A Pakistani's Reasons for Hope

Fifty years ago India was carved into two nations. Twenty years later I was born on the side called Pakistan. My generation of Pakistanis and Indians faces the challenge of leading South Asia in the new millennium. Can we, "midnight's grandchildren," hope to create a better future in the next 50 years?

Raised on the ideology of partition because of religious difference, my generation of Pakistanis was denied a cultural heritage that derives from the ethnic and religious heterogeneity that is South Asia. Instead, we were taught in school that Hindus and Muslims were "two nations," a theory propagated by the Indian Muslim leaders at independence.

I remember as a child being frequently confused between Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first governor-general of independent Pakistan, and the Prophet Muhammad. Jinnah is commonly referred to not by name but by the title of Quaid-i-Azam, meaning "Father of the Nation," by the state-controlled news media and in educational materials. This effectively transformed a political leader into a sacred figure, who was therefore beyond criticism.

The prior centuries of coexistence among Muslims and Hindus did not make it into the post-independence history books. Nor was debate on whether partition was in fact the best solution for the Muslims of the subcontinent acceptable political discourse.

From the ideology of difference and the creation of an enemy derive the key government policies that keep Pakistan impoverished. The country's military expenditure - nearly one-fourth of the national budget - far exceeds spending on education and health, a pattern opposite that in most other countries. This obscene disparity is justified by the need to defend Pakistan against India. Yet, the rationale for alleged Indian belligerence is not questioned. We hear, ad nauseam, about the need to resolve the Kashmir problem, which is the "core issue" of Pakistan's troubled relationship with India. The continued propagation of a culture of enmity with India results in sealed borders, minimal trade and investment, and virtually no transfer of skills, technology, and experience - all of which would help generate wealth in the region.

Rather than harping on a solution to the Kashmir issue, Pakistan should get on with the business of putting its own house in order. The problems of human rights and self-determination for Kashmiris are real, but their solution lies first and foremost in a sustained dialogue between Kashmiri leaders and the Indian government. One would think that we might have learned from the trauma of the 1971 civil war, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It is far more important to see that the national pie is equitably distributed between Pakistan's various ethnic groups than to focus our national energies and resources on a distant and dubious prize. But the lesson our leaders, both civilian and military, drew was that we must further bolster ourselves against the nefarious designs of India. At the same time, divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines within the country have grown.

The history of the past 50 years - three wars with India, a continuing preoccupation with military capabilities, growing ethnic and sectarian divisions accompanied by violence, rampant corruption, continuing poverty - casts a dark shadow on Pakistan's future prospects. Yet, there are signs of hope. The most obvious of these is a new dialogue among the current leaders of India and Pakistan. But more fundamental is the different mentality among many Pakistanis of my generation, who did not directly suffer the trauma of partition, have not experienced war, and are not as wedded to hard-line views regarding India.

Our cultural affinities are affirmed when we travel and live abroad and meet Indians, many of whom we befriend because we speak the same language, enjoy the same food and music, and share similar values. I see hope, too, in the growing trend of many educated expatriate Pakistanis returning home. These elites, having studied and worked with Indians, will be the core of Pakistan's future leadership. Finally, the process of global change, transforming relations between long-term foes, must also affect South Asia.

Signs of dismay and signs of hope coexist in Pakistan today. But a new generation of leaders, with the imagination and courage to forge a new relationship with our most important neighbor, beckons. I choose to be optimistic.

* Ameen Jan is an associate at the International Peace Academy in New York.

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