Express news service : Mon Aug 26 2013, 09:50 hrs
The Idea Exchange
Pakistani Journalist Beena Sarwar
In this Idea Exchange, Pakistani filmmaker, writer and journalist Beena Sarwar talks about India and Pakistan’s childish relationship, the doables in the peace process, and says that democracy in Pakistan is a process, not an event. This session was moderated by Consultant Editor Seema Chishti


Seema Chishti: You are a very well-known filmmaker, writer, journalist in Pakistan. Yours is a voice that is seldom silent, even on all kinds of new media. What do you think about the current India-Pakistan situation, and what do you think has changed?


I think one of the changes is the engagement of youth. We have a very young population, 60-70 per cent of population in India and Pakistan and probably all over South Asia is under 35 or under 25 years. Also, the new media that you pointed out is something that a lot of young people are engaged in.

It just seems that every time Pakistan and India come to any kind of understanding, it becomes a ‘troubled time’ because that’s what suits various vested interests, and they include arms manufacturers, arms procurers, all kinds of right-wing forces on both sides. About the LoC also, what generally newspapers and media cover are the events. Somebody gets killed, somebody gets injured, that is an event. Very rarely is the process followed, what’s behind it. What’s happening at the LoC has been going on and building up for some time. And other people, much more qualified than I am, pointed out that when you have soldiers who are trained to kill, are given the go-ahead from their seniors, or politicians… So you have a situation at the LoC where before the ceasefire there was a much higher rate of casualties — civilians and soldiers. And now the rate of casualties is a lot less and it makes a lot more news.


Coming back to media, it is now in your face all the time. There is a lot of accountability because of that but there is also a lot more of holding people accountable in ways that people feel is morally right. For example, if you say something that may not go with the national narrative, someone will stick a mic in your face and ask ‘why do you think that’. That puts people on the defensive. Jaise aapke (Defence Minister A K) Antony sahab ne kaha (Like he said), his initial statement was that there were men in Pakistan army uniform who killed Indian soldiers, some of them were and some of them were not. Now that is something I can accept as a fact. But when he changes that statement later to say that there were Pakistan army soldiers, I am going to question that. Because people in Pakistan army uniform were also attacking positions in Pakistan. In fact, the media should also question that. But I find that media in India somehow doesn’t question, in general. Exceptions are always there, but the larger narrative that we see in Pakistan is that the Indian media tends to be less critical of its security narrative than perhaps it should be. And we question our security narrative perhaps a little more because we’ve had military rule.

Now for the first time, we’ve had a democratic election in which one government handed power to the next. This is the first time such a transition has taken place (in Pakistan). Democracy is not an event, it’s a process. Democracy will not come to Pakistan with one election. It’s not going to get reversed overnight. But anybody who chooses to look at the facts will see that things are changing slowly, the army is making some concessions. For example, the defence budget is not being presented in one or two lines like it used to be. Unfortunately, you have to go with the process, you have to be patient.


Seema Chishti: But do you think that the peace-loving people who are on the side of talks are actually in a minority here and there?


No actually they are not. I saw some personal examples, made some observations in my three-four days in India. I have interacted with people at the India International Centre, at Ramjas College, Delhi University, in Allahabad at a school, and with people on Facebook and Twitter. I have come across people who for the first time in these gatherings are not traditionally part of the peace brigade. I like the word peace monger because I think we need to be a little aggressive about peace. Social media is giving a way for people to assert themselves and to make their voices heard. But traditional media is not giving those people a voice. Those people are not represented in traditional media at all. Aapke analysts aate hain aur jo intellectuals aate hain TV par (The analysts and intellectuals who come on TV), those are the people who are quoted. Where is the ordinary person? I think, on both sides, there is a misrepresentation of what we call public opinion. If you just talk to ordinary people, it’s a very different picture of Pakistan and of India that you will get.


Shubhajit Roy: When you talk in Lahore drawing rooms and you discuss this issue of growing peace overtures and then an incident like the one at LoC occurs… Is there a lot of anger, disappointment with your establishment?


