Pakistani Travelogue-II: Pakistani Perceptions of India

My personal interest in Pakistani perceptions of India created a mutual fascination. When Pakistanis heard that I had spent time in India, they inevitably asked questions about life there and my opinion of Indo-Pak relations.

Gargantuan government edifices glittered behind freshly painted wrought-iron fences, glamorous palaces to Pakistani politics in marble and brass majesty. Just before dusk, I was riding along a smooth six-lane boulevard in the back seat of a taxi with the doors locked and the windows down. On my right, an opulent skyscraper flashed past, adorned with bright blue tiles and curved panes of graceful glass arching over the entrance. Greenery and gardens lined the wide, well swept thoroughfares of Islamabad, a model city–shopping complexes with ample parking, Quaid-e-Azam University with acres of vacant land.

No mildewed colonial architecture, no winding ancient alleyways and gullies sprawling away from the main roads around which urban planners had to circumnavigate. No motor rickshaws allowed in Islamabad–their fumes would blacken the zinnias and marigolds that adorn medians and traffic circles. It was July 1997, my first visit to Pakistan.

When my taxi driver asked me “From which country?” I replied, “Main America se aatii huun.” (I’m coming from America.) In surprise, he responded, “Urdu kahaan sikhii?” (Where did you study Urdu?) I told him I had studied Hindi in India. “But,” he insisted, “You are speaking Urdu.” I tried to explain that besides the script, the two languages are virtually the same, with some interchangeable vocabulary words: “Aapkii jizbaan, Uunkii Bhaashaa.” He acted amazed, but not amused. “Nahin Hai!” He argued, “They are not the same!” I asked him if he had ever seen Indian films with Shah Rukh Khan or listened to Indian music. Naturally, he had. “Kyaa, samajh gaya?” I inquired, “Can you understand?” “Zarur. . .Certainly,” he responded, “it’s in Urdu.” “Shahid. . . perhaps for your ears, lekin. . .but to the actors and singers, and to the Indian audience, it is Hindi!”

I asked where he was from and if he was married, the usual polite inquiries. He told me a sad tale of a girl he had loved whose father forbade her to marry him. That was eight years ago. When she was wed to another man, he had dropped out of school. He swore that he would never marry anyone else and would die loving only her. I studied his softly handsome sincere face and marveled at his demeanor, his pathos, his candor–a living model of a sympathetic male character in a Bollywood drama, perhaps the broken-hearted but charming younger brother-in-law of a long suffering heroine. He seemed so familiar.

We turned off the main road onto a broad but dusty residential street where, behind whitewashed walls and imposing metal gates, potted plants drooped from the balconies of two and three storied pink, yellow, and beige cement bungalows. When my taxi-vala heard that I had lived in India, he asked, “Which country is better, India or Pakistan?”

After having been in Pakistan for only a few weeks, I certainly was not qualified to make a weighted judgment on that question, but essentially, if somewhat superficially, I could discern very few outward differences between anything I saw in the homes, schools, shops, or offices which happened to be sitting on one side of the Wagah border or the other. With the exception of the ubiquitous photographs of Jinnah in post offices in Pakistan as opposed to Gandhi or Nehru in India, there was nothing that was strikingly different—the vegetation, the architecture, the smells, the hospitality.

I told the taxi-vala that these two hostile nations seemed to be very related in almost every externally observable way. Essentially, the people look quite similar, with the same wide variety of facial features and body types. The fabrics and clothes they wear are almost the same. Even the ceiling fans and the phones and the electrical sockets are the same. The architectural styles of the cement homes of the middle class, with chipped marble floors, bathrooms with waist high faucets and plastic buckets—servants that sweep the floors, children who study their lessons and please their parents.

The crowded bazaars, the fruits and vegetables, the delicious smell of curry. The hand and facial gestures in animated conversation: that particular sideways nodding of the head. Banyan trees and beggars at intersections, shanty towns near train stations, and deep red betel juice deposited in dark dank corners. Conspicuous displays of wealth juxtaposed against destitution. Street sweepers, who make piles of garbage in the morning, which seem to end up back in the middle of the street by the afternoon; those men who urinate in public.

A random disregard for traffic rules combined with bus drivers who think they own the road. Listening to music box renditions of “Jingle Bells” or Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” when put on hold (in queue) on the telephone, cyber cafes, chai stalls, mangos, bullock carts, sidewalk hawkers, boys playing cricket in a vacant lot, a family of four on an outing perched together on a motor scooter– all these and more are common on both sides of the international border.

