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Love thy neighbour: reminiscences of a trip to Pakistan

We must learn how to differentiate between people and governments, writes John Samuel. Governments construct public perceptions via methods ranging from curriculum, to media, to academic discourse. Ordinary people, a vast majority of them, just want to live happy lives: they want jobs, they want peace, they want security. In this there is little difference between the people of Pakistan and the people of India

The Constitution of India begins with the noble words: ‘We the People’. The first words of the United Nations Charter are also ‘We the People’. The ideal of a nation or a united nations too would seem to rest with ‘We the People’. To what extent is there an organic link between ‘we the people’ and the modern nation-state? Is it merely a logical means to construct and manage structures and institutions of power? Or is it an abstract idea devoid of any real feel of flesh-and-blood human beings? Questions matter.

Who does not love their nation? ‘I love my India’: we hear this in films, music, everywhere. From Class IV, as school leader, I led the pledge, making ‘India my country’ and ‘all Indians my brothers and sisters’. Even now I feel deeply proud when I hear the national anthem and see the tri-colour flying. This is indeed the case with the citizens of most countries.

However, when I begin to question myself about many of my pet notions I realise there are no clear objective reasons for them: they are all coloured by my subjectivity, location and identity. To what extent can we ask ourselves detached questions? ‘Nation first’ is what we are told, and anyone questioning symbols or icons of collective identity can be charged with sedition. So why bother?

How do we begin to understand and analyse concepts like ‘nation’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’? Is it about people or about power-management structures? To what extent are these abstract notions of power and to what extent are they linked to the everyday lives of real people? Are nations merely ‘imagined communities’ with identities and loyalties constructed on a legal personality? What is the history of these ideas? How did they come to occupy our mind space in the 19th and 20th centuries? Questions are important as they make us think, reflect and understand ourselves and our ideas better. They help us discover and locate the world within, beyond, and that constructed out of words, ideas and images.

What is a nation? Whose nation? The Oxford dictionary says a nation is a community of people of mainly common descent, history, language, etc, forming a state or inhabiting a territory. Is it?

Three books that deal with these questions are: Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism.

Most of us are unaware of how some of these concepts and ideas were internalised over time, and the myths of nation and nationalism. It would be instructive to read a critical analysis of the notion of nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore; interestingly, the national anthems of two countries (India and Bangladesh) came from Tagore’s pen. His creative legacy is claimed by two nations!

Eric Hobsbawm, an eminent historian, points out how the modern nation was formed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Before the 18th century, kingdoms, multi-cultural empires and various city states existed but they were not the same as the modern nation-state. In many ways, the French Revolution and American Declaration of Independence heralded a new era in the concept of nation, nationalism and the nation-state. The French Declaration of Rights in 1795 gives a clear sense of the modern notion of sovereignty: ‘Each people is independent and sovereign, whatever the number of individuals who compose it and the extent of territory it occupies. This sovereignty is inalienable.’

However, most nation-states begin the process of rationalisation by drawing on an ancient and commonly-shared heritage or ‘natural’ continuity of geography, civilisation, culture, etc. History gets constructed around the location of the power structure to rationalise the dominant power management system in a given country, at a given time.

The notion of the nation-state as a military-industrial-political enterprise with its own power acquisition and management agenda that thrives on constructed images, symbols, perceptions, affiliations of interest and identity, promising freedom and evoking fear. Such power acquisition and management systems construct multiple notions of the ‘other’ to build a cohesive national identity. The construct of the nation-state therefore is often based on a negative identification process and an affirmative identity-building process. The nation-state eventually has a monopoly on deciding and influencing not only power, laws, regulation and policies but also our political loyalties, social locations and eventually our legal personalities through the machinery of law-and-order and internal/external security.

Every government exists based on a sort of social contract with the promise of security, services and collective identity. However, the process of building and managing the power structures of the nation-state also involves a certain amount of dehumanisation. Hence ‘patriotism’ as an idea depends on a constructed notion of loyalty, love and affection for a collective identity, though paradoxically it is a dehumanising process as it limits the agency, creativity, and love of human beings to the dominant power structures of the day.

