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Erasing memory to deal with loss – Pakistan, Bangladesh and India

An op-ed that was published in The Hindu on December 16, 2011.

For Pakistan, the worst fallout of the 1971 debacle was excessive militarism resulting from the deep insecurity of the state.

Forty years ago, South Asia underwent another traumatic experience with the Bengali separatist movement in East Pakistan, the India-Pakistan war and the eventual creation of Bangladesh. South Asians are a strange lot. In 1947, the political elites refused to accommodate each other and a hurried, bloody Partition was imposed on millions. Instead of working to undo the harmful effects of 1947, India and Pakistan found themselves entangled in yet another battle. Again this time it was the intransigence of West Pakistani elites to accede to the Bengali demand for autonomy, and India’s short-sighted decision to momentarily ‘benefit’ from its neighbour-enemy’s woes. The jury is still out on whether 1947, and 1971, were avoidable or at least could have been handled in a manner that involved less suffering, and bloodshed.

Lessons for three countries: (Left) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
with her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and (right) Indira
Gandhi meeting a group of refugees from East Bengal at the Kaliganji
camp, Assam, in June 1971. Photos: AP, The Hindu Photo Library
Lessons for three countries: (Left) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and (right) Indira Gandhi meeting a group of refugees from East Bengal at the Kaliganji camp, Assam, in June 1971. Photos: AP, The Hindu Photo Library
Tailor-made histories

What has however happened is that three nation states (some say state-nations) now exist with three standing armies, nationalist discourses, honour and of course tailor-made histories.

In Pakistan, a child grows up learning that it was an Indian conspiracy, woven through the Hindu teachers of “East Pakistan” that led to the separatism of the Bangladeshis. For instance, here is a passage from a secondary school textbook: “There were a large number of Hindus in East Pakistan. They had never really accepted Pakistan. A large number of them were teachers in schools and colleges. They continued creating a negative impression among the students. No importance was attached to explaining the ideology of Pakistan to the younger generation. The Hindus sent a substantial part of their earnings to Bharat, thus adversely affecting the economy of the province.” […]

February 1st, 2012|Bangladesh, History, India, Pakistan, SouthAsia|6 Comments

An agenda that does not deliver

South Asia is a region marked for its turbulent history and its endemic poverty and misgovernance. Much has been written about how certain states in India are worse off than Sub Saharan Africa in terms of social and economic indicators. Or that Pakistan and Bangladesh have millions of people struggling for a meager income to keep their families alive. The truth is that despite the recent gains made in economic growth in most South Asian economies, the structural causes of poverty persist and haunt the national planners.

The World Bank, or the rather grandiose title – the Bank – has remained a major player in the South Asian economies aiming to help these countries in reducing poverty and enhancing economic growth. The Bank has gained more traction in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh where the unelected executive is eager to engage with the IFIs and decisions on lending are achieved quickly. India has remained engaged but its complexity and federalism makes transactions more intensive. Having said that the country has emerged as World Bank’s favorite in the recent years. For instance, the Bank, committed USD 9.3 billion in financial assistance to India in the 2009-10 fiscal, more than the aid committed by the U.S. and the European Union. Although this is a small sum for India’s U.S. $1.2 trillion economy, it represents a sharp increase from the U.S. $2.2bn lent to India by the Bank last year  – Bank lending to India has traditionally averaged about U.S. $2.5-3bn a year. Similarly, for Pakistan the average lending level has been around $1-2bn, this has increased lately due to the recent recession and food and energy shocks. […]

November 1st, 2010|development, governance|7 Comments

Postcard from Agra

Published in The Friday Times

As Indian TV channels broadcast stories on Pakistan’s domestic infighting, and rumours of a new coup d’ etat, my less perturbed alter-ego is calmed by Agra – the run down city that was once the capital of the Mughal empire. I have spent three days with a delightful group of South Asian writers, poets and academics who have congregated to celebrate the SAARC writers’ festival organised by Ajeet Caur, the legendary Punjabi writer whose love for Lahore has not waned despite the iron curtain erected sixty one years ago. Caur has been managing the Foundation of South Asian Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) since 1992 and single-handedly she has challenged the many geographical and political barriers that have been erected. FOSWAL is now a platform for writers and poets on the margins of power-drama, lighting little lamps of hope. (picture above left : SAARC writers with Pakistani delegates Ustad Akhtar (middle), Parveen Atif (second from left) and Zahid Nawaz (extreme right)

I had been reading Caur’s earthy, profound stories for decades, and always wondered if I would ever meet her. Therefore, receiving an invite from her a month ago, was a long cherished wish come true. In a few, scattered and sparkling conversations she told me how she had found me through my writings urging for Indo-Pak amity which, in the words of my cynical friends, are dreamy rants asking for the impossible. This March, the gods overseeing visas and border crossings were not too cantankerous. So I made it to Delhi the day before the conference was due to start. […]
March 31st, 2009|Personal|6 Comments

Through a screen, darkly

Pakistani cable operators, following the cyclical escalation of imagined hatreds, discontinued the transmission of Indian satellite channels in 2002. The absence of Indian TV soaps, fodder for an entertainment hungry populace, was widely mourned. Once, not long ago, the axiomatic edge of Pakistan’s TV serials was widely acknowledged both in Pakistan and in India. No longer. This is the age of the market, of selling dreams and drama, of converting the stereotype into a saleable commodity and citing it on the cultural stock exchange.

The popularity of Hindi language soaps is not limited to Pakistan. I have seen squatters in Dhaka’s decrepit Bihari camp, Bangladesh’s largest no man’s land, glued to their colour TV sets. Here, Biharis lack citizenship; they are technically Pakistani, having opted for the Land of the Pure at the cessation of Bangladesh in 1971. But Pakistan doesn’t want them and so they continue to live in limbo. Yet, Star Plus is still beamed 24/7 into their tiny, cramped, leaking shacks. Indian soaps have made inroads even into Afghanistan, that newly liberated project of global corporate interests. They were wildly popular until the Afghan government banned them as inimical to Afghani values.

The soaring audience of Star Plus and Zee TV serials, with their in-your-face parivar mantras, is known all too well. The hype is also a constructed story of success and market acquisition. On the face of it, the commodification of entertainment is a global phenomenon. So what’s the problem, one might ask, given that most of us post-colonial wannabes in South Asia want to integrate into the global economy and its uniform cultural variants? Junk food, designer brands, pop music and the corporate media ethos are all “signs of progress.” […]