DISTURBED by the barrage of negative news media coverage that Pakistan has received in the past few months and with the large Sikh community here in the Lower Mainland that dreams of visiting the sacred Sikh shrines in that country, I contacted the Consul General of Pakistan, Shuja Alam, to get his views on the current situation.
Here’s the interview:
PRAHST: There is a lot of front page news coverage regarding the Taliban and peace talks which has created panic. Can you speak to this?
ALAM: The power / energy issue and the terrorism issue, both have restricted Pakistan’s growth economically, and its security as well. I think the commitment of the government is there though. They have to resolve the terrorism issue one way or another and to start, they have offered to have talks with the Taliban. Taliban is a brand name and there are forty to fifty factions within them, so the idea was to identify those groups that are willing to work within the constitution peacefully and then to isolate those that are irreconcilable. … During the peace talk, there were a couple of terrorist attacks and the government immediately retaliated. In a couple of days the damage done to the Taliban was so much that they went back to the negotiating table and gave an unconditional ceasefire.
That is how the government is ready to engage with them once again. But, the government is clear in needing to resolve this issue of terrorism one way or another and our efforts, of course, would be towards it being done peacefully. But if otherwise, we have armed forces that are ready to fight it out to the end if that is what it needs. The current situation cannot go on because this is what hampers the social and economic development of Pakistan. I have no doubt that the people, the government and the army united will find a lasting solution to this and we shall prevail.
PRAHST: Are there extra precautions being taken and what is Pakistan doing to protect the public and visitors?
ALAM: Our international security policy aims to strengthen intelligence and is geared to protect our population and people who visit Pakistan. I think Punjab by and large does not bear the brunt of terrorism, so people still go there. But life goes on and there is a lot of interest in investment in Pakistan from all over the world. The IMF and the Wall Street Journal say that Pakistan is getting a good return —they have a positive outlook with this government. The confidence of the business community is very high in terms of looking into a bright economic future for Pakistan. So the market sentiment is really high at this point in time.
PRAHST: What are some of the economic interests and markets?
ALAM: Basically two things. One, our rupee has extended from 108 to 298 per dollar within the last five months and the [activity on the] stock exchange is high, which again reflects what the markets think about the economy, and secondly, a lot of foreign governments have shown a lot of confidence in Pakistan. China for one has agreed to invest 45 billion dollars in the next five years towards infrastructure. … China has also bought into this idea of a fiber optic cable being made between China and Pakistan. … So we will have broader access to the internet and information highway. The Middle East has shown interest in investing in Pakistan and has invested as well. Foreign countries like the United Kingdom in the energy sector … and Germany … we have this wind corridor in the Sind and German technology is being followed with wind power. Europe has given us GSP plus which is greater trade access to Pakistan. All this reflects the confidence of the international community in Pakistan. In April this year, Pakistan will for the first time (after eight to nine years) put gold (bonds) into the market and we feel it will be oversubscribed. That reflects the confidence the global markets have in Pakistan.
PRAHST: Going back to the social element, why do we not hear about the positive developments of Pakistan and how does the average Pakistani cope with this?
ALAM: I must admit it is difficult for Pakistan to cope with all the negative perception, but this is how the narrative is and it is only bad news that makes it into the headlines. … Ultimately I think Pakistan will have to resolve and find solutions to its own issues and once it does that – and I believe the government has the vision to do that – then all this perception would change. If we could resolve the issue of terrorism, and resolve the issue of energy and if our political plan, which is very stable (there are very few developing countries that can claim that you know), all this will have a positive effect and that is when the narrative will change for Pakistan. So it is a work in progress.
PRAHST: What would you say to Sikhs who would like to visit their historical and sacred Sikhs Shrines?
ALAM: There is a large Sikh population [that visits Pakistan], and in the last three years this has increased. They [Sikhs] are feeling more confident to visit and it is through word of mouth based on the experiences of others who went. I have heard so many positive responses from Sikhs who have visited. … There is a difference between perception and reality. Once you visit and are part of the place then it is a different experience than what you hear about in the newspaper.
PRAHST: When I was there, the government really ensured security for Sikhs during Vaisakhi with the presence also of the anti-terrorist squad. Are there going to be extra safety precautions this time?
ALAM: One has to always be prepared for that [terrorism] and their presence is what gives confidence to the visitors. Our security will be foolproof and all measures will be taken. … My recommendation for our Sikh brothers and sisters who want to visit Pakistan is to talk with their brothers and sisters who have been there. I think the majority who went there came back with a very positive experience.
Prahst: I am not sure if you can speak to this, but Sikhs want to know about the proposal to construct a bridge on the River Ravi to open the corridor to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib for greater access for Sikhs from India being only 3 km away.
ALAM: You know Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, even when he was campaigning for the election, made it a point that he wanted good neighbourly relations … That was part of his election manifesto. … On the Pakistan side, you will not find any hesitancy in going two steps extra to take this process forward, so I do not see any problem on our side in building a bridge because we really do believe that for religious people such movement should not be restricted. There is a conscious effort for the government to be all-inclusive and their [Sikhs] contribution to Pakistan [in the armed forces, politics, etc.] has been second to none.
PRAHST: What is being done to promote ties with the Pakistan Diaspora and Canada?
ALAM: You see Canada, in the early days … in Peshawar, we had the Maple Leaf cement factory. … Over the years there is a huge potential in terms of increasing our relations with Canada and the Government of BC. When I meet the minsters here, I want to tell them with BC in the process of exporting liquefied natural gas to the world, that Pakistan could be one option where they can sell us liquefied gas (when the government comes out with the tariff). The potential is there and the Pakistan community can play a huge role in bridging such relations. I am really proud, Pakistanis are hardworking, law-abiding people and are contributing to Canada and they are our biggest asset in becoming a bridge between Canada and Pakistan.
PRAHST: What are the Pakistani-Canadian organizations in BC?
ALAM: We have a couple organizations working here in BC: the Pakistan Canada Association (one of the oldest associations in BC), the Pakistani Canadian Cultural Association, and Pakistani Canadian women and youth organizations as well. All of these organizations work in tandem and every second year we have a huge festival in Holland Park [Surrey] and the consulate supports them.
PRAHST: This sounds really positive … and my last question: Have you visited Sikh shrines in Pakistan?
ALAM: I studied in Hassan (near Sikh Gurdwara Panja Sahib). Sikhs get a lot of respect from the local population there. .. The whole community in Hassan looks out for the festival (Vaisakhi) when Sikh pilgrims arrive. The whole community looks forward to it and on an economic dimension as well.
INDEED, the sacred Sikh shrines still stand in Pakistan with a unique aura, which I also felt visiting them during Vaisakhi – diverse people from different faiths celebrating the birth of Sikhism in Pakistan.
BY INDIRA PRAHST
Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
& Race and Ethnic Relations Instructor,