Love thy neighbour

Within South Asia, the India and Pakistan constructs are negotiated and filtered through the dominant military, media and market structures of the two respective nation-states; loyalty/patriotism to one country is constructed upon ‘hate’ for the ‘other’ country. This is a constructed lie to serve the interests of the military-market-political elites of both countries. It has nothing whatsoever to do with real people, people with minds and a sense of their own agency.

I have visited Pakistan several times and have had the privilege of experiencing the love and affection of many friends from that country. The people there are very like the real people of India. In fact, meeting the real people of Pakistan is an eye-opener for anyone fed on the constructed image of the ‘hated other’.

When we visit a country or society and interact with its people, our collective memory and constructed subjectivity filter and manage our perceptions. Our own locations of multiple identities (as perceived and as given), and our constructed ‘self’ of politics and nationality colours our notions and ideas in many ways. We see what we see, depending on where we stand. And where we stand depends on a process of cultural and knowledge socialisation over a period of time.

During an official visit to Pakistan, soon after the terror attack on Mumbai, I wrote the following in my diary (though written in 2008, it still seems relevant as there is a new round of ‘constructed’ and ‘real’ tension on the border between the two countries):

“I have just got back from Pakistan. I cherish my visits to that country. I always return with a deep sense of nostalgia -- reminiscing about the excellent food at Food Street in Lahore or a pani-puri at Karachi beach; the wide streets and bungalows of Islamabad; the brick-kiln workers of Toba-tak Sing.”

Pakistan was never an alien country to me; its people always make you feel at home. It is like visiting the house of a cousin or close relative in a distant land. Or looking up your neighbour once a year. Though I travel to many countries, Pakistan is different. It is a peculiar feeling. People are happy to welcome the mehman from India and are ready for animated discussions on democracy, militarisation, communalism and the problems of India and Pakistan. And, of course, everyone wants to call you for a meal. There is genuine affection in the welcome hug. People do not send their drivers to receive you; they make time to come and meet you themselves.

At the airport there is an immediate alertness when they see the blue Indian passport. One can safely say the only place one feels like an ‘other’ is at immigrations (I am sure the Pakistani citizen feels the same in India). This time it is easier as there is a protocol officer to receive and help me get through a rather difficult immigrations procedure. But once you get out the situation changes completely. The driver is full of the latest Bollywood film or cricket or “our mulk”.

Obviously, this time around the topic was the Mumbai terror attack. Everyone I met (from all walks of life) conveyed a deep sense of sorrow, anguish and sense of frustration at the event. The media and all social talk centred around Mumbai and the aftermath that week.

Once you get into TV and the media, however, it’s a different story. A whole range of topics is up for discussion -- India’s ‘aggressive stand’, how India ‘won’ at the UN. Everything from jingoism to mistrust to rationalisation. I noticed that while academics, poets and activists were more balanced, stressing the responsibility of the Pakistan government to address the ‘terror’ in their backyard, former generals, ambassadors, bureaucrats and the usual media commentators were like versions of Arnab Goswami and his ilk in India.

So though there might be all the sound and fury about India on one channel, the next will be featuring a Bollywood item number. During the ad break, Amir Khan fills the screen announcing: ‘Titan watch is now in Pakistan!’ If you’re bored with the news and talk shows then you can watch a range of Bollywood films or the latest Ekta Kapoor serial. It’s a strange feeling. India is all over the TV and yet the news channels and talk shows offer a different story about the ‘other’ India.

I have always wondered about this ‘neighbour syndrome’: it’s an interesting social and psychological obsession at various levels. A peculiar kind of preoccupation with one’s neighbour; a mix of love, grudging admiration, harbouring of grudges, irritation, cynicism, and sometime a hatred (mixed in with love). At one level people admire the democracy, freedom and space Indians enjoy. At another there is the deep, cultivated need to compare (‘they’ are not as great as they look!), a sense of inadequacy (‘hum kisi se kum nahi’).

This strange attitude is partly due to a mix of ‘manufactured’ history, school curriculum and media mediation. The K word -- Kashmir -- is driven into the people’s consciousness right from their school days. So while most ordinary people would love to travel to India, watch Bollywood films, or simply enjoy a cricket match between India and Pakistan, the Establishment is busy setting about ‘constructing’ the ‘other’ India -- arrogant, insincere, Hindu, ‘occupying’ Kashmir, ‘marginalising’ Muslims, etc. These two contradictory images and constructs compete with each other for space in the public perception and social psychology. They are evident at various levels of the media, civil society and the ordinary middle class.

