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Tragic opportunity

India’s aid diplomacy can help millions of destitute Pakistanis and check the influence of terrorist groups masquerading as good Samaritans in flood-affected areas.

world Updated: Aug 22, 2010 23:02 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times

I was in Lahore on the eve of Pakistan’s Independence Day, a day ahead of our own on August 15. But the city celebrated as one without peer — nahin reeshan shahr Lahore diyan — lacked the air of a nation born. The mood was pensive, festivities muted, almost drowned in the surging floodwaters that were heaping untold misery on millions of Pakistanis.

Young motorcyclists did hit the streets to mark the Yaum-e-Azadi. But their on-the-wheel stunts lacked the energy, the trademark gusto that in the past had lesser or older bystanders watch in amazement.

Bollywood’s Peepli Live showing in theatres was the only source of cheer. “It’s a mind-blowing film,” said Sarmad Sufian of the Jang Group of newspapers. Hindi films have always reminded Pakistanis of their cultural links with India.

Islamabad allows limited import and regular screening of cross-border movies. But real-life action is what Pakistan needs to turn the tide.

“New Delhi should offer humanitarian aid generously and Islamabad must accept it graciously,” said Imtiaz Alam of the South Asia Free Media Association.

A journalist and peace activist of long standing, Alam led a candle-march in Lahore in the night of August 14-15 with calls for throwing Wagah open for Indian charities, NGOs, doctors and suppliers of essential commodities.

Prices of consumables have hit the roof in Pakistan. Unless help arrives in torrents from outside, the loss of stocked and standing crop would mean food scarcity on an unprecedented scale. The $5 million (Rs 23 crore) pledged by India compares better with initial offerings by western countries weary of humanitarian assistance reaching questionable destinations in Pakistan.

But a tight-fisted international response to Pakistan’s requirements of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction in one-fourth of its territory could be dangerously counter-productive.

Advancing frontiers of terror

There are very disturbing signs of “Talibanisation” of flood relief — as had happened after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.

“We have unleashed banned organisations in a repeat of the Kashmir calamity, which was the beginning of the downfall of the then popular Pervez Musharraf,” remarked a Pakistani analyst who is facing terrorist threats for his blunt views.

His sense of déjà vu was based on reports in banned newspapers (that are, ironically, freely available) of banned jehadi outfits (having a free run of flood-hit regions).

“They’ve penetrated 15 cities in their strongholds of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab, spending Rs 1,000 per head on relief,” he said, bemoaning the collapse of civic authority and a near-total absence of the State.

Musharraf paid the price for letting jehadis monopolise the quake relief, he continued. Its replication now might help the pro-Army LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammad. But the vacuum will also benefit the ruthlessly sectarian Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies. The last two named are flush with private donations from West Asia.

An upshot of all this could be jehadi resurgence at the grassroots at the cost of civilian power. Human influx into urban centres will be inevitable if relief is delayed for want of money or effective management.

The frontiers of terror will consequentially advance within Pakistan and towards India. There are reports already of terrorist groups securing hideouts in Lahore. Migration will be heavier to Karachi; Punjabis will go there and so will Pukhtuns, already the second largest ethnic group in the port city.

“The fallout isn't hard to guess,” said noted journalist Khaled Ahmed. His allusion was to incessant bloodletting between the Pathans and MQM’s Urdu-speaking supporters.

Flashback to Bangladesh

By way of a historical perspective, old-timers recall the 1970 Cyclone Bhola, which ravaged East Pakistan before other factors, including West Pakistan’s neglect of hundreds of thousands of calamity-hit Bengalis, mid-wifed the creation of Bangladesh a year later.

The story now isn’t different — daunting reconstruction targets, limited resources, ethnic tensions and an exceedingly precarious internal security situation.

The scenario holds out little hope, is hardly reassuring and gives, in fact, a sinking feeling to an average Pakistani.

There is no single nodal mechanism for relief coordination. The Army is the sole visible arm of the State, reaching remote areas where only an amphibian force can venture. The politico’s is but a token presence — President Asif Ali Zardari jet-setting abroad for funds and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani hosting televised Iftar meals at relief camps.

The elected regime’s lack of self-esteem and ability to govern comes through sharply in the constitution of a flood management commission packed with retired judges. However, on the brighter side, the appointment of retired Chief Justice Rana Bhagwandass should dispel fears of discrimination against minorities in relief distribution.

Facing floods isn’t a nickel-and-dime issue. The panel’s credibility will help raise funds locally. Hit the worst, KP requires Rs (Pak) 2,500 crore and Punjab, affected mostly in its terrorist-dominated south, Rs 1,000 crore. Bills run up by Sindh and Balochistan won’t be small change.

It may not be a popular thought.

But the crisis is an opportunity for India to help common Pakistanis rebuild their lives. That’ll be a people-to-people way of reducing distrust that cripples our bilateral relations. As it takes two to tango, Islamabad shouldn’t be coy about accepting aid in cash and kind.

“Those who initially refused India’s offer aren’t affected by floods,”

said Rwail Sirmed, a politically conscious, Islamabad-based teenager. Her mother, Marvi, trashed Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer for his tweet: “Sending India $5 million (for repair of Parliament House roofs that leaked in heavy rains.)”

Taseer’s comments were below dignity. The Pakistani ground reality came through in TV anchor Hamid Mir’s eye for detail: “Bridges built by the British withstood the nature’s fury. Those that collapsed were built by us.” At Sukkur in Sindh, he ran into a relief kitchen run by PPP activists and the LeT’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

The UN could be a credible interface for raising funds internationally and overseeing their use. That’ll address the West’s distrust of Islamabad and the Pakistani’s lack of faith in their political class. Islamabad shouldn’t have a problem with the idea after having got Benazir Bhutto’s assassination probed by a UN team.

First Published: Aug 22, 2010 23:01 IST