Come hell or high water, India and Pakistan's leaders continually nose-thumb one another. Each snub is met with a counter-snub; every kindness by suspicion and prickliness. Memories of ghosts past inspire cold shoulders today. Would the enemy crow about its magnanimity for all time to come? Might acceptance of help be construed by the other as weakness to be parlayed into future gain? Or, worst perhaps of all, would public opinion shift and make redundant much of the carefully-constructed paraphernalia of conflict?
Pakistan started getting inundated in late July. Only two weeks later, on August 13, with much of the country deluged, did India extend an offer of $5 million in aid. Predictably, Pakistan stonewalled. Both countries had swallowed pride before to accept assistance in kind after massive earthquakes, but taking pity money now was stooping just too low. And, funnily enough, the man who wrote the check, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, did not once bother to commiserate with his neighbour in his Independence Day address two days later. Instead, like a stuck record, he once again cautioned Pakistan against fomenting terrorism in his country. For a man being hailed globally as a model of grace and humility, this was no shining moment.
Hackles raised, Pakistan dug in. Already paralyzed by bomb blasts, ground war, air strikes, a plane crash, and with a huge chunk of the country now deluged, was the country in any position to terrorize anyone? Moreover, its image in the West as the house of terror, a portrait etched to perfection by India, was already coming in the way of flood relief. A new imbroglio was thus created. Only a phone call from Manmohan Singh to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan and a nudge, oops, more like a shove, from the Americans were able to resolve it. Gilani acquiesced in the subcontinental fashion, wherein 'yes' is often mouthed when 'no' is actually meant, and seemingly sealed the deal by sending choice mangoes to Singh.
While the mangoes were no doubt delicious, the money itself was presumed to be rancid. Gilani's government went into contortions. Well, like bitter medicine, it had to be taken, but how to imbibe it? Direct ingestion would churn the stomach too much. Finally the via media of the UN was suggested and accepted without fuss. This time round India loosened its purse-strings by upping the offer to $25 million, and Pakistan showed tact in not balking.
The India-Pakistan side-show had once again stolen the thunder from the main task at hand, to get the world to come to Pakistan's aid quickly and generously. Reams of global newsprint and gobs of cyberspace instead focused on the countries' visceral mutual dislike, which always seems to make for fascinating copy and against whose powers even force majeure withers away. Noted commentators on both sides got into the act. Oh, how low can we go to accept money soaked with Kashmiri blood? We must not allow them to grandstand before the world. To show how caring they are and how much better off Kashmir would be with them.
The other side pulled no punches either. The money would go to the Taliban, who in turn would storm in on horse-hoofs and balkanize India. This must surely be the most potent $5 million in history! Others cussed at the churlishness of the Pakistanis. Look at them, beggars affording to be choosers, and when we extend a hand, instead of grasping it gratefully, they slap it. All they think about is Kashmir, Kashmir, Kashmir.
All the while the lives and livelihoods of millions were being washed away. Helping Haiti had become somewhat de rigueur for the world. So many global celebrities got into the act that fundraisers were held as far away as India. But even a candle isn't being lighted by the country, at least visibly, when it comes to Pakistan.
Granted that public giving in response to disasters is somewhat removed from the subcontinental psyche. What after all is the government for? But many Indians hail from across the border and ramble on and on about a shared heritage and pleasant memories. Wagah, the India-Pakistan border post, has no dearth of candle-lighters ushering in peace. Bear-hugs and lavish meals abound whenever cricket teams and fans cross over. But if a crisis of such magnitude doesn't shake people's apathy, of what good is all the faux amity?
Or, perhaps Indians have decided it best to shy away from all things Pakistani? If Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan could have brickbats rain on him for innocuous comments made in favor of Pakistan earlier this year, imagine what fate could befall on lesser people. Some of India's Muslims must surely want to mobilize relief for what in many instances are families and friends in the proximate country. Bucking the majoritarian trend can often invite peril though.
Global warming is hot but its effects have remained so far in the speculative domain. Many experts are now talking about a causal link between climate change and the devastation wrought in Pakistan. Sure, the river Indus is long and mighty, but no less so are its counterparts in India, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Who can say where nature will go awry next?
While the UN plays an intermediary role, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is conspicuously missing in action. The body has been reduced to issuing banal statements once in a while. At best, it has served to bring India and Pakistan together when at their antagonistic worst. South Asia is no stranger to natural calamities. Why doesn't SAARC establish a relief corpus to be funded by member countries and others? Much of the unseemliness witnessed recently would then be avoided. And, enemies in need might just be able to become friends.