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Mistaking handshakes for friendship

September 1 2012



Pakistan, we are told, has an archenemy and a steadfast friend at its borders. Telling them apart, however, may not be that easy.

One neighbour, where Muslims are a minority, has declared Eid festival a national holiday for all. The other neighbour discourages Muslims from fasting and attending mosques during working hours. One neighbour allows Muslim to practice their faith as they see fit; the other tries to regulate Islamic practices. One neighbour facilitates Muslims’ annual pilgrimage to Makkah by building dedicated complexes near airports. The other permits only the elderly, or those who the State finds patriotic, to perform the Hajj (pilgrimage). Pakistanis share culture, cuisine, and history with one neighbour. With the other no extensive cultural bonds exist.

Despite the State’s tight clamp on the 23 million Chinese Muslims in the northwest, Pakistanis continue to consider China a steadfast friend. Whereas, Indian Muslims practice their faith without government meddling, Pakistanis consider India an archenemy.

It was only in 2009 when 150 people died in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, when the Muslim Uighurs demanded greater religious freedoms. While the protest-happy Jamat-i-Islami has been quick to condemn the Burmese authorities for ill-treating Burmese Muslims, Jamat and other ‘champions’ of Muslims causes remained eerily quiet on Uighurs. With China officially designated as a friend, even the religious zealots in Pakistan willingly ignore China’s indiscretions against the Muslim minority.

This is not to argue that everything is hunky dory for Muslims in India. Communal riots have resulted in thousands of Muslims deaths in Gujarat alone. In Indian administered Kashmir, where Muslims have a sizeable population, human rights organisations have reported 70,000 deaths in the past decade. Only recently the discovery of mass graves in Indian-administered Kashmir revealed thousands of dead bodies of Kashmiri youth.  Compared with the 150 deaths in China in 2009, the scale of Muslim deaths in India, even after controlling for the large Indian Muslim population, cannot be ignored or diminished. Why would I then question if China is Pakistan’s true friend.

There is no doubt that India has mishandled, to say the least, the situation in Kashmir. By deploying brute force against Kashmiris, India has ended up on the wrong side of history; as has Pakistan in her dealings with the Balochs. While the violence against Muslims in India is repugnant, outside of Kashmir (where evidence of the State’s collusion in violence may no longer be ignored) the violence is not resulting from state-sanctioned policies.

More often than not, communal discord causes violence between Muslims and Hindus in congested urban centres. In Mumbai, a congested city where strict competition for limited resources keeps all communities on edge, Hindus and Muslims have been embroiled in disputes and violence. It is no secret that landlords in choice neighbourhoods in New Delhi routinely refuse renting housing to Muslims. Even Muslim movie stars have reported discrimination in Mumbai’s housing market.

Despite the violence against Muslims in India, and Muslim-led attacks on Indian Parliament in New Delhi or on hotels and other landmarks in Mumbai, the Indian government has not instituted policies to regulate religious practices of minorities. Muslims are free to attend mosques and shrines, observe religious ceremonies in open, have their internal disputes settled as per Islamic laws, and lobby for greater Muslim rights within the Indian federation.

I have visited the Jamia mosque in New Delhi and the imambargahs in Lucknow. There were no signs of any restriction near mosques or shrines in India. In fact, weeks later when I arrived in Pakistan I saw heavy police guards around imambargahs where security forces were deployed to protect Muslim places of worships against attacks by fellow Muslims.

China, unlike India, is struggling with the very concept of religion. It is not just Muslims, but Christians, Buddhists, and several others who have been subjected to the State’s heavy handedness. As incomes rise and information flows more freely to China, the State will come under immense pressure to allot religion some space in the body politic, which has not been the case to date.

The Pakistan-China ‘friendship’ represents more of a strategic defence partnership between Pakistan and China than a grassroots movement based on people-to-people cultural ties. Pakistan has, until recently, served the same purpose for China’s ‘strategic depth’ vis-à-vis India as Afghanistan has served for Pakistan. By having an unsympathetic Pakistan on the India’s western borders, China must have found it convenient to deal with India from the other side, especially after China’s war with India in 1962.

Less than a decade after Sino-India war, Pakistan played the role of a fixer by facilitating a secret rendezvous for Henry Kissinger with the Chinese leadership. The Chinese were until then isolated from the rest of the western world. The clandestine ‘Ping-Pong diplomacy’ between the US and China was hosted by the Pakistanis that resulted in ending China’s isolation. For this, the Chinese have been grateful. However, 40 years later, the Chinese are getting tired of doing favours for Pakistan in return. This was explicitly obvious recently from China’s refusal to assist Pakistan in a crisis with the balance of payments. Moreover, China and India together are now part of the global value chains where a military conflict between the two is highly remote, thus further reducing Pakistan’s utility to the Chinese defence strategy.

The 70s and 80s were the high-time of state propaganda about the Sino-Pak friendship. School-going children in Pakistan were taught songs about Pak-China friendship. During Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s tenure, the federal government disbursed books to young students exalting the virtues of Chinese communism. I remember receiving books as prize in school that told stories of Chinese workers organising against a feudal who was making roosters crow earlier than usual in the morning so that the workers were tricked into working longer hours. I was not very enthusiastic of having such a heavy dose of communism administered in lieu of a real prize.

Pakistanis in the short run may not see India in a different light given that they see Indo-Pak relations mostly in Kashmir’s context where a lot remains unresolved. Indians also remain suspicious of Pakistanis when they see armed militants from Pakistan landing at a beach in Mumbai.

Despite the mutual misgivings, Indians and Pakistanis cannot break free of the shared history, heritage, and culture. There is much in common between the two peoples to be able to seek common ground on all outstanding matters. Pakistan’s long-term relations with China, however, may need a serious rethink even at the official levels because other than the mutual distrust of India, not much is common between the Chinese and Pakistani peoples.

In the absence of a common language, music, or cuisine, it is hard to see why Pakistanis and Chinese would see each other as bosom buddies. There exists a formal relationship between the two States, which may not be confused with steadfast friendship between the two peoples. As Ahmad Faraz once wrote: Not everyone who shakes your hand is a friend.


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan

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