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Caught in their own web

india Updated: Feb 02, 2009 22:46 IST

As the 26/11 Mumbai attack ended, Ali’s status message on Facebook read: “Shah Rukh, I bet you planned this”. Behind the funny, lurked a twinge of anxiety. The 23-year-old British Pakistani has Bollywood dreams, but his plans now hinge precariously on getting a visa. This budding actor would prefer the Indo-Pak dynamics to change to something “similar to the relationship between Britain and Germany”. “Get over the past and move forward for mutual benefit.”

The world profiles Pakistan as a terror hub, careening towards self-destruction. Rage, grief and fear may have led to its premature sentencing. There’s no doubt that Pakistan warrants censure but it could do with a bit of sympathy and an ounce of acknowledgement. Pakistani soldiers are dying in the battle against a hellish terrorist network on the western border.

“We are losing 200-300 people every month due to terrorism,” says Kashif Rauf, a 26-year-old banker from Karachi. “A terrorist event in India, and the whole world wakes up.” His co-worker, Rizwan Khan, agrees: “We in Pakistan face this often, and we know exactly how it feels, and what people go through”.

True, the other side of the Radcliffe Line, honeycombed with hate-spewing mullahs, has become a refuge for the likes of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab. But the Pakistanis must also suffer their ideology. The fact that religious parties win less than six per cent of the popular vote in elections is not without significance. This is reason enough to pause before clicking an ‘India Good, Pakistan Bad’ snapshot.

Even as the world exhorts the Pakistani government to clean up its backyard, its citizens want to proceed with caution. A full-throttle assault on the enemy would provoke a brutal terrorist retaliation and resurgence in militancy.

“These groups need to be rooted out with patience, not just militarily but through economic emancipation,” says Ali Azar Abbas, also a banker in Karachi. “The situation is far too complex for non-Pakistanis to acknowledge and empathise with, so sit tight and bear with us.” But waiting is not an option. The New York Times reports that the Swat valley is ruled by the Taliban’s archaic brand of beheadings and lashings and more areas are likely to fall prey to militancy.

The country’s woes are blamed on the policies of military dictatorships funded by foreign governments. Democracy, some believe, will end decades of dangerous duplicity. But Pakistan’s brief experiments with democracy have been painful. The threat of another coup lurks in the shadows.

It has been frustrating for Pakistanis to watch their economy spiral downwards as India lumbers forward. At the same time, many Pakistanis offer high praise for their neighbour’s growth and want to emulate it. Many hope for a European-type polity, which will “result in better economic management, allocation of resources, inter-group trade and better patrolling of the borders.”

The main challenge facing Pakistan is: who next? President Asif Ali Zardari is not a favourite with everyone. “A disgrace and an international embarrassment,” says Rauf. “This is probably one of the most-difficult periods of our history. We want a leader who can pull through this difficult time.”

Democracy in Pakistan is vital for India. History bears witness to the fact that democracies do not go to war with each other. But if visionary leaders remain dormant and democracy does not deliver, there is a real danger of a dictatorial relapse. Recent times have seen civil society in Pakistan fight for a change. The sleeve has been ripped; the time now is for the people of Pakistan to flex some muscle.

Betwa Sharma is at the Columbia School of Journalism.