On a dark night when clouds enveloped the sky and rain and lightning forced people indoors, the residents of a village heard a roar and a thud louder than the loudest of cloud thunder. Many of them rushed out and saw a fighter plane crashed in the nearby fields. Some of them thought its pilot must have died during the crash. Others surmised that he could be hiding somewhere and might try to attack them. As this chatter was going on, a boy and his sister heard a weak knock at their door. Someone was crying outside in pain. They opened the door and found a man in military uniform standing outside. He was the pilot whose plane had crashed.
For a moment, they hesitated. He was, after all, a combatant from the other side. He could also be armed and might hurt them. But he was also badly injured and bleeding. They called their father and all three helped him get in. They offered him food and water, cleaned and dressed his wounds. Next morning, they quietly went to a nearby military post and handed him over to the soldiers there.
This story was told in a Pakistani textbook back in the 1970s.
Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian pilot whose fighter plane crashed on Pakistani soil late last month, could say that this is not the way villagers in Azad Kashmir treated him. After they saw him descend from the sky with a parachute, they rushed and found him by a stream. Some of them immediately started beating him up and continued doing so until a contingent of the Pakistan Army arrived and rescued him. The earliest images of the captured Indian pilot showed his face bloodied by the beating he got. A black eye and a swollen cheek were still visible in the images of him being handed over to India on March 1.
What has changed between the 1970s and now? What has made real life Pakistanis behave differently from their storybook version? Context. Mindset.
The context for the textbook story was a government effort to pacify the Pakistani public’s opinion towards India in the aftermath of a lost war in 1971. People were hurt. They were angry. They did not want to accept the creation of Bangladesh even though it was already a reality. They felt deceived and stabbed in the back by India. The government needed to revive their essential humanity in order for them to see that blind hatred towards their big neighbour to the east was neither helpful nor desirable in making them good human beings — both individually and collectively. A mindset needed to be changed and a new mindset required to be inculcated so that the hurt and anger could be replaced with kindness and care.
Since those distant years, the context has changed drastically. Beginning with the early 2000s, the situation has only gotten worse. A strategically strident, politically powerful and economically confident India has spared no opportunity to browbeat Pakistan in almost every field — from diplomacy to sports and from competition in the international arena to bilateral cultural exchanges. Except for a brief period around the Agra Summit between General Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001 and some helpful behind the scenes diplomacy over the thorny issue of Kashmir more than a decade ago, the two countries have moved apart with a mutual ferocity they previously displayed only during and around wars.
Pakistani attitudes towards India have gone through multiple war, peace and then war again sequences during these years. This could be because Pakistanis have received an overtly aggressive education vis-à-vis India in recent times — one that emphasises their difference from the people on the Indian side of the border. They have been made to see the political and geographical divide between India and Pakistan as a war between good and evil, as a battle between an Atal-Bihari-Vajpayee-neighbourhood bully and its smaller, but virtuous, nemesis, and as a conflict between two religions.
Same has been the case on the Indian side — only more so because a shrill news media there has come to believe that there is money to be made from selling war. The hostility towards everything Pakistani has often manifested itself in rabidly anti-Pakistan rhetoric coming out of India’s chatterati — including politicians, actors, former bureaucrats, ex-soldiers and sometimes even intellectuals and writers. In its most recent manifestation, this schooling in hate has led to multiple lynchings of Kashmiris working and studying in different parts of India. They are increasingly seen as Pakistani agents out to destroy India.
That the two sides need to change this context and their mutually hostile mindsets to one that induces peace more than it breeds war, is something that cannot be over-emphasised. There is so much to lose from war — money, men, our essential humanity. And there is so much to gain from peace — human development, security, our long-lost kindness and care.
This excerpt is part of the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.