The constant comparison and competition, ironically, ends up turning places and things into mirror images of themselves.

Last night I had dinner at the elite Islamabad Club, which in many ways is a mirror image of the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi, albeit with a feudal, elite touch. The president of the country is the patron (that has been the tradition since 1957). And entry is strictly regulated (also, like at the IIC, no phones are allowed inside the dining hall!).

The key difference between India and Pakistan in this regard is that India now has an entrenched pan-Indian middle class. Indeed it is this middle class that is a defining feature of our country, in many ways a cohesive force spread across cities and towns. In Pakistan it is still the feudal class that defines the socio-political-economic character of power.

So, just as the elite India International Centre is middle class, the Islamabad Club is aristocratic. Though in Karachi (the gymkhana is the only place where drinks are served), it has an unmistakable Punjabi air about it; the Sindhi touch is very apparent. This is the case of course in various capital cities of India where cosmopolitanism carries the flavour of the dominant culture of the locality.

The problem is that 75% of Pakistan’s land is in the control of 15% of the feudal ruling elite. The remaining 25% is occupied by 85% of the people, most of them tenants. Even the so-called liberal voices are informed or supported by deep feudal attitudes. Among the ruling elite too there is another level of identity based on language and region; such kinship and networks are far stronger here than they are in India.

With such deep class divisions, the poor and the marginalised become easy targets for fundamentalists and terror organisations that spend money on recruiting and brainwashing poor uneducated men in the heartland of Pakistan. This is at the core of the issue -- entrenched inequality and masses of poor people with no stake in governance or the country’s resources.

On my itinerary was a public lecture on sustainable development and peace in South Asia. The SDPI auditorium was packed and, as expected, the lecture was followed by an intense discussion on the Mumbai attack and its aftermath, India’s ‘attitude’, etc. What was heartening were the many sensible views being voiced, making it possible to be optimistic about a ‘new’ South Asia in the coming years.

I also had to appear on a prime TV talk show (the first Indian to be on the show after Mumbai, I believe) as my journalist friends insisted it would help offer up a different perspective on the Mumbai attack. Professor Nayyer (well-known physicist and peace activist, now a fellow at SDPI) was on the show and I was amazed at how many people supported his honest and balanced views on the subject. Nayyer, a friend of K N Pannicker, loves Kerala and told me he had missed an opportunity to visit that state for the International Education Seminar a week earlier due to clashing dates.

During the discussion, I focused on failure of governance and its impact on security in Pakistan, India and elsewhere in South Asia. And the need for Pakistan’s citizens to ask hard questions of their government and leaders instead of falling into the trap of externalising the problem or blaming the ‘other’. A sense of perpetual self-denial helps no one. This is true for India too -- we must ask ourselves hard questions about why there were security lapses and seek accountability from those who are supposed to serve us and are living on our tax money. As long as the good citizens of Pakistan are misled by the powerful establishment and power cartels into externalising the problem and denying the demons that grow right there in the midst of their society, the same forces will eat up society, institutions and even the state like termites. It is time to look at the future and act now.

We must learn how to differentiate between people and governments. Governments, which are often controlled by power cartels of bureaucrats and various institutional interests, construct public perceptions via methods ranging from curriculum, to media, to academic discourse. Ordinary people, a vast majority of them, just want to live happy lives: they want jobs, they want peace, they want security. In this there is little difference between the people of Pakistan and the people of India.

They are like twins separated at birth. They look the same, speak more or less the same language, exhibit similar social attitudes, and share a historical and civilisational space. If anyone can transform the present situation it is the hundreds of millions of ordinary people. The question is whose India, and whose Pakistan? That of the elite power cartels or that of the more than 1 billion ordinary people?

As I was returning, I mentioned to my friends how it wasn’t easy to live up to the ideal ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’. But this is certainly an ideal powerful enough to transform borders into bridges, and battles into bonding. A dream still worth dreaming.

Infochange News & Features, April 2015