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India's strange preoccupation with Pakistan

Pakistan-India relations remain fraught. But India should be looking at extremism at home rather than worrying about its neighbor, according to well-known Pakistani columnist Nadeem F. Paracha.

In 2003, on a flight to Hong Kong, I had a Frenchman and an Indian sitting behind me. Both must have been in their 30s, as was I. Their conversation throughout the flight was quite audible, especially when the Frenchman begun to groan about the time that he had spent in Mumbai (in the early 1990s).

He was telling the Indian how he (and his wife) got caught up in a riot that had erupted after mobs of Hindu extremists attacked and destroyed an old mosque in the Indian city of Ayoudhia in 1992.

"It was horrific," he told the Indian. "The rioters were attacking people with sticks and I even saw some of them trying to set a Muslim man on fire."

"The rioters were Hindu?" the Indian asked.

"Well, they were attacking Muslims, so they must have been," the Frenchman replied. "My wife refuses to go back to India now," he added, laughingly.

I concentrated a bit more on the conversation because I was now eagerly waiting for the Indian's response.

And voila: "Usually such riots are funded and instigated by the Pakistanis," came the explanation.

One of my eyebrows went north and I hoped the Frenchman would ask exactly how Pakistan could be involved in starting riots in India.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha

Nadeem F. Paracha

He didn't. He just went on about his ordeal, and how his wife had made them take the very next flight back to Paris.

"It's worse in Pakistan!" the Indian shot back. "It (Pakistan) is destabilizing the whole region."

"Maybe, but we were in India," the Frenchman reminded him.

I couldn't help but turn around and intervene in the conversation: "Can I just pop in, and speak to my South Asian brother here?" I asked the Frenchman. He just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

Addressing the Indian in Urdu (which is quite similar to Hindi), I said: "Bhai (brother), have you ever been to Pakistan?"

He replied in English: "No, but my father went back in the 1970s. Are you Pakistani?"

"Yes," I replied, "and I am flying to Hong Kong to whip up a riot among the Indian community there."

The Frenchman snickered and so did the Indian. I raised my small green can of Carlsberg, and added: "Here's to the usual mutual accusations and counter-accusations between India and Pakistan. And to the freedom of Kashmir and Khalistan!"

This time the Indian did not snicker, but the Frenchman did, knowing well that I was being entirely sarcastic. The Indian raised his paper cup full of white wine and spouted out his own toast: "And here's to Pakistan stopping being such a nuisance and becoming a part of India again."

I smiled: "Well, it all depends on how the Indian community in Hong Kong treats our French friend here after I incite them to burn a mosque in downtown Hong Kong."

The Frenchman laughed out loud: "So, it's true. This is exactly how we (in France) perceive the way Pakistanis and Indians engage with one another."

I agreed: "Absolutely!"

The Indian didn't: "Well, not the Indians ..."

Narendra Modi

Modi: "a committed man"?

"But you were just blaming Pakistan for the 1992 riots!" I shot back, albeit smilingly.

"Just like you guys blame India for everything that goes wrong in Pakistan," he replied.

I raised my can again and repeated: "Yup. So here's to the usual mutual accusations and counter-accusations between India and Pakistan."

Though we did not speak again during the rest of the flight, the Indian did say goodbye to me after we landed, but only after the Frenchman quipped, "Well, good luck with your mission in Hong Kong." This made the Indian just shrug his shoulders: "Ah, we're not that concerned about them (Pakistan)."

The thing is, most Indians really are. Far more than a Pakistani is about India. Let me explain: if one looks at Indian media, especially social media today, one will immediately notice a certain smugness among most Indians. As if Prime Minister Modi is the guy who will lead them into becoming a superpower. Well, maybe he will. In fact, when he was elected, Imran Khan, the iconic leader of Pakistan's populist centre-right party, the PTI, actually praised Modi at a rally for being a "committed man."

I do wonder what Khan's position on Modi is at this point in time, when India is clearly being rocked by a series of events that smack of religious bigotry. But the truth is, it is only now that the Pakistan media has begun to speak about the Modi government in a more negative manner.

Nevertheless, as Hindu extremists go about their business of expelling visiting Pakistani singers, authors and actors from India, and the Indian cricket board refuses to play an agreed series against the Pakistan cricket team (on the instructions of the extremists), Pakistanis continue to throng multiplexes to watch Bollywood films and Indian soaps on TV.

As many commentators have already mentioned (and I believe, correctly), India is never an issue during an election in Pakistan. The only time India was passionately adopted as an issue was during the 1970 election, when Pakistan's former eastern wing, East Pakistan, was in turmoil and the Indians were quite openly backing militant Bengali nationalists there.

Border between India and Kashmir EPA/JAIPAL SINGH +++(

The Kashmir region has long been a source of contention between the two nations

But ever since the 1980s, I cannot recall a single time that political parties in Pakistan ever made India a primary issue during an election. In India, on the other hand, Pakistan has increasingly become a hot topic to talk about (or, rather, denounce), during an election. It is a fact that during a general election or even a state or a by-election there, the already tense Line of Control (LoC) on the Pakistan-India border heats up. Apparently a tough stand against Pakistan is what the Indian voters are most impressed with.

Recently, Najam Sethi, a senior Pakistani journalist and famous TV personality, correctly pointed out in his current affairs show that the Pakistani government will never be able to get its Indian counterpart to talk peace until India fully gets out of its current phase of state election season.

Yet so many Indians believe and claim that India has become too big a power to exhibit any concern about Pakistan. However, quite the opposite is the case.

Purely as an observer, I believe India today, ruled by a government that is espousing a curious mixture of economic dynamism, modern-day populism and an unabashed penchant for enforcing a volatile strand of Hindu nationalism, has (at least as far as promoting forces of extremism goes), achieved, in just one year, what Pakistan took decades to do.

As the Pakistan government and state has finally decided to go all out to wipe out the many ogres of extremism that the state (from the 1980s onwards) so carelessly unleashed, India, at least in this respect, seems to be becoming the Pakistan of the 1980s.

And if most Indians claim that they are really not that concerned about Pakistan, then that's nice to know. But they should now at least be concerned about India. Because one can now see many Indians sweeping under the carpet (and even justifying) acts of bigotry, just as some sections of Pakistani society once also did in the face of the notorious exploits of its own extremists.

Nadeem F. Paracha - popularly known as NFP - is one of Pakistan's most famous satirists and cultural critics. Paracha writes regularly for DW English on Pakistani and South Asian politics, culture and arts, which you can read on our website www.dw.de