Nawaz Sharif’s speech on Aug 13 at the Safma seminar “Building Bridges in the Subcontinent” continues to make waves two weeks later. Media attention has focused mainly on some of his observations which seem to question the basis of Pakistani nationhood. These remarks have caused surprise and consternation even among some long-standing supporters of the PML-N, which claims to be the successor of the party which led the Pakistan movement in pre-partition India. Hardly anyone from the top ranks of the PML-N, apart from the newly appointed spokesman, has sought to defend the party leader’s verbal escapade.
Pakistan and India, Nawaz said, had the same culture and heritage, ate the same food, spoke the same language and shared the same way of life. Despite the many things the people of the two countries had in common, he said, they were now separated by “a border”.
Even when allowance is made for the fact that Nawaz was addressing a mixed audience of Pakistanis and Indians on building bridges between them – in itself a totally desirable enterprise – his statement is offensive. And it is untrue because, though the Muslims and Hindus lived on the same soil for centuries, they inhabited two different spiritual worlds. Nawaz was in fact repeating many of the points made by the Congress Party of India – and refuted by the Quaid-e-Azam – during the Pakistan movement.
Almost as outrageous as Nawaz’s assertion about the Indians and Pakistanis having a common culture is his assertion that they worship (pujte hain) the same God. The Quran says something very different in Surah al-Kafirun: The believers worship not that which the non-believers worship, nor do the non-believers worship that which the believers worship. Nawaz should also know that the Muslims do not perform puja, as the Hindus do, but ibadat.
My friend and former colleague Khaled Ahmed, who has a great sense of humour, wrote in a piece that what Nawaz Sharif actually meant was that the people of Pakistan and India were not animists. Perhaps Khaled should advise Nawaz to offer this explanation himself.
As if Nawaz’s pronouncements on the shared culture of Pakistan and India were not enough, he also delighted the Indians in several other ways. He distanced himself from the struggle of the Kashmir people for self-determination; held the Pakistani army largely responsible for the non-resolution of the dispute; and called for a reduction of the defence budget. This was not entirely new. In May, he had said that Islamabad must stop treating New Delhi as its “biggest enemy”.
Now he has gone further. He called for moving away from the “60-year-old stated position” on Kashmir, exactly as his nemesis Musharraf used to say after he changed course on the issue in 2004. Nawaz also implicitly blamed the army for getting the country “stuck” in this position.
Pakistan’s “stated position” – which our government these days increasingly refrains from stating – is based on UN Security Council resolutions. Does Nawaz realise that it is only because of these resolutions that Kashmir is treated by the UN and the international community as disputed territory, and that, without them, Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir would be far weaker?
Nawaz was very impressed, as he said, by the sincerity of Vajpayee at the Lahore Summit in 1999 in seeking a resolution of the Kashmir question. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Indian policy knows that the only “solution” that India would be prepared to contemplate, whether it was under Vajpayee or under the present government, is a formalisation of the existing division along the Line of Control. If Nawaz does not know it, he should seek some good foreign policy advice. If he knows it, he should come clean and tell the public, explicitly and openly, that this is a “solution” that he also advocates.
Nawaz would also like Pakistan to cut its defence budget. He is right about spending more of the nation’s resources on economic and social development. But that money should come from the country’s rich and corrupt ruling classes who do not pay their taxes and, through loot and plunder, have amassed huge amounts in their overseas bank accounts and properties. Nawaz himself belongs to that class, as do Zardari, Gilani and countless others.
Our defence expenditure, as it is, is insufficient to meet the threats to our security. We need to spend more to improve the equipment and training of our conventional forces. We also need to allocate more resources to develop (a) a second-strike capability in case of a pre-emptive attack on our nuclear assets; and (b) tactical nuclear weapons to give us the possibility of a flexible response to an Indian adventure, such as that which their Cold Start doctrine envisions. Upgrading of our nuclear deterrence is essential for its credibility to be maintained, especially in view of the India-US nuclear deal and the Indian ballistic missile defence programme. No country in the world has to depend for its security on its nuclear capability more than Pakistan.
Savings should indeed be made by cutting down the lavish perks enjoyed by the top brass: the housing estates, agricultural lands, the golf courses and cushy jobs on retirement, to name just a few. Besides, generals like Musharraf who subvert the Constitution should be brought to justice. But to reduce the defence budget in our current security environment would amount to punishing the nation for the misdeeds of our rulers.
Nawaz also advocated freer trade with India and the opening of the Wagah route to Indian transit trade. If he had read Clinton’s Madras speech last month, he would have known that these are also steps that the US is pushing Pakistan to take – in order to help India achieve domination over Central and South Asia.
Unfortunately, our media has not discussed these issues. Much of the focus has been on the allegation that Safma is funded by Raw. In the absence of evidence, we should refrain from such allegations. But there can be no doubt that Safma pursues a political agenda going beyond its declared purpose of promoting press freedom among South Asian countries, which it does somewhat selectively. Safma’s silence on press curbs in Occupied Kashmir is one piece of evidence.
Nawaz’s political judgment – never very sound, as seen in his selection of Musharraf as the army chief and then in the ham-fisted manner in which he tried to fire him – has been warped further by the trauma of his overthrow in 1999 and subsequent forced exile. That may be understandable at a human level. But such a flaw can be fatal in a national leader. If Nawaz cannot overcome this shock, he should return fulltime to his family business and leave politics to others.
The Indian government and media are delighted, and understandably so, at Nawaz’s Safma speech. But so also is a small section of the Pakistani media and “civil society” which labels itself pretentiously as the “liberals”. The newly coined English word lumpen-intelligentsia would be a more appropriate description for them. One of them, a star TV commentator, claimed last week that 99 percent of the people of Pakistan agreed with what Nawaz said. The remaining one percent, whom this analyst dismissed as the thekedar (self-appointed guardians) of the two-nation theory, were itching to nuke India, as he claimed. So much for objectivity and informed analysis.
Pakistan and India should indeed give up confrontation, learn to live as peaceful neighbours and try to build bridges of understanding. But denying the foundations of Pakistani nationhood, ignoring the threat posed by India and abandoning the Kashmir cause is certainly no way of going about it, as Nawaz seems to think. If he does not retract the unfortunate remarks he made on these issues, it is to be hoped at least that others in his party would disown them.