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Bonds that won’t break

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:09 IST
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We’re two countries separated by a shared history” — that’s how Maleeha Lodi explained the India-Pakistan relationship in the early 1980s. At the time she was teaching at the London School of Economics. Today, she’s Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London. Her comment was a play on Churchill’s description of Britain and America as two people divided by a common language. It was at once witty and wise.

<b1>This week, as Pakistan struggles to manage the outcome of Monday’s election, it’s not the differences but the similarities that I believe really matter. Of course, India and Pakistan are different countries, with rivalries, animosities and a thousand misunderstandings. Yet we have a lot in common and far more than most people realise. And I’m not talking about language, culture, cuisine, Punjabi swear-words and cricket. I mean qualities that define the sort of people we are and will become.

To begin with, fanaticism and fundamentalism is as alien to the Pakistani people as it is to the Indian. No doubt they have fanatics and fundamentalist hardliners, just as we have ours, but they are a fringe minority. They maybe vocal but they’re not typical and certainly not representative. In neither country do they define the majority.

In 1980, on my first visit, I spent an evening chatting to the barman at the old Holiday Inn. The hotel was swarming with Arabs. “Unko dekho”, he muttered. “Hath mein tasbih lekin dil mein haram. Mein peeta aur pilata hoon lekin rab di dua hei!”

Like us, Pakistanis are pious, God-fearing people. Religion is important but it remains personal. It may infuse and colour their lives but it does not prejudice and shrink their thinking. We have our bhakti traditions, they have their sufi and pir beliefs. The complex imprint of the subcontinent on the practice of faith is visible and dominant in both countries.

Equally importantly, Pakistan is also a country of compromise and jugadh. Their instinct is not to rise in revolt but, like us, they eventually overcome and triumph. Consider a few telling examples. They are emerging from a dictatorship but their media is as loud and free as ours. Indeed, Musharraf could claim to be the father of television news channels! And whilst alcohol is officially banned, hotels, clubs and even restaurants encourage guests to bring their own. And, yes, they too think Black Label is the smartest whisky in the world!

In the days of General Zia, the Director General in charge of press and publicity at the Foreign Office invited me home the night before an interview with his boss. As soon as the door was securely shut, he said: “Are you going to be a good Muslim and have a drink or a bad Hindu and refuse?”

However, it’s the third quality I want to identify that is, perhaps, the most important of all. For it will determine Pakistan’s future. There is a new generation of young Pakistanis who want to break with the past and create a new country. They’re proud to be Pakistani, confident of their talents, eager for the good life and free of the burden of history. Doesn’t that sound like young India?

I would say the under-30s in India and Pakistan share three sentiments. They want to be themselves, they want to do it their own way and they’ve developed a way of looking at the world and themselves that’s almost unique. We sum it up by saying ‘This is India’. They conclude ‘That’s Pakistan’.

Three years ago at a party in Islamabad a young entrepreneur captured Pakistan’s predicament pithily: “Here it’s not freedom of speech that matters. It’s freedom after speech that counts!”

So where does this leave India and Pakistan? I’d say we are like siblings — or, better still, half-brothers — who can be easily provoked to quarrel but are locked in a relationship neither can break. Consequently, no one could be more affectionate but also no one could hurt the other more. So even though we often disagree, we always understand. And ultimately, the more we differ, the more we remain the same.