No, I see India playing it up. You have five soldiers who died at LoC and you made a big noise about that. Our soldier was killed two days before that, did you report that? India and Pakistan have a childish relationship. We forget that if we have slapped once, then a slap came from the other side as well. I am not justifying anything, I am not saying that what anybody did is right or that it’s right to kill. It’s not. But remember, there are people being killed on the other side too and it’s not one-sided. Also, remember that what we are facing in Pakistan is a militancy kind of situation, where there are armed and trained, conditioned people.

I just want to put it out there that we should not call them jihadis, we should call them fasadis (troublemakers). Because when you allow them to appropriate that term, that’s letting them take the moral high ground, which is not there’s to take. So the trajectory of all these Lashkars, it all began from the first Afghan war. Initially Pakistan supported them, but none of this was something that the people of Pakistan asked for or supported because none of these decisions were made by elected parliaments. These were decisions taken by military dictators.


Rakesh Sinha: How is the rise of Narendra Modi being seen in Pakistan?


I think with as much apprehension as you guys see Hafiz Saeed. Probably less, for Hafiz Saeed is not going to be an elected representative anytime soon. About Modi being PM, there is talk of it. But can he actually come and declare war on Pakistan? I don’t think so.


Pranab Dhal Samanta: We hear from the new Pakistan government that they are serious about trade and economic cooperation. At the same time India has raised the issue of terrorism. What is the political climate in Pakistan? What is the doable agenda in the peace process?


First of all this government hasn’t suddenly said this. Nawaz Sharif has been saying this since he was elected the last time. Every political party in Pakistan has said, publicly and politically, it wants peace with India… I think India right now needs to realise that if Pakistan’s position on Kashmir was unreasonable before, then so is their position on terrorism. You need to fix that. It is time that we put our heads together and fought a common enemy, which is terrorism. But in the meantime, let’s go ahead with everything else. We sign our visa regime, which is going to be implemented, then something happens on the border and then you cancel an agreement….

The visa regime can be done right away. Sir Creek was almost agreed upon and hasn’t been done. Siachen was almost about to be signed and then apparently the Indian Army said they were not going to allow it. And issues of fishermen… Fishermen on both sides are violating international conventions. If someone violates them, you confiscate the catch and let them go. But they arrest them and keep them for years. Poor, illiterate people, sole breadwinners of their families usually, and their boats are also not returned.

Kunda Dixit, who is now the editor of Nepali Times, and I made a cartoon when I was in Kathmandu. The cartoon shows the backs of two little boys, skinny, naked boys, one is slightly tall and the other is shorter and they are having a peeing contest. They are peeing and where the pee ends there is a nuclear cloud. And at the bottom it said, ‘who will go farthest in South Asia’.

Grow up. The bottomline is grow up.


Dilip Bobb: Ever since the elections, Nawaz Sharif has been keeping a very low profile. Even after the incident on the LoC, he didn’t react immediately. How much control does he have?


The security establishment of Pakistan, the army and the ISI, has been used to running the show for over 60 years. They have been running the foreign policies, defence policies and economic policy. When Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1988, they told her, you can’t take oath unless you agree on hands-off in these three areas. There was a lot of delay in her taking the oath because they were negotiating. Finally, she agreed. This is the question I asked Asif Zardari when he was released, and he said, ‘Maybe, but after 11 years of our people being imprisoned, tortured, exiled, executed, we just felt that we had to come in and try and make things better’. And one of the things they did was immediately introduce a moratorium on the death sentences, which the past government has also done. They did what they thought was right at that time.

This control of the security establishment on these three areas has remained strong. But then, they didn’t put those conditions on successive governments. Maybe, it’s being phased out.

I think if Nawaz Sharif is circumspect and he is not reacting immediately, the point is that he is responding, he is speaking very positively still and firmly. He may not have all the control and all the power but he has the mandate of the people of Pakistan. And I think in the long run this is what will win out, as the process continues.


Seema Chishti: But does the nature of the mandate worry you? That it’s just a coalition of regional parties?