As is the easily observable love of family, respect for elders, with all business transacted under the watchful eyes of fathers and grandfathers looking down from photographs hung high on the dukan walls. There was nothing dramatically different between the two countries that I could discern, at least not on the surface, except the use of the Urdu script, and the length of a man’s kameez, and a greater prevalence of beards, many of them orange. Perhaps the biggest difference was that in Pakistan, chicken may be a vegetable. I told him that in India taxis are also black with bright yellow roofs.

The young man was perplexed. How could this be? He assured me that Indians are very different from Pakistanis. I responded that if he went to India, he would think he was still in Pakistan, except a few more ladies would be dressed in saris. They would, however, all look like his Aunties. We arrived at the home of my colleague and I tipped that young man and told him he was too kind hearted to live a lonely life and should find a wife and marry.

It was his sheer incredulousness at my observation that Pakistan and India were in any way similar that intrigued me. From then on, I made a point to randomly ask Pakistanis what they thought about India. Over the next two months I collected numerous comments from informal conversations. There was a wide range of opinions. Many with whom I spoke, like my taxi-vala, had distorted images of India, some people told me that it was rumored that Hindus had horns. But there were others who held more realistic views of their neighbors to the east.

My personal interest in Pakistani perceptions of India created a mutual fascination. When Pakistanis heard that I had spent time in India, they inevitably asked questions about life there and my opinion of Indo-Pak relations. There was a tremendous curiosity about India, combined with great distrust and condemnation. Intellectuals expressed some jealousy that civic culture and democratic institutions as well as academic research are stronger in India.

Older citizens spoke of family members left behind and terror at the newly created border in August, 1947. With satellite dishes dotting even the rural landscape, many complained that, after achieving their hard won independence, now Indian culture was taking over the minds of youthful Pakistanis via the airwaves. Most people with whom I had this conversation assured me that the “quality of life is better in Pakistan,” even if, as several commented, “The betel nuts are not as good.”

While discussing South Asian politics, the vitriolic tirades that my new Pakistani friends often launched against my old Indian friends made me shutter. And this was a year before their disputes were nuclearized, when the Indian blasts triggered the Pakistani “ping pong bombs.” It was difficult for me to endure the misrepresentations and mocking tones with which some Pakistanis spoke of their neighbors. India, as a Hindu dominated political entity, is a “hegemonic threat to Pakistani national sovereignty,” whereas Hinduism, as a “pseudo-religion,” is an “effeminate farce, incapable of surviving any interaction with Islam.” The contradiction of this stance is lost to the propagandist.

When Pakistanis talked about Hindu religious practices, I sometimes challenged their distorted information and negative descriptions. Simply by commenting that Hindus were not inherently evil, I was once accused of being a R.A.W. Agent! When academic discussion could not dispel the propaganda of stereotypes and sophomoric arguments, I would sit quietly, wishing they didn’t hate their neighbors so much. Colonialist inspired communalism is the foundation upon which the historical and even the everyday social and journalistic narratives are based in Pakistan.

Several people asked me if I thought India and Pakistan would ever reunite. I said, “I don’t expect it in my life time!” However, I did point out that fifty years earlier the nations in Europe fought a horrible war, killing tens of millions of people, and now they have a European Union, where military confrontation is taking a back seat to economic prosperity. With that possibility in mind, I lamented that the two countries must find a way to live in peace, thereby freeing massive military expenditures for social development.

According to Dr. Parvez Hoodbhoy, a progressive and patriotic Pakistani physicist, who was active in promoting India-Pakistan friendship exchanges said, “The idea of reunification is a big impediment to international relations and intellectual exchanges between Pakistan and India.” He argued in the mid-nineties that, “Indians have to realize, after fifty years that Pakistan is an independent country. There will be no reunification. The German example does not apply here. The sooner that Indians realize this, the sooner our countries can get on with the task of healing the wounds of the past, and forge future relationships.”

Remembering how Indians speak woefully about the partition of the Motherland and listening to Pakistanis talk about India’s hegemonic intentions, I’m reminded of a dysfunctional family. The parent, India, keenly feels the loss of one of her children. Pakistan, an uncooperative child, ran away from home, disrupting the homeostasis of the family. He left, hurt and infuriated by real and imagined abuse.

The mother is filled with sorrow by the departure of her son, and longs for his return, but she is angry that he abandoned her and can’t understand his disdain for his subcontinental roots. She doesn’t know whether to pray for him or punish him. She urges her Hindustani sons who remained loyal to their motherland, to pummel their badmash cousins at cricket matches, where Indian Uncles hurl insults at their Pakistani nephews and Pakistani Aunties return the abuse.

