A good thing writing for an English language journal in Pakistan is that very few read it. Which is redemption of sorts since one can afford to be adventurous in musings even when based on facts. Unless of course someone in India takes note — as happened to my last piece titled ‘On India’ in this space. I usually share my Columns with a small group of friends who I know will read and by the end of the day will come back with an anodyne ‘well written’. These are all personal, direct messages, without public visibility. I have learned over the last fourteen years of writing in public spaces that it is a highly personalised, competitive space and none cedes an inch. Criticism yes, but praise is always restrained and rarely public. The various ‘policy establishments’ are worse and unforgiving. That includes incumbents and those long retired since they perceive it as infringement of preserved precincts.
Initial responses from across the border to the piece were steadied, cautiously praiseful, and deliberate. Some notable Indian thought leaders and serious observers took note. By Saturday morning all Indians had woken to it and ran with it. All 1.4 billion, it seemed. It wasn’t mine anymore. They owned it and I was a footnote. That is when rationality was lost. Because what gets noted in India with such vehemence gets noted in Pakistan. By mid-afternoon and evening, the next day, Pakistanis were running their own campaigns of it. If the Indians thought it brilliant, my Pakistani compatriots saw it as the worst piece ever on the subject. My Twitter was swamped. And possibly so was the Tribune website. By Sunday morning, I had had enough. I deleted the initial Tweet though Cyberspace had already taken over and Tribune possibly tweaked their website to avoid being choked. I assume.
Applause or abuse, both have limits for one to bear. The abuse was not as much — I did not follow any Pakistani threads where it may have been rampant — and no official contacted me on it. That should put to rest any theory of ruffling sensitive feathers, or the piece not downloading. When the ‘enemy’ praises you at such scale, caution is advised. I am a private person and a genuine nod of acknowledgement, or a polite word suffices. I am not in the field for promotion or popularity. The Print’s Shekhar Gupta though discerned it best, or better than most, in his blog. Yet, he is an Indian and permitted his interpretation. The attribution was mostly well defined.
Why do we write such pieces in difficult sociocultural environments? This one was based on globally acknowledged facts and carried little of my own proclivity except for framing it into a larger argument for invoking a different paradigm of engagement between three conjoined nations, not two. These make for forty percent of the global population. Naysayers and those corroded of thought soon suggested why it wasn’t possible. Most Indians wanted Pakistan to submit before Indian exclusivity. Even success needs character. The past though haunted most. They had too much invested in their past bridling them to it. In comparison, none should have a past more invested than mine in how one has looked at India. I led a service and its operations imbued with just one objective in mind — to beat India in the air with operational readiness, innovation borne out of professional excellence, and passionate devotion. Nothing of that changes even when we investigate the possibility of another paradigm which could instead usher better return to forty percent of humanity. Modi has a past too, as does the Indian nation, but shall we be held back by recriminations or hold the courage to spawn promise and hope?
Policy establishments are normally three-tiered. The incumbent office holders who deal with the here and now. The council of advisers which constitutes mostly former office holders who held same positions before turning former — they rarely ever shed the straitjackets of their past or it would be held to scrutiny; established positions thus perpetuate, and status quo reigns. And the recent burgeoning think-tank culture which is dependent on the same policy establishments for funding. They mostly know what they must say to keep dollars, marks, yens and rupees flowing. Hence if we seem stuck in a time capsule, there is good reason for it. It is thus that some will break out of the mold, break the gridlock of stasis, shake some out of their comfort zones, and trigger a verve for newer pathways in a rapidly changing world.
It by no means only aims at changing one side’s view. If indeed a recalibration is the call it shall fall upon each to do their bit. India is no angel. Far from it. Reams have been written on how India has manipulated and exploited its relative freedom of action for more insidious motives. Kashmiris and minorities in India are a living proof of how India denies humanity its dignity. China is in focus for similar reasons in the western press. Yet, the new politics and the new economics call for newer avenues of engagement which can serve to achieve a nation’s interest. If the engagement is mutually beneficial it becomes interdependence. Diplomacy as a servant of strategy must then evaluate planks for maximum gains. At times immediate returns are shelved for long-term, sustainable goals. Anachronism (tarz-e-kuhan) will have to give way to fresher approaches (fikr-e-nau) to make it work.
It is not for us to help India or Modi establish their faults. Of which there are far too many. Similarly, many Indians detest Modi for his ways. It is for them to fight their battles. Our concern is with India as a country which is destined to play an increasingly important role in regional and global affairs. We have fought wars and have live issues. We need to resolve those. Perhaps newer facets of engagement will open newer doors to seeking solutions of another kind. Maybe our engagement will help millions realise their fair share of dignity and human rights. When asked to comment on the February 2019 skirmish and what I found short in the Indian response I suggested it wasn’t for me to educate the competition. I wasn’t going to make it easy for the Indians to know and learn from their mistakes. That is a separate paradigm, and it stays. Till we mend our ways.
Ideology inspires but should never be the master. Realism is. Unless rhetoric derived from ideology isn’t shelved it shall drive ambition which is mostly misplaced. When ideology weaponises, realism is the casualty and thought becomes convoluted. The garb takes over and the kernel is lost. This is what Indo-Pak animus does to every initiative, bold or not.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2023.
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