We are at it again. India and Pakistan are talking a lot these days, mostly about why they don’t want to talk to each other. Our national security advisers were supposed to meet last week. And they were supposed to talk about terrorism. Instead, they did what they do best: They hurled accusations at each other about how the other side doesn’t really know how to talk, and the meeting was canceled.
India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism in India. Pakistan accuses India of sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan, and of having bad manners. To India, it seems obvious that Pakistani militants were behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and it is exasperated that the world won’t punish Pakistan for that. It is upset that the man accused in the attacks, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, was released on bail after a leisurely trial in Pakistan, and was able to produce a baby while in prison. India is also upset that the plot’s alleged mastermind, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, is allowed to roam freely, addressing rallies despite the bounty the American government has placed on his head.
In its own defense Pakistan points to all the hundreds of suspected terrorists it has killed in the last year and a half. It reminds India that some 60,000 Pakistanis have been killed by terrorists. India responds by saying: You are only killing the terrorists who kill Pakistanis while protecting the terrorists who kill Indians.
Lurking under this neighborly rage are stereotypes that refuse to fade. India thinks Pakistan is an aging terrorism addict that keeps hitting up the world for loose change so it can get its next fix. Pakistan thinks India is an old uncle who has come into some money late in life but still doesn’t know how to dress. India says Pakistan is the pesky kid who is always picking a fight in the neighborhood. Pakistan says India is the real bully — and if you don’t believe it, go ask the other kids on the block: Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal. Still don’t believe it? Go ask the Kashmiris. India says no one should ask the Kashmiris anything because Pakistan has poisoned their minds.
India would like the world to make Pakistan stand in a corner of the classroom and again and again write on the blackboard, “I have been a bad boy.” Pakistan claims the dog ate its homework, and that it is busy hunting the dog down. Pakistan wants the world to believe that it has changed. India wants the world to remember that Pakistan supported the Taliban and sheltered Osama bin Laden.
While the two governments aren’t talking to each other, their pundits shout from both sides. It’s not pretty. Indians: You are protecting Saeed. Pakistanis: You elected a prime minister some have accused of inciting deadly religious riots in Gujarat; before he became prime minister, the man wasn’t even allowed into the United States. Indians: You are practically hostage to your army and intelligence agencies. What do you know about democracy?
After that the level of debate really rises. Pakistan accuses India of being jealous of Pakistan’s close friendship with China and their recent deal over an economic corridor. India says it’s Pakistan that’s jealous, because India is the new China.
This line of reasoning has held for nearly 70 years. Three generations have lived either with war or the imminent threat of war.
A bunch of alleged Pakistani gunmen storm the Indian Parliament, and we are on the brink of war. Some dead Pakistani Taliban are found to be uncircumcised, and are declared agents of India. A few months ago the Indian media ran triumphant reports of Indian security forces capturing a Pakistani spy pigeon.
Some among India’s latest breed of democrats and bureaucrats fantasize about India sending an elite commando into Pakistan to take out Saeed, like the United States did with Osama bin Laden. Pakistan reminds them that it has nuclear bombs. India says its nuclear bombs are bigger and better. Are these two nuclear powers talking to each other, or are they two teenagers playing a game of dare?
Maybe it’s time India and Pakistan did away with the pretense that they want peace. Hundreds of miles of barbed wires on the border, countless searchlights and mile-long visa forms haven’t made us feel secure about each other.
Pakistanis who have visited India or met a real-life Indian will tell you, “They are just like us.” Indians say the same of Pakistanis. Which makes all of them sound as though they had been expecting to discover a nation of feral animals.
Then again, in large parts of India and Pakistan, there is no enmity and there is no love. Most people don’t even make much of the fact that the two countries are neighbors.
As a Pakistani when you fill out an Indian visa form, you are required not only to give your father’s name but also information about your grandfather and grandmother if they were Pakistani. A few years ago while I was traveling to India to attend a literary festival, I was stopped at an immigration desk in Mumbai airport. The authorities were on the lookout for another Mohammed Hanif whose father shared the same name as my late dad’s.
After a long interrogation about my ancestors I was asked to write a statement on a plain piece of paper: “I, Mohammed Hanif, son of Mohammed Siddiq, am not the Mohammed Hanif son of Mohammed Siddiq who is wanted in India.” I happily wrote and signed and was allowed in. It is true that some of our ancestors took to mass murder at the time of partition. But many more didn’t. Maybe we should all write our names and our fathers’ names over and over, to keep reassuring one another that we are here not to kill, but to talk.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.