Adrift in the trade winds
TIME was when seekers of India-Pakistan peace looked to the intellectual prowess of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his associates in Pakistan for help.
The magical Pakistanis would join hands with their similarly battle-scarred comrades in India to bring the estranged countries together.
Disillusioned with the excessive romance of that stymied revolution and browbeaten by their respective systems, some among the early intellectuals began drifting rightwards. Desperation was writ large in their quest for peace.
Some concluded that Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif — the men who inducted nuclear weapons in their military arsenal that could destroy each other’s country many times over — were actually the people who knew the trick to amity. Morarji Desai, Ziaul Haq, Benazir Bhutto, Rajiv Gandhi, Pervez Musharraf — all took turns as candidates for the India-Pakistan peace prize They all failed. So here we are now, being advised that it is in fact the traders who really know the code to the combination lock. At the risk of sounding cynical, I cannot help seeing India-Pakistan ties from the prism of a bluntly truthful Urdu couplet:
‘Wo ghareeb dil ko sabaq miley ke khushi ke naam se dar gaya
Kabhi tum ne hans ke jo baat ki, to hamara chehra utar gaya’
(The trauma of your betrayals, which we endured year after year
Turned the promise and hope of happiness into a lurking fear)
My history lessons in any case do not allow me to endorse the conceit that we have turned the corner, as the trade official from Pakistan confided to his Indian counterpart in New Delhi this week. Both promised a quantum increase in bilateral trade as though they were doing their starving millions a big favour. India granted Pakistan MFN status in 1996 but two years down the line, from 1998 onwards, they have often enough threatened each other with mass annihilation. Something other than MFN is needed.
However, according to some within the fawning media, the key problem in the emerging business climate was merely that of visas. And that was being addressed on priority.
Trade itself was being put in the fast lane. Businessmen will get visas promptly; journalists in any case have their patrons in the embassies and foreign ministries. They willy-nilly get by. Who then will be left out of the travel largesse? The people, who else?
(Perhaps there should be a negative list of visa-seekers that are unacceptable to both sides. At least there would be some honesty in telling a majority of Indians and Pakistanis how unwelcome they are in each other’s country.)
And the ‘people’ thus denied the courtesy of a warm overdue welcome to each other’s country are not just the wretchedly poor and helpless men, women and children belonging to divided families, perennially camping outside the embassies and consulates in inhospitable weather. As the national economy grows, an increasingly paranoid Indian establishment sharpens its vigil on intellectuals and university dons from abroad.
It is a nightmare to even ponder inviting someone willing to speak their minds, say on the obvious subjects of the military campaign in Kashmir or Chhattisgarh or the communal upsurge in Gujarat.
The mindset is not too different in Pakistan as a group of Indian intellectuals due to visit to Karachi this week would testify. They complained how they are required to report their arrival to the police before they attend a cultural event on Faiz for which they are there. Let us see how many Indian businessmen would be subjected to the humiliation.
One reason why businessmen can’t be saddled with any responsibility to shore up friendly ties is that they make far more profit from conflicts than they can from peace. They thus play both sides of the street.
Moreover, a factor specific to the Indian businessman is that he has brought little credit to his country with the neighbours. Ask the counterparts in Dhaka or Nepal or Sri Lanka about the ethics of Indian traders and you may hear howls of protest. Or move a little distance away, say to Ethiopia or other African states where Indian tycoons have joined a
global enterprise to corner arable farmland. Erstwhile owners have been evicted amid growing protests.
Pablo Neruda wrote a searing account of a similar takeover of farmlands by American companies in mid-19th century in Latin America. His poem titled United Fruit Co. has a familiar message:
‘When the trumpet sounded everything was prepared on earth, and Jehovah gave the world to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda, Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company reserved for itself the most juicy piece, the central coast of my world, the delicate waist of America.
It rebaptised these countries Banana Republics, and over the sleeping dead, over the unquiet heroes who won greatness, liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa: it abolished free will, gave out imperial crowns, encouraged envy, attracted the dictatorship of flies…’
But let me come to the aphorism that triggered the first doubt about using businessmen as harbingers of good neighbourly ties — ‘it is the dream of every merchant to be able to sell without having to buy’.
The thought was framed, if I remember right, by Marxist historian Irfan Habib. He was explaining the ‘Drain of Wealth’ in 18th-century Bengal as a process of colonialism. Its latter-day avatar is less devious, more bloody-minded and compulsively simple. Pejoratively it is called imperialism, but actually it is just another way of occupying territories
and nation states, as was the case in 18th-century Bengal, with a view to taking over the enormous local wealth. The difference is that the older 18th-century cousin masked the plunder behind the myth of the White Man’s Burden; the modern avatar pleads for democracy and good governance in faraway places such as Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.
In a nutshell something that Messrs Asif Zardari and Manmohan Singh may wish to try rather than sending a convoy of potential buccaneers across the borders to search for elusive peace is to switch on the evocative Beatles song: ‘I don’t’ care too much for money. Money can’t buy me love’. If nothing else, the Taliban might like the song.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.