By Leonídio Paulo Ferreira
Interview with Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar, a former Pakistani immigrant in the United Kingdom who was the first Muslim deputy in Westminster but who in 2013 decided to return to his homeland as Punjab Governor to promote development and fight against terrorism. He came to Portugal as part of a European tour.
After being Pakistani immigrant for many years in Great Britain and a successful politician in Scotland you have decided to return to Pakistan. Can you see differences between current Pakistan and the country you returned to in 2013?
I spent 30 years of my life in Scotland. I started as a councilman in Glasgow in 1992, was reelected in 1995 and in 1997 I became a member of the UK Parliament.
Was it on occasion of Tony Blair’s first victory as leader of Labor Party?Yes, and I was the first Muslim and the first non-white person to do so in the history of British democracy. In 2013 I returned to Pakistan after my retirement and was given the post of Governor. At that time there were almost 20 million children who did not go to school in Pakistan. My goal and my passion was to understand how we could get these children back to school. I organized an international conference attended by former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as well as global partners, and many United Nations institutions. At this conference, $ 500 million were pledged for the education of these children. Schooling has increased and the United Nations has recognized this. But unfortunately, the previous government lowered its commitment to education and I resigned from the party – Pakistan Muslim League – in 2014. I am now with PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf].
Was PTI still a small party then?
At that time the Muslim League was very strong and many friends of mine were amazed and asked me, “What? Are you leaving a party that is invincible and joining one that will be defeated?” I told them it was a matter of principle, the PTI was fighting for change and I wanted to be part of that change in Pakistan.
And are things changing now?
Yes, they are definitely changing. Changes are taking place in relations with the international community – we have improved our relations with Afghanistan, our Prime Minister Imran Kahn spoke with US President Donald Trump and urged him to resume negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistan is facilitating these negotiations because we believe that if there is peace in Afghanistan, the people of Pakistan will benefit most from it.
But although things are better on the western border, on the eastern border they are not doing very well with India, and once again because of Kashmir.
We want to have good relations with our neighbors, because we believe that if we want to make things better, eradicate poverty for our people, then we must resolve our differences through negotiations. When the Prime Minister took office, the first thing he did was offer our friendship to Narendra Modi and asked him to join hands, negotiate, resolve our differences, as we can do better for our relationship and for our peoples. Unfortunately, Narendra Modi’s response was negative. Our Prime Minister told him: “If you take one step towards peace, we will take two, because the future of our two countries is in peace.” But this change of position is happening because Narendra Modi wanted to win the elections again and wanted a resounding victory and, to that end, exploited the feelings of the Hindus; after the elections relations between our countries were expected to normalize, but unfortunately Narendra Modi unilaterally, without consulting with the people of Kashmir, changed the status of Kashmir. In the United Nations resolutions, with which the Indian government agreed, it was established that there would be a plebiscite and the future of the region should be decided by the people of Kashmir. Unfortunately, for over 110 days curfew has been imposed and anyone can see that after a single day of curfew, life becomes miserable. How can those people survive 110 days? They have no communications beyond the border, they are totally blocked.
Do you think that without a negotiated agreement on Kashmir, normal relations between Pakistan and India will be impossible?
First we have to have business confidence. Prior to this, there were tensions in 2002, but both countries spoke to each other and the international community played a role – the United Kingdom and the United States – to ease tensions, contain them and bring countries onto negotiating conditions. Therefore, the international community can always play a role. Now we were ready to talk, but unfortunately they changed the status of Kashmir, which we think is illegal, immoral and against UN resolutions.
So is dialogue now more difficult?
Yes, unless they change their decision, lift the curfew in Kashmir. I appeal to the international community to feel the pain and suffering of the people of Kashmir. There are 15- and 16-year-olds being molested, arrested, tortured, beaten, women raped … Even a UN human rights representative wept over the reports because it is so sad. Crimes against humanity are being committed.
How do you respond to accusations made by Indians that Pakistan has traditionally supported terrorist movements in Kashmir and also in India?
