PENSIEVE: Hind yatra —Farrukh Khan Pitafi - Friday, February 04, 2011

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Our Indian peers, especially the media and intellectuals, thought that Pakistan was ready to implode with chances of our nuclear arsenal being seized by extremists. Was it only wishful thinking, paranoia, or objective thinking when observed detachedly?

India, I was forewarned, is highly addictive. Of course I should have learned more from the example of this paper’s Op-Ed Editor, but I did not. Here was I landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi. Why was I there? As I have not written any book or novel thus far, you can hardly expect me to participate in the Jaipur Literary Festival. No, I was there with a media delegation on the invitation of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). During the seven days spent in India we were supposed to have exhaustive meetings with senior Indian officials, media personnel, think tanks, businesses, visits to renowned places like the Taj Mahal and events like the Republic Day Parade. And if we were lucky we could get to meet some Bollywood stars too. In the latter case I knew I had to find Amir Khan and take his autograph and a snap with him for my four-year-old. But more on that later.

When we landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, the first thing that appealed to me was the size and beauty of the new terminal. With the exception of the mismatched carpet quite reminiscent of our country’s own airports, the terminal told us that India is in the big league now. The journey to the hotel was long compared to the distance that we were supposed to cover, just like the by road visit to Agra that we undertook the next day, but not too tiring. And another aspect, no matter how much we want to believe otherwise, is how easily our Indian peers, common folk, at least in the cities and places we were exposed to, could work across the proverbial communal divide. It was a journey of introspection too. As the son of a late soldier who has fought two wars with India, my maiden visit was bringing down several myths that I had grown up with. It was as if we were to walk into an alternative interpretation of history and an alternative dimension of Pakistan’s own reality. Was all this truly convincing? Some of it alas was not. Underneath the shining skin of India one could see some incredible fault lines, the most daunting among them the divide between the urban rich and the rural poor, as was visible during our road trip to Agra. Another problem that their own news channels were highlighting from Davos was of infrastructure. India is investing considerably in its infrastructure, but not rapidly enough to match its population and economic growth. More needs to be done if India wants to sustain its growth rate.

Another interesting dimension is the number of vegetarian and liquor stores lining up the roads. Imagine a roadside food outlet dedicated to vegetarian food in Pakistan and think of our collective response to it. Also imagine liquor selling this openly in the Islamic Republic. But honestly folks, it is not as if nobody eats non-vegetarian food in India. During our stay we sampled a number of Indian delicacies, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, and always found the local populace sharing the culinary delights. Idli, dosa, sambar, thaalis and chutneys presented to us only enhance the diversity and sheer size of Indian culture.

In the beginning a formal orientation was given to us by the Joint Secretary Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran (PAI), Mr Yash Sinha, and MEA Spokesman Mr Vishnu Prakash. And then began a hailstorm of meetings, the most important of which were with the media, a think tank and Indian officials. It gave us an Indian perspective on Pakistan. There was considerable shock at the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer. Concerns were raised on what was perceived as the worsening law and order situation in Pakistan, and the chances of an extremist takeover. In short, our Indian peers, especially the media and intellectuals, thought that Pakistan was ready to implode with chances of our nuclear arsenal being seized by extremists. Was it only wishful thinking, paranoia, or objective thinking when observed detachedly? One thing is for sure. Every fact was being interpreted in a peculiar way. Was it possible that they were not ready to listen to an alternative perspective? Many of us tried to introduce a paradigm shift by telling our Indian colleagues that all this could also be interpreted as Pakistan’s attempts to find a long lasting solution to its long-standing problems. That it could prove that our country was really combating the extremists hard and that the fundamentalist forces were so insecure that they killed the Punjab governor just for an innocuous statement. Did we succeed in convincing them? I think at the very least the tone of the meetings changed substantially after our submissions and we found people more receptive to the need for a sustainable peace process.

One annoying fact during our two major interactions with the media and intellectuals was that two renowned Muslim seculars who were chosen to spearhead the Indian side were trying to re-prove their loyalty to their motherland by being tough on Pakistan. It was a grim reminder of the fact that while Indian society owns its Muslim citizens, the secular intellectuals among the Muslim community had failed to emerge out of their insecurities. Nevertheless, with some factual corrections and interventions the dialogue went fine.

The visit was also an excellent opportunity to appreciate in person the contrast between Indian and Pakistani diplomacy. While the Indian officials were very open and cordial towards us, our own High Commission’s attitude towards us was highly bureaucratic. Just see the difference. Since the Indian Minister of External Affairs had to cancel a scheduled meeting with us owing to Pundit Bheem Singh’s death, he chose to come meet us at our hotel. However, our own High Commissioner could not find time for us until the last day of the visit. And when we returned to Delhi from Mumbai during the wee hours, Mr Abid Saeed, our press counsellor, misbehaved with me when I reminded him that the invitation to the lunch with the High Commissioner was scheduled to take place barely hours before our flight home.

But generally the visit went exceptionally well. To my daughter’s dismay I could not find Amir Khan. But there is no doubt that India, especially Delhi, is highly addictive. We returned home with fondest memories.

The writer is an independent columnist and a talk show host. He can be reached at

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