M A I N   N E W S

For average Pakistani, sati is still practised in India
A.J. Philip, lately in Pakistan

Back home, do you touch one another?” innocently asked the stringer of an Islamabad-based Urdu daily at Mirpur in “Azad Kashmir”. For a moment, I could not understand him. Sensing my difficulty, the journalist who was combining journalism with studies, elaborated, “We have studied that Indians practise untouchability”. He was under the impression that Brahmins and Kshatriyas in India did not touch the lower castes and the Hindu widows perished on the pyres of their husbands.

He was happy, nay relieved, to know that untouchability was punishable under the law and no woman committed sati these days. The newsman had several elementary questions to ask about the state of affairs in India, about which he knew little. It was a surprise of surprise for him that the richest person in India was a Muslim — Mr Azim Premji of Wipro.

The encounter opened my eyes to the misconceptions Pakistanis and Indians had about each other, though they had many things in common. When I narrated this incident to Mr Ashfaq Saleem Mirza, a self-confessed Marxist who runs the Islamabad Cultural Forum, he was not surprised.

“During the initial periods, enmity with India was one of the cardinal principles of state policy. History was twisted to suit the convenience of the rulers. Now things have changed but some of the shibboleths still remain in the mind,” rationalised Mr Mirza, who was born at Jalandhar in India three years before Independence. His uncle, Dr Mirza Hamidullah Beg, was the MP from Jalandhar those days.

An admirer of the late E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Mr Mirza said Indians were more truthful about their society than the Pakistanis. “Ours is a regimented society, though a shade better than the ones in the Middle East”.

Though we saw a signboard, “You are within 100 metres of the enemy post”, at Chakothi on the Line of Control in “Azad Kashmir”, enmity with India did not seem to sell in Pakistan. Mr Mushahid Hussain, Secretary General of the Pakistan Muslim League, claimed that India was not at all a factor in the last three elections - 1993, 1997 and 2002.

The loquacious PML leader said the testing of the nuclear bomb immediately after India’s Pokharan II was a defining moment. It brought a sense of security to Pakistan. Even ordinary Pakistanis believed that their bombs were a deterrent to any adventurism from across the border. They had also reconciled to the fact that it was impossible to use force against India to achieve anything tangible.

Small wonder that the constituency for peace had been growing by leaps and bounds in Pakistan with no one ready to lend an ear to cries of “azadi”. Banners in support of “azadi” and militant groups seeking monetary help through mite boxes were no longer seen anywhere in Pakistan.

Of course, remnants of the old mindset remained like the full-sized model of a missile at Muzaffarabad pointing towards India.

Much of the credit for the sea-change should go to Gen Pervez Musharraf who had come down heavily on the militants. Jokes abound about the General not abandoning his uniform despite the promise to do so by year-end. But he certainly enjoyed a groundswell of support among the people.

They were all hopeful that something positive would emerge as a result of the confidence-building measures the two countries had been taking. There was a discerning feeling among them that Pakistan had been paying a heavy price for Kashmir. If the “dispute” was sorted out at the earliest, Pakistan could save a lot of its resources which were wasted on defence and use them to improve the economic profile of the nation.

Small wonder that the most popular Indian leader in Pakistan was Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose Srinagar speech in which he extended “a hand of friendship” to Pakistan was quoted even by the common man. Conversely, the most flayed was Jawaharlal Nehru who, they believed, reneged on his promises on Kashmir.

To be fair to the Mirpur journalist quoted earlier, the 12-day visit to Pakistan was an eye-opener for many of the Indian journalists too. It disproved the assertions of some of the so-called Pakistan watchers that it was a failed state. Far from that, Pakistan was a confident nation that was eager to march alongside its South Asian neighbour.

Wide roads like the magnificent Lahore-Islamabad motorway, broad avenues like the ones in Islamabad and modern houses with state-of-the-art furnishings as at Mirpur showed Pakistan in a good light.

The virtual absence of a middle class, which sustained democracy in India, was, however, clearly noticeable. A visit to Lok Virsa, Pakistan’s national museum of ethnology, at Shakarparian on the outskirts of Islamabad, provided a glimpse into the glorious heritage of a nation which was otherwise just 57 years old.

The sprawling museum has a whole section devoted to the women of Pakistan. It documents the constitutional and other arrangements made to protect their interests as, for instance, to ensure that at least 17 women are in the Senate, 60 in the National Assembly and 17 per cent in the provincial assemblies.

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