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’It is the poor who always suffer’

by Beena Sarwar, 28 December 2008

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sacw.net, 28 December 2008


Karachi is much like Bombay (as we have always called it) in many
respects. Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan on a visit here once commented
that it reminded him of Bombay thirty years ago. One of their similarities, besides the Arabian Sea lapping their shores, is being home to hordes of migrant workers, like Ahmed Sher.

Ahmed Sher came to Karachi from his impoverished native village in
southern Punjab some thirty years ago in order to earn and send money
home, working as a gardener at several officers and private
residences. "Bohot burra hua (it’s terrible)," he says, his craggy
face sad in response to how he felt when he heard about what happened
in Mumbai. "They are also human beings... killed while going about their business, without even knowing why."

Many grieve about the Mumbai tragedy while also making a connection
between what happened there and what happens on a daily basis in Pakistan. "We are ourselves the targets of such violence," said Abdul Razik, a fresh-faced Pathan who sells used shoes at a bustling Itwar (Sunday) Bazar in Karachi.

We’re conversing two days after a bomb in a market in Peshawar,
capital of his native North West Frontier Province (NWFP) killed
close to forty people. "The people who got killed in Mumbai were not
made of gold or wood, they were human beings of flesh and blood, just
like us... Who knows who is behind it? All I know is that it is the poor who always suffer."

A woman haggling in Pashto with another shoe salesman made a similar
connection. "We feel for the people in India, for those who died and for their families. We suffer in the same way too. So many people were killed in Peshawar just the other day," she said.

"It’s a game of the great powers," interrupted a man in an embroidered Bohri cap. "We are all just pawns in it. They are playing this for their own gains." The woman quickly moved away, clearly unwilling to be drawn into a public debate on the issue.

A third typical response combines these reactions with scepticism about the identity of the captured gunman and allegations of his and his slain companions’ backgrounds and links.

"It was terrible what happened in Bombay," said Abdur Razzak, a jacket salesman. "We all felt the horror. But the next moment, we knew that the blame would come to Pakistan. They always blame us anyway for whatever happens there."

Asked about the possibility of war, he was emphatic that it should not come to that. "It will be bad for the people of both countries. Yes, we all have to die some time, but it should not be like that."

"Yeh inn donon ki mili bhagat hai (elements from both countries are in it together)," said Mohammad Ali, selling trendy belts and chunky beaded accessories. "I have been to Bombay to visit relatives and the dargah there. They are so strict with the visas and passport control.
How could those people have gone there with so much ammunition
without some collusion from people there, getting through the Indian
navy and patrols? Just like in the USA, they are so strict about
passports and security, how could those people (the hijackers) have
got onto planes with so much ammunition and destroyed those towers
without help from insiders?"

"I was shocked and saddened by the attacks in Mumbai," says well
known musician Rohail Hyatt. "But then I also felt angry when they
immediately blamed Pakistan. Now the media on both sides is hyping up
the conflict. That should not happen. We don’t want war. I think the artists will form some joint response against the kind of war-mongering that is going on especially in the media on both sides," he added.

These responses are fairly typical of the mood in Pakistan: grief for the tragedy in Mumbai, empathy as fellow-victims of terror, scepticism about the origins of the attackers, conviction that the gunmen were acting in collusion with from elements inside India, and anger at being blamed for the event. There is also a conviction that it is ordinary people on both sides who are the losers in any kind of conflict and that they should come together against knee-jerk responses and war-mongering.

The Pakistani media reflects these views, certainly, but what
dominates are the elements of resentment and anger, hostility and
efforts to discredit India in one way or another. In one recent talk
show, a well known current affairs host held forth about the invasion
of Indian films in Pakistani cinemas, including as one of his studio
guests (’specimen’ to be psycho-analysed rather) the 15-year old
Nasir Sultan who had run away to Bollywood and ended up in an Indian
prison before being returned to Pakistan some months later.
Much of the criticism of India in the Pakistani media is correct. Many Indian journalists and anchors have allowed their anger and ’nationalism’ (or ’chauvinism’ as the well known linguist Dr Tariq Rahman put it in a recent op-ed criticising the Pakistani media - the cap fits both heads) to overtake journalistic ethics. But as the old sayings go, ’people in glass houses should not throw stones’, and ’first set your own house in order before trying to sort out your neighbour’s’.

Both sayings fit both heads. Some say that the Pakistani media has
been ’less jingoistic’ than the Indian. This may be so, but the media
on this side of the border has been more obviously in a state of
denial about the Mumbai attacks and their links to Pakistani elements.
If the media in India has played up the Pakistani connection, the media here has played it down, for the most part ignoring or discrediting reports emerging from India that provide details of the captured gunman’s Pakistani origins. The dominant attitude seems to be that the information has been fabricated in order to bash Pakistan - even after a British reporter (of Pakistani origin) dug out information about the captured man’s parent’s from the electoral register in Faridkot village in the Pakistani side of the Punjab and other details.

On the whole, the media on both sides has focused on the hawkish voices rather than those who provide a more nuanced view urging restraint and a deeper look at the causes and consequences of the Mumbai tragedy. The mainstream media plays up fiery statements threatening annihilation while sidelining peace demonstrations like the recent rally of some 15,000 in Delhi organised by the Communist Party of India, which the television channels there virtually ignored, according to newspaper reports.
The results of the recent state elections in India indicate the maturity of the electorate, which chose to retain the Congress in key states rather than voting it out or voting the BJP in despite the latter’s inclusion of fear and terrorism a part of its election rhetoric. In Pakistan too, despite the television anchors’ vocal disapproval of the crackdown by the beleaguered civilian government on the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and its leadership, there appears to be widespread approval of this move.

There are clearly elements on both sides attempting to push Pakistan
and India into a conflict-a more dangerous game than ever before
given the nuclear-armed capacities of both countries, a game in which
there will be no winners, only losers. "We can’t afford to fall into this trap," says Faisal, a young software engineer in Karachi. "Otherwise there will be only cockroaches left to reap the results."

The writer is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker in Pakistan.

(This article appeared in www.mailtoday.in on Dec. 16, 2008 under a different headline)