained way and over the long term to reinforce the strong bilateral relationship we enjoy." Ms Powell quickly outlined the American goals in the region: control the Al Quaida, stabilise regional, economic and social landscape through agencies like the USAID and USEFP, clear outstanding debts, control narcotic trafficking, support the American military, strengthen the Afghan border..."

At the Margala Hotel post--lunch sessions on September 17 and 18 brought together leading lights of Pakistan's academic and strategic establishment. Academics from Multan, Peshawar, Azad Kashmir, Hyderabad (Deccan), Chittagong and Dhaka debate South Asian Society, politics and culture through the prism of the United States.

Dr Rais Ahmad Khan, a distinguished Visiting Professor at the ASC offered a thoughtful and balanced response.

"To some," he said, "the 1971 event at former East Pakistan seemed to be the result of the Jewish and Hindu lobby in America! A more creative response to the tragedy was to set up the Area Study Centre at Islamabad so that relations in South Asia could be studied in rational and not conspiratorial terms." Some advance the case of Pakistan as a bridge between Islam and the West. Others condemn hegemonic designs of India in Kashmir as well as the US foreign policy in the Third World. There is a close scrutiny of the role of political Islam and its academic study by US experts divided into confrontationists and accommodists: Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukayama and others.

Others argue that Pakistan has indeed matured. It has outgrown, what one academic called, "the jilted lover syndrome" and can deal with the US tilt towards India.

Journey to Islamabad

A group of students form the University of Modern Languages at Islamabad pose for photographs at the hotel lobby and pass on the messages of goodwill with their email id to be shared with students back home in Hyderabad.

The highlight of the evening was the conference dinner with local hosts and foreign participants at the Holiday Inn. The Pakistani pair of singers on the Roof Top Restaurant were clearly delighted; they dedicate the latest Hindi film hits they sing to the visitors across the border: "These are for our friends in India!" They exclaim spontaneously. It is hard to believe one was far away from home! One could be sitting in Delhi's Papaji ka Dhaba at Connaught Place or South Extension or savouring the famous Biryani or Kabab at Paradise Restaurant in Secunderabad. The warmth and cordiality all around are truly overpowering. At the local handicraft emporium, the owner gives a big hug: "Thank you brother for coming!" he says, "Come again!"

Conference over, one drove through the wide boulevard flanking Pakistan's National Assembly and the equally majestic Supreme Court building, past the sprawling residence of the Prime Minister atop a hillock, past Bari Imam, the village with a Sufi shrine, onward to the Quaid E Azam University. The group of students and faculty was visibly excited. There are four main Universities at Islamabad: Alama Iqbal, Quaid E Azam, International Islamic University and the National University of Modern Languages. At the entrance to Quaid E Azam, an arch dedicated to the Leader proclaims in Urdu: "You read in the name of Allah who has created you!" Inside the car, there are soulful tunes of Sonu Nigam's song in Pukar . It is late afternoon and time to fly back. The Pakistan International Airline (PIA) has purchased an extra ticket via Karachi.

Emirate's Islamabad-Dubai stretch is apparently full! Spending the night at PIA's Karachi Airport Hotel and next morning, it was time to fly back to India.

The hotel manager was thrilled: "I have a doctor-brother in Moradabad," he says enthusiastically, just as the Custom's Officer at Karachi airport reminisces nostalgically about his father's origin in North India. And so, what are the final impressions about the brief visit to Islamabad? The visit was city specific and one refrained from going to nearby Murri, a hill station, and Rawalpindi (popularly called Pindy). Nor did one move around much of Karachi for security reasons. But despite this, one saw a lot, met a cross section of Pakistanis.

For the most part, one was on one's own and certainly it was not an orchestrated trip! Is one painting an idealised picture of the visit? Ignoring the role of the political and military elite of Paksitan, the Jehadi groups and the ISI? Hope not! To be sure, these forces exist in Pakistan just as a degree of anti India feelings also persists.

The plight of the solitary Hindu sweeper, the waiter, and the Christian tour operator at the Karachi Airport Hotel also testifies to the defeat of Jinnah's clarion call about a secular republic in Pakistan in his Constituent Assembly address. Similarly, the Kashmiri shopkeeper in Karachi hammered home the nexus between the US, India and Israel. After all, Columbia's space shuttle also contained astronauts from these three nations, he cited as clinching evidence.

Did one fall in love with one's "enemies"? Was this what some call the Stockholm Syndrome, the classic case when one is charmed by one's adversary/captor?

As academics and cultural travellers, we took love and goodwill from India, and in turn, brought back love from Islamabad especially from the youth! And that finally constitutes the ultimate hope for the future.


(The writer is a professor of English at the University of Hyderabad )

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