We’re not at war, but we’re never at peace

Columnist  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Oped

The south and the east of India are different, but then those differences exist inside India as well.

Only a few thousand Indians alive have ever seen Pakistan and vice versa.

Outsiders are usually puzzled about why India and Pakistan cannot be friends. From their perspective the two nations are not just vaguely similar but alike. That is to say, not different like Spain and Portugal or Germany and France, where there is a long history of separation and a distinct culture and a separate language. India and Pakistan have no such division in history before 1947, because there is no natural barrier between us. And though we can argue that they have a very different culture from ours, this is not noticeable or at least immediately noticeable to the outsider.

The food tastes the same, heavily flavoured with masala and with a base of rice or roti. The way the people look is quite similar — it is not easy to tell the Lahori woman apart from the Delhiwalli or the Karachi man from the one in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. The south and the east of India are different, but then those differences exist inside India as well.

The music is of course also quite similar. To outsiders, the distinction of some specific ingredients and meat used (and actually most of the food that Pakistanis eat is, like ours, not meat but dal and vegetables and grain) is not that significant. And that leads to them being puzzled over why such hostility exists.

I am almost 50 and I have no hope at all of seeing friendly relations between the two nations. I am not being pessimistic, merely realistic. It has not happened in the entire period of my adulthood. When I was about to turn 20, the Kashmir dispute became violent at our end and it has remained like that now that I am 30 years older. But even before that it is not the case that relations with Pakistan were good or even normal. In the 1980s, the same charge we make against them now (abetting terrorism) was made then though this time it was about violence in Punjab.

I cannot quite remember personally what the 1970s were like in terms of relations, but I do know from reading that one of the things that happened after the 1965 war is that easy travel and trade through the Punjab border ended and so did the showing of movies, though that was reversed 15 years ago during Gen. Musharraf’s time, but only at their end. We still do not screen their movies or show their channels.

The 1971-72 war permanently closed the border and ended free exchange and I think it was this moment, almost as far back in years as I am (I was born in 1969) that has carried forward to today.

Only a few thousand Indians alive have ever seen Pakistan and vice versa. This is because of the extremely difficult process to get a visa. Even those who get a visa are given a “police reporting” visa, meaning that the visitor has to spend many hours registering and then unregistering themselves after arriving and before departing. One fallout of this lack of ability to travel is that everything that we know about them, we know through second hand information, and through a filter of fairly emotional propaganda. This has kept the psychological division alive. We are not at war but we are never at peace.

I am not sure what we have gained in keeping the borders rigid, and I mean both nations. Pakistan has lost contact with its ethnic and cultural kin, as we have, but it has also lost out on things like Indian tourists. I know many who would spend a lot of money to visit the Indus river or Taxila or Gandhara. And this is not including those, such as Punjabis and Sindhis, who have roots there. Indians would have no problem adjusting to anything in Pakistan, and they would behave in the same way as the locals, modestly and without any high expectations like other foreigners.

India on the other hand has lost a large market for its products, many of which, especially on the side of things like automobiles, are often superior and almost always cheaper than what is available to Pakistan. It may be easy to dismiss Pakistan — a nation of 20 crore people — as being another Uttar Pradesh. But we must remember that it has a large elite and its own fairly robust economy that we could tap into.

I recognise that the fear of terrorism is one reason that both nations keep the others’ citizens out. Since the mid 1990s, we have insisted that the visa regime should be as tight as possible so as to keep us safe. But terror has not ended in India and its patterns have been determined by other, larger events. On the other side, I have always insisted to Pakistanis that at least they should let Indians in without much formality. However, the arrest and conviction of an Indian in recent years on the charge of spying has meant that they have followed the same logic as ours. Today it is difficult even for me, someone who has visited Pakistan a half dozen times, to get a visa easily.

The election of a fresh new face, the cricketer playboy Imran Khan, has produced speculation that relations between Pakistan and India will improve. No, they will not. Many fresh faces have come before him on both sides, and every sort of individual — liberal, conservative, hardliner and dictator — has come and gone. It is not that the right personality has been missing to take that big step, or that on either side people have not recognised that there are benefits in not being in a state of permanent hostility.

I think we just seem to be happier when we hate one another.