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Barbarians at the gate

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:10 IST
Sunil Sethi
Sunil Sethi
Hindustan Times
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The Karachi-Lahore divide in some ways mirrors the distinctions between Mumbai and Delhi. Karachi, the country's main port and financial centre, is a megalopolis of 20 million with harsh social contrasts and diverse ethnic populations, its violent mafia-led politics and a fight for space among mohajir groups, Sindhi nationalists and others.

Lahore, by contrast, is the old gracious capital of Punjab, the seat of Mughal culture and colonial education with a population half that of Karachi. Wandering down Mall Road, its main artery, no north Indian can remain untouched by the elegant mid-19th century red brick architecture of the high court, the GPO (General Post Office), Punjab University, the museum and Government College. Ahmad Rafay Alam, a young lawyer who now lives in the former house of Justice GD Khosla, took us into the beautifully preserved courtrooms where my wife's grandfather, Ved Vyas, practised law in the 1940s.

But something has ineluctably changed in Lahore, and dramatically since the Salman Taseer assassination. Its intellectual elite feel cowed down and despondent. No public prosecutor is willing to appear for Taseer whereas hundreds of lawyers want to defend his killer free of cost. Civil rights activists are gathering steam for petitions to the prime minister and chief justice to ask why State protection cannot be provided for a prosecutor. In the homes of the gentry, guests speak of the 'fundos' (fundamentalists) as the barbarians at the city's gates.

Fundamentally yours
"Lahore has been the headquarters of fundamentalist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Hizbul Mujahideen and others since the 1990s," says Ahmad Rashid, the political analyst. "The city has taken a continuous hammering, with the Jamaat-i-Islami undercutting its institutions of education and culture." The political clout of the Sharif brothers, Nawaz and Shahbaz (the latter is Punjab's chief minister), he argues, comes from their proximity to the army and ability to buy protection from many fundo groups. Some 70% of Pakistan's army is made up of Punjabis and most chiefs of staff, including General Kayani, are Punjabi.

The infiltration of the 'fundos' is felt everywhere. A theatre director told me of the hard time she had to get permission to stage Girish Karnad's Tughlaq from a college screening committee. "They wanted to know why I had chosen an Indian play? I had to argue that Tughlaq was as much our ruler as India's."

The blasphemy laws have given the 'fundos' a new platform to unite, feed into political insecurities against a backdrop of economic stagnation and decline. Lahore's long night of mourning is fuelled by the frightening prospect of the 'fundos' so dangerously close at hand.

What Pakistanis want
What do Pakistanis want out of India? Beyond the unending cycle of enmity and friendship, or the warmth or frostiness of foreign ministers' handshakes, what is the taste, the scent and sense of India they most desire? Here is a brief listing of what our stuffed suitcases contained for friends (and friends of friends) in Karachi and Lahore: masala cashew nuts, bars of glycerine soap (sandalwood fragrance only), fresh paans, herbal cholesterol-regulating pills enticingly called Shuddha Guggulu, Kashmiri scarves and khadi kurtas.

An elderly acquaintance emailed to say he had been deeply pained to hear of the passing of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Could we bring a couple of CDs of the maestro as "his celestial voice would be a balm and benediction in the troubled times we live in". How do you say no to that?

Sunil Sethi is the host of Just Books on NDTV