Yes, it is a concern, and to be honest, the last time when Sharif was in power, we haven’t forgotten his attempts to bring in Sharia law. But he has come a long way since then. On India-Pakistan, he is on the right track and he is going to have to make that decision between the right-wing groups and parties his party is supporting. Remember Sharif is basically a businessman and he knows that the key to Pakistan’s survival right now depends on two things: One, winning the war against militants and two, getting the economy back on track. And both these things are linked with India, because when we assert our South Asian identity, when we look towards our eastern neighbour, it strengthens us against forces coming in from the Wahhabis and Salafis, and the Saudisation. So, we have to decide whether we want the South Asian version of Islam or the Arab version.


Seema Chishti: Can you tell us a little about popular culture in Pakistan and how it sees India? We have had a rush of some interesting things happening. There was Gadar but now we have Ek Tha Tiger, which takes a completely heretic look at R&AW and ISI. It’s interesting how Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif are made out to be new models of cooperation.


I don’t really follow Bollywood but sometimes I do watch some films. There is a new generation of filmmakers coming out of Pakistan who are going beyond documentaries to make feature films. But we are very far behind Bollywood. There is a film coming out, it stars Naseeruddin Shah and is called Zinda Bhaag. The directors are Pakistani and Indian and the producer is Pakistani. I know that Gulzaar saab is working on Kya Dilli Kya Lahore.

I think one of the reasons our plays, literature and our music are so strong is because we have not been Bollywood-ised. Unfortunately, all your creative avenues are overshadowed by Bollywood. We have a wonderful National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi, which used to be the Hindu Gymkhana earlier. They are a repertory theatre and they have done some stage plays which are very creative and some of the plays they have done are Indian plays. And then there is this company that does things like Mamma Mia!, Grease, Chicago, full productions like on Broadway and they are coming out of Karachi.

There is a lot of art happening, which is very strong, especially the women artists, and I think one reason is that we are facing so much that, although a lot of it is not overtly political, it is strongly rooted in political thought and it’s not divorced from the environment. Very subversive use of calligraphy or icons like burqa. You might have heard of an animated cartoon called Burqa Avenger. Feminists are up in arms that it glorifies the burqa, but if burqa women can fly and fight evil, then why not?


Seema Chishti: During the PDP government, the blasphemy law created news and then there was an assassination and the assassin was honoured publicly. How do you see Sharif handling this law?


I think that this is something even he is confused about, because of the dichotomy. He has to decide which way he has to go and those two ways are not compatible. The blasphemy law is still there. Again this is something that can be changed through process, through parliament.

The blasphemy law became a political issue, the right-wing made it into one. When this issue came up, they were on the decline and they were wondering how to get back in the limelight. This was an easy way to do it. Salman Taseer said nothing that was blasphemous but there was so much propaganda against him that it created the atmosphere that allowed this man to kill him.

This man, who killed him, was dismissed from the Intelligence Bureau or the Special Branch for his extremist views. How does a guy who was dismissed from one security establishment get a job with an elite VVIP person? There are a lot of questions.


Coomi Kapoor: In India there’s a perception that Pakistan is a feudal society and decision-making is done by the elite, while India is more middle-class driven. Do you agree?


It is partly true, because we never had land reforms. That was the kind of quid pro quo that Jinnah got in return for the support of the Muslim feudal nawabs. It’s also partly because the military ran the country for so long. I think it is changing and now you have people like Jamshed Dasti, a very ordinary middle-class guy, coming up and aspiring to join politics. Pakistan is not a static place. It’s a place where a lot of change keeps happening and people in India look at it the way it was 20 years ago. There is a lot of feudalism but there are a lot of challenges to that feudalism also.

Rakesh Sinha: Post Malala Yousufzai, have things improved for girls in tribal areas?

I don’t know if they have improved. There is a lot more consciousness. Girls are still being attacked, schools are still being attacked, teachers are still being attacked, health workers are still being attacked. The aspiration of ordinary people is to educate all their children, including their daughters. And the person who most wants daughters to be educated is the mother. This is happening all over Pakistan, even in the most conservative areas, people are trying to send their daughters to school. The failure of the government is in building infrastructure. If you are in a remote village then your school is so far away that it’s risky, or the toilets of girls’ bathrooms have no doors, things like that. The government has to really fix school infrastructure, make sure that there are no ghost schools and try and make education accessible to people.


Transcribed by Suanshu Khurana and Somya Lakhani

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