The lives of young men could be saved if international conflicts were decided by sports matches! Pakistan does not see Mother India as his real mother. If anything, she is an evil stepmother who should be resisted at all costs. He looks to the Middle East as his germinal source, turning his back on his South Asian childhood. The grandchildren of the Pakistan Movement are armed and ready to defend their eastern borders. Matricide would help to free the unrepentant son from those long and enduring cultural tentacles.

In the same way that guilt would cripple a man who has murdered his mother, elements in the Pakistani psyche pull the society in different directions. With roots in South Asia and sights on Arabia, they are torn between denying their non-Islamic past and the need to embrace a uniquely synthetic Pakistani heritage. Torn also by sectarianism and corruption, Pakistanis often justify their country’s shortcomings by pointing out that the same conditions persist in India. They mention Khalistan, Naxalites, the hegemony of the Gandhi family, corruption in places like Bihar, and especially violence in Kashmir to underscore their comparisons.

They are also torn between their vision of a pan-Islamic brotherhood, the ideal upon which their nation was founded, and the murderous tensions between Sunnis and Shias, between Muhajirs and Sindhis, between this and that faction. How can a nation based on the brotherhood of Islam disintegrate in sectarian strife? It is an oxymoron and contradicts the teachings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

In order to perpetuate their ideology, Pakistanis often put on historical blinders. This is particularly true in the case of the independence of Bangladesh, which Pakistanis officially blame on “Hindu influences in Bangla culture” and on the aggression of the Indian Army that wanted to sink the “Two-Nation Theory in the Bay of Bengal.” Very few know the true story of political deceit and genocidal repression. In 1997, the former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to Pakistan wrote to me in a personal communication that perhaps the recent on-line publication of the leaked Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report will “jolt [Pakistanis] sufficiently for their consciences to wake up and take realistic stock of their situation.”

Ambassador (Ret) Ahmad T. Karim expressed the hope that the information in the surreptitiously published report might “give them the courage to confront the truth, and look deep within their own souls, and jar them into taking greater control of their lives and their responsibilities to civic duties. Or will they prefer to continue existing within a cocoon of illusions and self-deceptions?” For many Pakistanis, it is easier to avoid controversial issues and ignore the inconsistencies in their national philosophy called, The Ideology of Pakistan. The Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report was declared a forgery and dismissed by Pakistan. But, pointing to the problems of national integration in neighboring India, makes Pakistanis feel better about their own internal neo-colonial provincial problems.

The word “nationalism” means something very different in Pakistan as opposed to its various meanings and diverse applications in the contexts of continentally complex neighboring India. In Pakistan, nationalism is seen as a social/political problem. ‘The nationalism problem’ refers to the separatist movements of sub-national groups such as Sindhis, Balouchis, and Pathans and politically fissiparous movements such as “Balouchi nationalism”. The Bangladeshi High Commissioner to Pakistan in 1999, Ambassador (Ret) Ahmad T. Karim had also served in India as a diplomat.

Chief Justice Hamoodur Rahman handing over the HRC Report to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali BhuttoHe observed that in Pakistan if you ask someone their identity, they immediately exclaim “Pakistani”, but if you dig a little deeper, their true allegiance is to their sub-national ethnic affiliations. In their hearts Pakistanis are Sindhi, Balouchi, Pakhtun… their mother tongue, the near sanctity of the geography, outweighs their political acknowledgement of the political existence of Pakistan, which is more like a layer, or film over their true tribal/linguistic/cultural/geographic identity. So for Pakistanis, particularly for those living in Punjab, there is a nationalisms problem.

In India there are two diametrically understood interpretations of the concept of nationalism. Bangladeshi Ambassador Karim explained that what he experienced in India was that if you ask the same question regarding identity, Indians from various states will invariably respond with the name of that geographical/linguistic area, “I’m Tamil”, “I’m Bengali” etc. Indians automatically and enthusiastically announce their intimate relationship to their original parental ethnicity represented by language and geography, “I’m Gujarati!” “I’m from Assam!” “Kerala- God’s own country” and so on. Indians seem to have a romance with their regional/geographical/linguistic ancestral origins.

Ambassador Karim said that though Indians automatically and impulsively identify with their cultural lineage, “I am from Maharastra” (and no doubt steeped in Marathi history), when you “dig a little deeper, the citizens in democratic India are far more personally patriotic about the nation-state of India. For them, India is not a superficial construct superimposed over their sub-national cultural identity. It is rather part of that identity. In fact, they see India as the power upholding or framing that intimate relationship they have with their ancestral cultural identity.

