'Qasab hanging won't derail peace process'

With an ‘exodus’ of Pakistani Hindus seeking refuge in India, Pak being blamed for inflaming passions leading to the Assam problem and the Supreme Court (SC) upholding the death sentence for Ajmal Qasab, the question once again arises: can India and Pakistan share cordial – if not friendly – relations? Huge steps have been taken in this direction in the past few years from both sides but the 26/11 terror attacks, the recent riots and reports about the ugly treatment meted out to minorities in Pakistan have the power to upset the delicate balance of the fledgling relationship. However, B M Kutty, the General Secretary of the Pakistan Peace Coalition, disagreed strongly during a lecture event organised by the Citizens Initiative for Peace at Mumbai’s Press Club on Wednesday (August 29) evening. He made it clear that any “stray incident” including the SC’s verdict cannot derail the peace process.

Paul Bhatti, Pakistan's Minister
Standing firm: Paul Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for National Harmony, is the only Christian cabinet minister in the country. According to him, blasphemy allegations go beyond religion – they show that the old feudal caste system has not gone away. Pic/afp

Love thy neighbour
Kutty, a native of Kerala, settled in the neighbouring country more than 60 years ago after he fell in love with a Pakistani woman. In 1950, he entered politics and “I never looked back,” he said. Last year, the 84-year-old released his autobiography titled Sixty Years In Self-Exile: No Regrets, which, he says, is a “frank” portrayal of his life.

Policemen stand guard outside the court of Judge Raja Jawad Abbas Hassan in Islamabad
Arms and the men: Policemen stand guard outside the court of Judge Raja Jawad Abbas Hassan in Islamabad yesterday during the hearing of Rimsha Masih’s case. The lawyer for her accuser claimed that doctors and officials are “favouring” her. Pic/afp 

Now a Pakistani citizen, Kutty was in the city to address the Indian media’s concerns about the reality in Pakistan. “There should be exchange of ideas between India and Pakistan,” he said. “Indian news channels are not telecast in Pakistan and Pakistan’s news channels are not telecast here. Because of this, both countries don’t have any idea of the ‘real India’ or the ‘real Pakistan’. All that is shown here is that Hindu girls are forcibly married to 80-year-old Muslim men.

B M Kutty, Pushpa Tai Bhave, Dolphy D'Souza
Trio of trailblazers: B M Kutty (centre) makes a point as activist Pushpa Tai Bhave notes it down and Dolphy D’Souza of Citizens Initiative for Peace listens attentively. Pic/shadab khan

No one realises that the same thing happens to Muslim girls too. Only one channel aired the forced conversion and marriage of a Hindu girl recently. All other television channels and the print media protested against the telecast. The government is going to take strict action against that TV channel. The Muslim leaders have decided not to allow the maulvi who conducted the wedding to enter any mosque. But no one here realises that. Similarly, Pakistanis watch Bollywood films and all they see are half-clothed men and women. That is not real India.

There is a communication gap. The misunderstandings will end only if this gap is filled.” He also cited the case of Rimsha Masih, a mentally impaired minor Christian girl currently in a jail in Rawalpindi as she has been accused of blasphemy. “Everyone there is protesting against what is happening to Rimsha but no one here knows about it. The impression is that Pakistan is full of criminals.”

Public perception on both sides has to change for relations to improve between the countries. Kutty believes that media plays an integral role for that to happen. “News channels and publications from both countries should be allowed in the other. There should be a visa-free relationship between the two countries so that people from both countries can interact easily. Unless there is public pressure, it will take the bureaucrats another 50 years to proceed.”

A changing country
Pakistan, Kutty says, is on the brink of change. In the past two years, several firsts have taken place in the country’s history. There have been several initiatives from the government to extend an olive branch towards India. These include investment and trade initiatives. “Major decisions are going to be taken regarding visa rules. Talks are already on,” he said.

He also recalled how the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff recently became the first one in his position to actually state that it is time to withdraw troops from Siachen and the two countries should be friends. For the first time, the government has appointed a Chief Election Commissioner to ensure free and fair elections. Another first is that a government is actually completing its full term, he said. “When the elections are conducted, either in March or earlier, people will vote depending on party manifestos, not a candidate’s looks. There are already calls to remove the word ‘minorities’ from the Constitution — nobody is a majority or a minority. There is a demand that all Pakistanis be considered equal. I see a new Pakistan coming.”

When asked if the death sentence handed to Qasab can derail the peace process, Kutty said, “I don’t think so. This is one stray incident. There are many Indians in Pakistani jails. This may happen there too. But if this (peace) process, this trend continues and is driven by the governments themselves, this won’t affect it.” One can only hope. 

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