Spiking Stereotypes

Bang in the middle of New York’s busiest bus terminal, the Port Authority, two women attendants at a news-stand share dates as they break their fast. One is Pakistani and the other Bangladeshi. Their boss is a man from India. Between the three, the camaraderie is wondrously obvious.

Indian-Americans here, the working class, have no qualms about mixing with Pakistanis. There are quite a few Indian-owned fast food outlets that hire Pakistanis instead of people from other nationalities. Asians from the subcontinent in search of the American dream on the whole co-exist amicably.

Sourness starts in the upper echelons of society. Successful Indians – and they are crawling all over – tend to lean on the chauvinistic side and are often quite cliquish opting to stick to their own kind. Pakistanis, who too have developed a bit of a swagger because of their upward mobility and acceptance in a fiercely competitive American milieu, move in sync with fellow countrymen.

Pinned at the heart of each Indian and Pakistani are the shop-worn stereotypes, so intractable and so pervasive, promising never to go away. Politicians and diplomats – the talking heads of both countries – whose careers are made by strafing their targets, fan furiously the fires of hate and war.

Look no further than the pesky Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi who excoriates President Musharraf – accusing him of supporting radical Islamists – by calling him “Miya Musharraf.” His offensive innuendoes and stereotypes about Muslims having too many children is just one small example of how Indians treat their own 10 per cent of the population. Watch India’s foreign minister Sinha and his prime minister Vajpayee break into hives the minute Americans mention the word ‘mediation’. “We’re allergic to this word”, admits an Indian diplomat here, yet he appeals to America to arm-twist Islamabad on “cross-border terrorism” and “proxy war” – New Delhi’s threadbare cliches.

Settling 55 years of doggone diplomatic scores has become India and Pakistan’s zero-sum game.

In interviews and discussions on background with South Asian diplomats here, these stereotypes and metaphors morph into verisimilitudes. Conducting a post-mortem, Indians examine the six stereotypes fixated in the Pakistani mind. India is blamed for: 1) not reconciling to Pakistan’s existence; 2) wanting to damage it permanently; 3) seeking regional hegemony; 4) stockpiling nuclear arms in order to disable Pakistan’s security forever; 5) practising a spurious secular policy that is against Muslims; 6) illegally and by devious means having snatched away Kashmir from Pakistan.

On the flip side, the Indian mindset against Pakistan is engendered in thinking that Pakistanis: 1) Want the break-up of the Indian union; 2) dream of reinstalling the Mughal ‘takht’ (kingdom) in Delhi; 3) think Hindus are ‘banyas’ and therefore incapable of generosity; 4) consider themselves superior and of Turko-Persian stock; 5) And that the Indians believe Islam is determined to destroy, through jihad, the pre-Islamic traditions and modern Indian secularism.

“Are these empty or real?” ask the diplomats, “are they sophisticated or frozen in rhetorical animosity? Do they betray a deeper pathological mindset that needs to be treated?” But they stop short of saying what India can do. And are instead sucked into the same xenophobic stereotypes they have a minute ago recounted, blaming Islamabad for undercutting the Lahore, Agra and Kargil agreements.

More sloganization follows as they press Pakistan to “limit activities” (cross-border terrorism and proxy war) to provide adequate space to each other, “only then with a certain amount of leadership, balanced and political judgment, we can move, but Kashmir can’t feature as the core issue… the peace process can go forward.”

Two years ago, the Indian ambassador in Islamabad V.K Nambiar (who is currently India’s Permanent Representative at the UN) reportedly addressed Pakistan’s National Defence College, asking the officers to consider a balanced and nuanced historical picture – “India and Pakistan are heirs to the great subcontinent traditions which have produced the best brains in the world, with the best human resources and the best diplomats and officials who occupy top slots in the World Bank and the UN and in businesses and respected think tanks – we can build upon this and forge a deep mutual support.” But how to expunge the reflexively mutual suspicion? Indians say Pakistan’s foreign policy is “India-centric”. By the same token, their’s is “Pakistan-centric”.

Overwrought with their particular storylines, the discourse then becomes polluted and dialogue impossible.

A third view – youthful, fresh, unblemished by history’s vestiges – is quietly taking shape and may one day meander into mainstream voice of decision-making. Some MENSA smart Indians and Pakistanis in America are dovetailing their own doctrines for conflict resolution, dismissing the “conventional” options as “marginal and futile”.

Instead, “unconventional” options need to be pursued if the rival states want to survive and thrive. “Difficult, but not impossible”, is their proffered view. India and Pakistan should propose something “dramatic”: a far-reaching agreement involving the UK and the US. The elements of this agreement should include all (not just some) of the following:

(1) An immediate cessation of nuclear weapons programme in India and Pakistan, total nuclear disarmament, recognizing that nuclear deterrence is not the optimal or practical defence for both.

(2) An immediate and final settlement of the Kashmir issue with India, accepting the current LoC (or some minor variation thereof).

(3) Large-scale economic aid in education, health care and infrastructure from the West.

Although religion rears its ugly head in both countries and poverty is widespread in both nations, they highlight some “important differences between the uneven siblings” that provide the bigger (India) with more manoeuvring room.

“Compared to Pakistan, Indians seem to be far more committed to democracy, even in the crude form in which it is practised there. India’s military is more under the control of its civilian government. The Indian press is more of a factor in Indian politics than Pakistan’s press in Pakistan. India’s economy is growing and is far more diversified than Pakistan’s.

India’s relative strength in software and related technical fields make it more of a global player than Pakistan is. The diversity of India’s population give it strengths as well as headaches, while Pakistan’s less diverse composition makes its more vulnerable.”

Both countries, they state, are squandering their future on “Kashmir squabble”. They are failing to exploit the opportunity of getting vast amounts of aid from the West by remaining isolated, primitive and provincial. “Let us join hands in trying to persuade both these siblings to disarm and get along.”

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