Two stuffed camels, as tall and as dour as the actual beasts, stand these days along the Lahore canal. Atop them ride two figures – dressed from head-to-toe in stark white robes and obviously meant to represent desert Arabs. The camels seem oddly out of place amidst the colourful floats and other, sometimes garish, displays of dancers and peacocks and boats and horses meant to mark the city's Spring Festival. One asks how they came to stand there or what role they have amongst the 'dhol' carrying figures from a Punjabi village or the colourfully dressed women who churn their pots of 'lassi'.
But the presence of the Arabs represents something of the confusion that has overtaken us. Since the 1980s, a forceful attempt has been made to turn heads to the west, to place Pakistan in the Muslim Middle East and to have it abandon its place amidst the more diverse whole of South Asia. It is this thinking of course that has led to the absurd -- but widely held notion that the history of Pakistan begins with the landing in Sindh of Muhammad Bin Qasim in 711 A.D. Today, the mindset that inspired this twist on history seems active again. There is talk of India, rather than the Taliban, being the 'real' enemy.
This view is echoed frequently in the media. This of course is no big surprise given that the media has, indeed, traditionally leaned largely to the right. But more alarming is the fact that within Pakistan's military there is a clear opinion that while the civilian government may see militants as the enemies, the real foe is India. An effort to persuade at least selected politicians of this, and thus create a divide in the setup, is now on. To make this process still more effective, the whole war being fought in Pakistan is depicted as one between the US and the Taliban.
The fact that over 300 Pakistani civilians have died this year in suicide bombings carried out by the militants is cleverly ignored. And attempts have been made – some media insiders believe almost certainly orchestrated by intelligence agencies – to discredit video footage of the flogging of a girl in Swat by painting it as a NGO conspiracy. No rational, no logic has been put forward as to the hows and whys of this.
The entire chain of reasoning that holds the war against the militants is the USA's rather than ours, and that it is India whom we should be fighting, must be challenged. Our politicians need to come out unequivocally to question this flawed line of thought. Whereas it is true that much of the militancy we confront today is a consequence of US policies and the continued presence of that country's troops in Afghanistan, we must keep in mind that the situation is not that of 'either the US or the Taliban'. It is possible to have two enemies; it is sensible in such a situation to decide how strategically to take them both on, possibly one at a time. But simply because there is so much to oppose as far as Washington goes does not mean we should place ourselves in the camp of the blood-thirsty militants who think nothing of gunning down people and then impaling their heads upon poles.
So far, even if reluctantly, the military has been following political orders to take on the militants. It has not had much success. This embarrassment seems to be one factor in its decision that it may be better to join an enemy one cannot beat.
Faced with a military that it believes is not fully under its command, the political setup too has shown signs of wavering. In parliament last week, with one honourable exception, no one seemed willing to question the peace deal in Swat. This included the 'liberals' and the women in the National Assembly.
Perhaps the fear of Taliban bullets was a factor in their silence; perhaps it was an obligation to toe the line of their parties. But whatever the reasons our politicians showed themselves both unwilling and incapable of defending the right of people who live under the ruthless rule of the Taliban.
There is another problem. While there are politicians who have no sympathy with the Taliban, they ask how this force is to be battled without the full support of the military. There are no easy answers. But a start has to be made somewhere. One place to do so is by encouraging people to gaze once more to the east and to re-establish Pakistan as a South Asian nation, an inheritor of its unique blend of cultures, rather than as a country that equates itself only with that portion of the past that belongs to Islam.
To do this, the fallacy that we can militarily take on India – perhaps because we have nuclear weapons – must be exposed as nothing more than a lie. An army that has been unable to tame a few thousand maverick militants can hardly be expected to take on a far larger and more organized army. There are also other hard realities that must be confronted. Much as we may wish to deny it, much as stories of Indian 'failure' are lapped up by our media, the real, unquestionable fact is that that country has succeeded.
Its 1.2 billion people, despite a slowdown that has crippled many segments of the Indian economy, look to the future with hope. Pakistan's 160 million see less and less light to brighten the darkness that swirls all around and threatens to overwhelm them. Think tanks hold India will, by 2020, rank as a world super power. They ask if Pakistan can till then even hold together as a cohesive state. Some Pentagon analysts have envisaged a situation where it breaks up into separate fiefdoms, controlled by Taliban warlords. This is not impossible to envisage given that control of Swat has already been handed over to Maulana Fazalullah and Sufi Mohammad Khan.
Some of the scenarios being drawn up may be far-fetched. Many drafts for the future drawn up by American or European think tanks have of course proved inaccurate. Among these was the notion that Pakistan would evolve into a stable, developed country.
This has not happened. The country's president has warned the world that terrorists based in Pakistan threaten everyone.
He has not said how this threat is to be tackled. But answers have to be found. The only option for Pakistan is to break free of the militant grip, focus on building a new relationship with India and realize the only hope for a brighter future lies in building regional harmony rather than in waging war.
Enemies to the east?