The point Ambassador Karim was making is that in India people may passionately and personally identify with their sub-national identities, but their political allegiance, their patriotism lies in the concept of India, a pervasive Indianness that permeates their other sub-national identities, which are more often than not multiple, based on more than one geographic/linguistic region. In recounting this comparative story Ambassador Karim felt that for Indians patriotism comes more naturally, and pride of India is inherent in their self-worth. Whereas he felt that for Pakistanis their relationship with their nation-state was more of the official line forced from on high and required to pass the patriotism test, though in their heart-of-hearts, they were ethnically elsewhere.

Based on numerous conversations I shared while in Pakistan, it was apparent that paradoxes characterize Pakistani perspectives of India. It is a love-hate relationship. The love is denied by their minds yet hidden deep in their hearts. The hatred is a defense against loss of the self. They are jealous that India can build its own “tanks and helicopters”, and proud that they can stand up to India with a “Pakistani bomb.” Amazingly, numerous Pakistanis made this claim, even a whole a year before their country had exploded a nuclear device.

While visiting Multan, I took photographs of several lovely university students. Upon seeing the pictures, a Pakistani friend of mine assumed they were of young Indian women because they were “smiling and pretty like Indian girls.” I told him that Pakistani girls look just the same as Indian girls. Many Pakistani women have told me that in public they have to scowl, and look serious; that it is unseemly to laugh in public. In Multan, we had been in a courtyard, with no men around, where the ladies were free to smile and be lovely.

Undoubtedly the presence and role of women is the most noticeable difference between the street scenes in India and Pakistan, where far fewer women are out and about, laughing and talking in the marketplace, haggling for mangos at the corner store. Thousands of women in Pakistan drive cars, but you never ever see them, as in India, driving a motorcycle, dupata waving in the breeze. In fact, I was speaking with a young man, a Pakistani student who had been part of a delegation to go to India to see a cricket match in Amritsar. I asked him on the surface, what was the most noticeable difference between India and Pakistan. He answered unhesitatingly, “Women on Vespas.”
On questioning Pakistanis concerning their perspectives about India, I found a pattern. Many of the same issues were raised spontaneously regarding certain agricultural products, the unequal distribution of resources at the time of Partition, and the impact of the Indian entertainment industry on Pakistani culture. July is the season for mangos and leechi nuts and many people mentioned the quality and availability of these fruits. Also high on the list was the poor quality of the betel nuts available in Pakistan. Other topics that emerged from these casual conversations were regarding political culture, freedom of the press, education, and industrialization.

The table below contains quotes made by Pakistanis when comparing their country to their arch rival, India. I have tried to summarize the comments in a general outline of specific issues raised by Pakistanis when comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the two nations. I have marked with an X the comments that heavily favored either India or Pakistan. Next to those issues about which Pakistanis were divided, I have written the word, “TIE”. It should be pointed out that this data was not obtained through a scientifically administered survey and it was compiled before 2001.


(X = winner)

Better in Pakistan

(with quotes from Pakistanis)

Better in India

(with quotes from Pakistanis)


Indians often say that Pakistan has better Mangos.

TIE- Multan has the best mangos. Punjab has the most delicious mangos in the world TIE- India has more varieties. They have sweeter mangos. They’re available year round.
Leechi Nuts We have leechi orchards in Sindh now, but they are not indigenous and not as good. X Indian leechis are famous in Pakistan. Indian leechis are juicer and sweeter.
Paan and Betel Nut We have planted betel nut trees in Sindh, but they’re not as good. You can buy Indian betel on the black market. X One of the greatest losses we suffered after Partition was the lack of good betel nut trees in Pakistan. This was traumatic.
Entertainment Industry

There is a fear that satellite dishes will usher in India’s cultural dominance of Pakistan.

Our version of “Umrao Jan” was better than theirs. We have good musicians here, why do the kids all want to listen to Indian music? Between American and Indian TV, we’re losing our culture. X We love Indian movies, but we hate India. We betray our patriotism and parents when we listen to Indian music, but we love it anyway. Indian movies are not censored like ours. They kiss and dance… just like nothing
Democratic Institutions

After years of military rule followed by four elections swinging back and forth between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, in mid-1997 when I gathered this data, Pakistanis were warily watching the democratic process. The only thing about which the people I spoke with agreed is that all politicians are corrupt. Three years earlier in 1994, many people believed that “Democracy is here to stay in Pakistan,” though as one professor told me, “the voters have few real choices.”

