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The Other,for us and them

Demonisation is the lazy alternative to engagement — at home and across the border.

Written by Beena Sarwar |
August 30, 2013 3:56:15 am

Demonisation is the lazy alternative to engagement — at home and across the border.

At the ‘Idea Exchange’ held at the Indian Express office in New Delhi recently,a question raised at one point during the discussion was about how Pakistanis perceive the political rise of Narendra Modi. My response,published in the paper,reads: “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.”

The discussion moved on from there and the journalists and students present raised many other questions that reflected a curiosity about Pakistani politics,culture and relations with India. It was,on the whole,a stimulating and informative exchange,which has generated much positive feedback since the report was published on Sunday.

But what generated the most response is the headline “Modi’s rise is being seen with as much apprehension in Pakistan as you guys see Hafiz Saeed”. The overall dialogue was far more wide-ranging and nuanced than can be inferred from this headline,extrapolated from one small part of the discussion. For many readers,the headline stood out,and I have been criticised for comparing Narendra Modi,a three-times elected chief minister,to Hafiz Saeed,an alleged criminal terrorist mastermind.

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I obviously did not intend to compare these two controversial figures. I was responding to a question about how Modi is seen in Pakistan,and here I stand by my view that,rightly or wrongly,his popular perception in this country is comparable to Hafiz Saeed’s image in India. This clarification out of the way,the episode is a good opportunity to reflect on reasons behind such divergent perceptions. The backlash provides an example of how misunderstandings arise when there is a lack of contact between people,which leads to misunderstanding and a readiness to judge,particularly given the existence of so many unresolved issues and simmering resentments.

Despite our geographical proximity and shared cultures,history and languages,the chasm between Indians and Pakistanis has grown immensely over the years because the people have been forcibly kept apart by increasingly restrictive visa policies. In the absence of being able to meet,we are left with a sense of fascination and curiosity about each other. Given the conditioning and hostilities,there may also even be a tendency to see “the other” as “aliens”. And of course,there is a lack of understanding that generates a rather black-or-white view of each other. The monochrome perspective is particularly bad for the appreciation of complexity and nuance,which are the stuff of politics.

It is a fact that many Pakistanis perceive Modi’s political rise with apprehension. This apprehension is comparable to how Indians view Hafiz Saeed. Of course,Modi is an elected representative and Hafiz Saeed is not. But the latter is known to have an undue (and negative) influence on Pakistani politics and politicians. He has never been elected and is unlikely to ever be elected,going by the voting patterns in Pakistan — Pakistanis,whenever they are allowed to go to the polls,tend to overwhelmingly vote for the “secular” parties. Additionally,both represent a mindset that is not considered to be friendly towards the other country or members of “the other” religious community.

It is also a fact that neither Narendra Modi nor Hafiz Saeed has ever been,or is likely to be,convicted of the crimes against humanity they are accused of. One is accused of complicity or involvement in violence against the religious minority community in the state he headed as a political representative. The other is accused not only of massacring members of a religious community that he deems to be outside the pale of Islam and therefore a “minority”,but also of masterminding attacks on Indian soil. Courts in both countries have acquitted them for “lack of evidence”. While they may not be comparable in other ways,even their most ardent supporters will not deny that both men are controversial not only in their own countries,but outside too. And just as Modi’s detractors in India can understand the nuances of electoral politics that bring him to the fore,Hafiz Saeed’s opponents in Pakistan need to have an appreciation of the context in which he is able to operate.

It is not for me,of course,to explain or justify either of these two controversial figures. I do believe,however,that demonisation is the lazy alternative to political engagement at home. And good neighbourliness will,ultimately,require extending such engagement beyond the border.

The writer is a Pakistani journalist and filmmaker

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