This is a blame game situation. We have appealed to the international community, we have called on the United Nations for the international community to nominate observers and place them at the border to see who is sending terrorists to the other’s territory and the authorities of India refuse. We asked them if they believe that people from Pakistan are interfering with the Kashmir issue, why do they not allow international observers to be present? Why not allow US senators and congressmen, British parliamentarians, European parliamentarians? They will not let anyone into Jammu. We have nothing to hide. One thing that really makes me angry is that 70,000 people died in Jammu and Kashmir and I have no information that they brought a single body home. In Pakistan, Punjab, if we look at the skin color of people we recognize who is from Kashmir, who is Indian, Pakistani, Hindu, Sikh and if anyone is killed the family likes to have their name, the names of parents, the ID card … And they didn’t bring a single person to the media, to the international community, that they knew had come into Kashmir from Pakistan and taken part in some terrorist act. We ask them for evidence to arrest these people, to punish them, because we don’t think we should interfere in the affairs of another country. In the case of [Kulbhushan] Jadhav, the International Court accepted our view that he was fighting for India, that was India which was sponsoring his actions in Pakistan.
As regards terrorism within Pakistan, the last few years have been terrible, with many attacks. Is it under control now?
The last two decades have been very difficult, very challenging for Pakistan because 50,000 people have lost their lives in the country, victims of terrorist attacks. Our holy places were attacked, our temples were attacked, our mosques were attacked … We are the biggest victims of terrorism in the world. No nation has sacrificed more than Pakistan, in fighting terrorism. We are the state that is at the forefront in the fight against terrorism in Pakistan.
Mostly internal jihadist terrorism.
Yes, internal terrorism, but we can be truly proud that for the last four or five years the whole nation – our army, our police, our political organizations, our religious organizations – have come together to fight terrorism. We prepared the national action plan, set the strategy and defeated terrorism in Pakistan. Now even Portugal’s travel advisory has been revised: Pakistan is a safe country to visit, even the United Nations agrees. Now people can visit us without fear. We have been able to restore internal security in Pakistan. But we suffered a lot. As I said, we lost 50,000 or more lives and we have been hosting four million refugees in our country at one point.
Are most of these refugees Afghans?
Yes. What we want for ourselves and our neighbors is peace. We have suffered a lot because of this state of affairs.
Is this decline in terrorism creating new prosperity?
Now that terrorism is under control, I can say that in Lahore alone, over the last two or three months, our hotels have been full. People come from all over the world. We are celebrating 550 years of Guru Nanak and through the Kartarpur Corridor there are thousands of Sikhs coming; we had the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore; Bangladeshi women’s team played their games in Lahore; Oman’s hockey team was there; and there was an international fashion show, which takes place annually in one of the participating countries, and this time it was in Pakistan.
But now they also need to attract investment?
Investment is also coming in. In the last six months we have had the highest investment rate because people feel safe in the country.
Is it mostly Chinese investment or also from other sources?
It is a myth that only the Chinese are investing. Others are investing as well. The Chinese are investing a lot, but there is investment coming from all over the world – United States, United Kingdom, etc. – I meet delegates every day from all over the world. Some to invest in companies, others in information technology, others in our universities – we had an international student conference in Lahore attended by students from 35 countries, because people feel safe now.
Do you think Imran Kahn’s past history, having been captain of the national cricket team and a very popular figure, helps to create this idea of a modern Pakistan? Is the personality of the prime minister essential in this process?
Yes. He won the World Cup when he was captain of the national cricket team. He wants change in Pakistan, wants a liberal society in the country, wants rule of law for the rich and the poor, wants to eradicate the corruption of our society that has already done a lot of damage to our economy and our prosperity and has the vision to have good relations with our neighbors. When Pakistan became independent, our founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah once said that Pakistan had been created, everyone living in the country was Pakistani, all citizens of Pakistan and all have equal rights. We have shown the world that tension with India, while traditionally breaching the line of control, has not prevented us from succeeding in the fight against fundamentalism. We have delivered the message of tolerance towards people, the community. We believe there has to be more tolerance, acceptance towards each other. There is interfaith dialogue and interfaith harmony in Pakistan. Everyone works together and everyone and every community feels Pakistan is their country. I think we have come a long way under the leadership of Imran Kahn.
I was in Pakistan a few years ago, was in Karachi and visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The archbishop at the time was a Pakistani with a Portuguese nickname, Pereira, probably of Goan origin. How is the situation of the Christian minority in Pakistan today? There are almost two million people.