Pakistan, from conception to creation had only seven years to organize its political system–we have failed in fifty years to rectify this situation. We’re more successful at Martial Law! Indians take voting rights for granted–Pakistanis appreciate democracy more because we have had to fight for it! Ayub Khan violated the constitution, but he made Pakistan more prosperous.

Our Supreme Court has been a spineless institution.

X India had the framework of the organization of the Indian National Congress and the grassroots of the freedom movement. They have a stronger Civic Society. They don’t have problems with feudals and the military. The BJP is proof that Indian politics is disintegrating into communalism. They have an independent judiciary to guard their constitution.
A Free Press Our media is muffled by religion and partisan politics. Reporters are afraid to do investigative journalism. The Friday Times is about the only newspaper that tells it like it is, thanks to the journalistic bravery of Najam Sethi and his wife, Jugnu Mohsin. X India has a strong tradition of a free press–democracy depends on this. Indian newspapers always write bad things about us.
Human rights X We don’t have a problem with human rights in Pakistan, we are all Muslim brothers. If Pakistani women don’t like Muslim law, they can leave the country. We have laws against child labor. We are a welfare state. India has repeatedly violated the rights of Kashmiris–I see it on TV and read it in the papers. Sikhs have been effectively exterminated in India. Minorities suffer–they kill Muslims in the name of Ram. BJP is fascist.

(X = winner, TIE- = a tie)

Better in Pakistan

(with quotes from Pakistanis)

Better in India

(with quotes from Pakistanis)


Many Pakistanis thought that suttee was still widely practiced in India.
Many also thought that the Bollywood images of girls dancing around swimming pools in bikinis and diaphanous veils was the norm in urban India.
Several women mentioned Hudood laws as detrimental to women. They thought that Indian women, in general, had more freedom.

TIE- Pakistani girls have to act serious all the time so that they won’t draw attention to themselves. If you laugh and enjoy in public, people think you are unseemly. There is a higher divorce rate here but women can get remarried. Hudood laws are discriminatory–Benazir was PM twice and never dared challenge them. Pakistani women would never give up their right to drive cars and work outside the home–we fought side-by-side with our men for our independence. This is not Saudi Arabia, just look what the Taliban has done to Afghani women. We would not tolerate such suppression. TIE– Indian girls are prettier and smile more. Most of them wear jeans and can go on dates. They are more liberated. They make good girlfriends but not wives. Hindu women prefer Muslim men; many get married and convert to Islam. The Indian legal system protects Hindu women from divorce. Muslim women in India have fewer rights than Muslim women in Pakistan. In India girls are better educated. Hindu girls marry complete strangers but we marry our cousins who have been our childhood friends. Now even high caste Hindu women have adopted our Muslim fashion and are wearing the salvar kamiz.
Men TIE- Pakistani men are more handsome and virile, but cheat on their wives more. They’re taller and make better soldiers. TIE- Indian men are less macho. They’re more faithful to their wives. They have nice eyes. We love Shahrukh Khan!
Standard of Living X Our cities are less crowded. We have more money per capita, particularly in the urban areas. We have better highways. We have natural gas in Balouchistan. They have too many people. Their cities are dirty and crowded. Low castes and minorities live in squalor, but Brahmins live in luxury.
Education We are falling behind in literacy–paper schools and ghosts schools are only part of the problem. If it weren’t for NGOs, few girls in rural areas would go to school. Our university students are too distracted by politics.

Why do Western scholars all want to do research in India instead of Pakistan?

X Indians have had a greater commitment to education. There are no paper schools in India. India got all the universities in 1947! They have more professors educated abroad. They have fewer taboos about educating girls. In America, libraries are full of books about India–no one writes positive books about Pakistan.
Industrialization Our client-state relationship with the US and imported consumer products discouraged our industrial base. We spend 80% of our budget on the military. When Z.A. Bhutto nationalized the factories, they soon ground to a halt. My father lost his sugar cane plant near Larkana. Now only a few wealthy families and waderas own everything. Corruption is crippling us, everyone wants a cut. There are more Toyota Landcruisers with tinted windows in Karachi than Sicilians in the Mafia. X India makes everything–they have car factories, bomb factories, pharmaceuticals. They have more natural resources and a more extensive rail system. The British invested in the Indian heartland, we were the economic fringe. Everyone in India owns a television and a refrigerator. Their economy is much less vulnerable to global pressures. Merchandise worth crores of rupees is smuggled from India to Pakistan annually, women’s cosmetics, videos, CDs. But it’s against the law to buy Indian products. They would flood our markets; no one would buy products made in Pakistan.

They’re just as corrupt as we are, only more democratic about it!

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