I recently returned after five days in Pakistan. It was a personal visit that I make a couple of times a year to see my family in Lahore. People in India always warn me of dire consequences,especially of travelling to Karachi. So this time,I was determined to go there.
The country was geared up for elections. Mir Hazar Khan Khoso had been sworn as the caretaker prime minister. The day I arrived,Najam Sethi became Punjabs caretaker chief minister. In Lahore,the people I spoke to seemed happy seeing him take oath. The day I was leaving Lahore,Sethis caretaker cabinet was being sworn in,which included Salima Hashmi,a close friend and the illustrious daughter of the great poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. In Karachi,another dear friend,Anis Haroon,former chair of the national commission on the status of women,was taking oath in the caretaker cabinet of Sindh.
Pakistan has completed five years of democratic government,an important milestone. The stage is set for May 11. The Election Commission of Pakistan,headed by the distinguished jurist Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim,is leaving no stone unturned to ensure a free and fair election.
The big parties the Pakistan Peoples Party (Asif Ali Zardari),Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif) and Pakistan Justice Party (Imran Khan) are pitted against each other. But there are many small parties that can play the spoiler,especially Maulana Fazlur Rehmans Jamaat-e-Islami. Three days ago,history was made by two tribal women from Bajaur and Dir,Nusrat Begum and Badam Zari. Never before has a woman contested from these patriarchal tribal areas.
While all this is taking place,there is no let up in the incidence of blasts. The day I was in Karachi,there was a grenade and gun attack on a girls school at Baldia town,killing the school principal,47-year-old Abdul Rashid,and severely injuring 10 people. The TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) was widely suspected,although they also condemned the attack.
I moved around Lahore and Karachi with my family without any apprehension. At various places,they pointed out the sites of bomb blasts and kidnappings. There are innumerable incidents of children being kidnapped for ransom,because of which there are more security guards than parents seen when the children are let off at end of the day. I went to visit my family in an area called Abbas town,which is where several heinous blasts targeting the Shia community had claimed 20 lives a couple of months ago. My family had been saved only because they delayed their departure by a few minutes.
All of these ominous realities existed in the two cities along with another reality,which,for the want of a better expression,I call normalcy. Both Karachi and Lahore had a vibrant,beautiful and happening face visible to the visitor almost 24×7. Huge hoardings in Karachi announced the lawn festival,an annual affair where millions of rupees worth of fabric is sold to international buyers. Beautiful models draped with the fabric looked at the swirling traffic from mega hoardings. Cars thronged the shiny roads in Lahore where road dividers were lined with decorative pillars covered in filigrees of flowers in every conceivable spring colour. On the full moon night,my last in Karachi,I walked with family on Porte Grande,a brand new fishermans wharf at the famous Clifton (ancestral home of the Bhuttos) along the promenade,which is lined with a world-class food court.
In the two cities I visited,the two worlds ran parallel,each embedded in its inexorable reality. These were cities that at once breathed life,youth and terror. There was no pall or gloom; no smoking gun that kept people huddled in their homes. The shops were full,women with and without burqas walked in the bazaars,Hindi films were showing houseful at multiplexes,chowkidars in elite bungalows were listening to Punjabi rap music. Leaders were holding political jalsas to garner votes in Lahore,Multan,Shaheed Minar,Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,TV anchors were trying to outshout the panelists. Familiar scenes. The multiple realities of Pakistan just flowed into each other.
I realised that one has to travel fearlessly to understand,to empathise,to stop pointing fingers. Only then can the solution for peace emerge. Those of us who sit fearful in our respective cocoons on either side of the border and influence policy through think-tanking will never permit South Asia to emerge as the most unique region of the globe. The old adage still holds: Sair kar duniya ki ghafil zindagani phir kahan (Wander the world o oblivious one,you only live once).
The writer is member,Planning Commission