I myself was part of a minority in the UK. In my constituency, Glasgow, there were 90% white Christians and 10% other religions. So I know what minority issues are, I know what people suffer – discrimination, intolerance – so we want to give people equal opportunities. We have minorities in all areas of the country’s life. Universities have quotas for minorities. So we gave them some positive initiatives, such as in education. Honestly, I think people feel safe with our government.
Is there an improvement in the situation of Christians, Hindus and Sikhs?
Yes. The good thing is that religious leaders from all religious communities are working together.
There are also traditional criticisms of Pakistan that, while being a democracy, army power is exaggeratedly strong. Is it possible to strike a balance between this traditional military influence and the power of civilians?
Everyone knows that for half of the post-independence time Pakistan was governed by the army in a dictatorship, and the other half was under democratic rule. But the period from 2008 to 2013 was the first time in Pakistani democracy history that a government has fully fulfilled its five-year mandate. Then, between 2013 and 2018, there was a lot of distrust, a lot of issues, a lot of conflicts, but the Muslim League nevertheless completed its five-year term. And now I believe the current government will complete its mandate as well.
Regarding the legacy of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder, how does Pakistan reflect this man’s dream?
Before the elections we had a huge public rally in Lahore. There were several people there, including me and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and we promised the nation that if they gave us the opportunity to rule the country, we would fulfill the dreams of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the vision of Muhammad Iqbal, who is our national poet. We want the dreams of our founders to be realized in Pakistan, we want the rule of law. We had a slogan that said we do not want two countries, but one Pakistan in which rich and poor, powerful and weak, have the same rights and become equal citizens of Pakistan. And this is the mark of the government we assume, according to the teachings of our national poet.
Does Portugal, being a small country, have any business and investment opportunities in Pakistan?
Portugal is a small but beautiful country. The people are very friendly. This is my first visit, but the hospitality and attention I have received from Portuguese people has made me understand why people from all over the world come here as tourists. The food is excellent and the weather is much better than the Scottish. All my life I’ve been telling people that one thing they couldn’t afford to miss was Scottish weather[laughs]. And there are huge opportunities for both countries. I’m glad we now have a permanent Ambassador of Pakistan here and you have a permanent Ambassador of Portugal in Pakistan. I met the Portuguese Ambassador in Lahore, who is a very good person and is determined to increase trade between our two countries and our Ambassador is equally determined. Thus, under their leadership, we believe there will be a larger exchange program between our two countries. We are already thinking of establishing a collaboration between the universities in Portugal and the Punjab universities. A lot of people have been visiting our country and we had a trade delegation from Portugal there. And there is huge investment potential for Portuguese companies in Pakistan in information technology and agriculture. We can learn a lot from you about how to promote tourism, because we have a vision to increase tourism in Pakistan. I am forcing Punjab to promote tourism in Pakistan, which is why I am promoting Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday celebrations. We will also promote the Buddhist heritage of the country because it has immense potential in Pakistan. So we are working hard to promote tourism in our country. Our two countries are working hard to promote peace, prosperity and better understanding between the nations of the world.
You were a member of parliament in Westminster and you are now Governor of Punjab with 110 million people. What is the difference between being a politician in the UK and Pakistan?
Gordon Brown was a great friend of mine. I met him at the education conference and he said to me, “I was prime minister of 55 million people and you are Punjab governor with 110 million people!”
But not only the number of people, the way of doing politics is also different …
There is one thing I say to people: “I was a businessman, so I know what it is to be a businessman, but as for politics …” Politics is a very brutal thing. We do not know who our friend is and who our enemy is. Politics is no different in Pakistan and the UK, it is a relentless game. With 72 years of independence and after a dictatorship I think that democratic institutions are flourishing in Pakistan. People want the continuity of democratic institutions in the country, so I believe we are moving in the right direction. We are moving towards more understanding among our people, our communities, and we believe that under the leadership of Imran Kahn we are building a country in which the rule of law will exist, where people will be treated equally regardless of color, culture, creed or religion. We want to fight poverty in Pakistan, we want to fight unemployment, we want to fight prejudice, discrimination in the country. We are a liberal country and we want to have good relations with our neighbors, with Europe, with all countries.
Note: The above interview was originally published on December 4, 2019 in Diario De Notocias, a Portuguese Daily Newspaper.