This generation on both sides of the border owes it to its children to remove the clouds of animosity.

I am returning to Pakistan after eight years. To the questions of those who had become friends after my yearly visits to Pakistan for 6 or 7 years up to 2004, on why I had “abandoned” their country, I would always say: “I stopped coming to Pakistan after 2004 because the story doesn't change. I am tired of hearing your ravings and rantings about Kashmir.”

Well, this time around, I have to admit, the story has changed. Kashmir doesn't seem to be in the hearts and minds of too many Pakistanis, except those who are referred to derisively as ‘fundoos' by the liberal, well-educated upper-class Pakistanis.

There are other changes too. The first one that strikes a visitor returning after long years is that the razzle-dazzle of the Jinnah International Airport at Karachi has almost disappeared. Our airports have not only become several notches better, but also busier, reflecting the vibrancy of an Indian economy all of us seem to think has run into a huge speed-breaker.

With Western tourists and businessmen having abandoned Pakistan, widely regarded as the land of terror attacks and a haven for Taliban of all hues — Afghan as well as Pakistan — I get through Immigration in a few minutes, collect my suitcase and breeze through the exit gate as my visa is “exempted from police reporting”.

For those who do not know, Pakistan and Indian governments do the utmost to torture visitors to either country by giving city-specific visas that require registration at the airport, and at the police stations of each city that you visit on both arrival and departure. Enough of a headache to dampen the most enthusiastic traveller. Because at these police stations, in both the countries, you are looked upon with suspicion, dislike and disdain, all rolled into one! Ask me, I've gone through this rigmarole on my first two visits to the country in 1983 and 1993.

In 1993 I had to report to police stations while entering and leaving Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi.

MQM show of strength

I land in Karachi on a day the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) chief, Mr Altaf Hussain, who is based in London, has called a mammoth women's rally, where tens of thousands of MQM female cadres have descended. In a passionate speech broadcast from London he extols the virtues of giving women their due in society and nation building.

Knowing the gender record of Pakistan, I'm hardly impressed. Also, somebody tells me that this is only to show Mr Imran Khan, the new rising star on Pakistan's political firmament — who recently had a huge rally in Karachi where women had come down in droves to watch the flamboyant cricketer — that Mr Hussain too can make women sway and swoon!

“More important, it was to tell him that in Karachi, the MQM is the political boss and while Mr Khan might get crowds, he won't be able to convert these into votes when the elections take place,” was my friend's wry comment.

Anyway, as far as Pakistani business and industry are concerned, all eyes are on last week's visit by our Commerce Minister, Mr Anand Sharma, with a huge business delegation to Islamabad.

“For the first time has such a huge business delegation come to Pakistan, showing that India is serious about normalising business and trade ties with Pakistan,” says an enthused Mr Aziz Memon, Chairman of the Kings Group of companies.

MFN issue

About the disappointment on the Indian side that the event failed to secure India MFN status, he says that this is due to “both illiterate people and illiterate politicians. The word MFN is being misunderstood and exploited… most favoured nation is a WTO terminology… it doesn't mean we are giving any special concessions to India. It just means that we are trading with 195 countries of the world and we have excluded India from that and we, Pakistani businessmen, want that to be included.”

Mr Memon is happy that the Pakistan Prime Minister, Mr Yusuf Raza Gilani, had said on Sunday that it was not he who wanted to give MFN status to India, but the Qaide-e-Azam who had done so at the time of the “inception of the new nation by saying that we will live together and trade together”.

He is hopeful that this issue will be sorted out soon, and “we will be opening a chapter of prosperity by trading with India. When that happens, our bilateral trade, the real figure for which is around $6 to 7 billion… at least not less than $6 billion, through Singapore and Dubai will jump up to $50 billion. I am confident of that.”

Mr Memon says “We don't have a choice and India too, if it has to become an economic giant… this century will belong to Asia, but for India to take off, it has to remove small obstacles from its path and set its ties right with neighbouring countries.”

And Pakistan would hugely benefit, too. “Today we have a huge electricity shortage; just by importing finished petroleum products from India across the border we will be saving $350-400 million. Also, the EU concessions we are getting by removal of tariff barriers will increase our exports by at least $450 million a year. This wouldn't have been possible if India hadn't given a nod and withdrew its objection and we are thankful to India for it.”

He gives the example of once bitter foes such as Germany and England, Japan and the US, which now are major trading partners.

“Look at Germany and France, they have gone to war several times, their political issues have not yet been resolved, and yet they have a common currency and a common passport.”

Rotarians' initiative

He adds that this generation on both sides of the border owes it to its children to “remove the clouds of animosity.”

Towards this end, says Mr Memon, a passionate Rotarian who is actively involved in Pakistan's polio eradication programme and travels several times to India on Rotary work, Rotarians have already taken an initiative. “We send our children to stay in the homes of our Rotarian friends in Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. Only last week, 12 of our kids were in Delhi.”

This exercise is to expose the children to the culture of each country. And then let them decide if they want to be stuck in the mindset of the Partition generation or move beyond those times.

“The older Englishmen cannot forget what Germany did to them. Can Japan forget what the Americans did to them? And yet Germany and UK are part of the EU, and Japan's relations with the US are excellent.”

As for Kashmir, Mr Memon says: “Those things are for the politicians to decide. We, the business community, feel that we should go ahead with the business with India and the statesmen on both sides can take care of that issue.”

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(This article was published on February 21, 2012)
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