Why I Attended Pak Day Reception

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha)

I was at Pakistan's National Day reception last night, as I usually am. Unfortunately, I missed out on the kebabs and other goodies as I was able to spend only about 15 minutes there; the Hon'ble Vice President had invited me about the same time to an official banquet in honour of his Cuban counterpart. But I went nevertheless to Pakistan House because I believe Pakistan is the most important country on our foreign policy agenda.

I am a regular at Pakistan National Day receptions (so much so that I was once asked to be the Government of India's official representative, predecessor to General VK Singh). This is partly nostalgia. I spent three of the most fruitful and enjoyable years of my life as India's first-ever Consul General in Karachi (Dec 1978- Jan 82), and made so many friends there that 25 years after I returned, no less than 46 of them turned up for my daughter's wedding. They are a warm, friendly, hospitable people and I never cease to be amazed at our inability to turn that affection to political advantage. I also believe that there are at least three major factors that make it imperative for us to seize opportunity by the forelock.

First, the Partition generation in Pakistan, those who were Indians for much of their lives before they became Pakistanis, has virtually phased out. That was the generation that could not but define their own identity in terms of NOT being Indian: "I am a Pakistani because I am not an Indian". The present generations of Pakistanis are Pakistanis - because they are Pakistanis! They were born there, grew up there, have always been Pakistanis and are quite comfortable with their Pakistani passports.

Second, their domestic problems, particularly homegrown sectarianism and terrorism, are so overwhelming that instead of hostility to India being the centerpiece of their national existence, as it was in the immediate aftermath of Partition, India has been so far pushed out of their national consciousness, that in the last two elections, neither India nor even Kashmir figured in any of the principal parties' campaigns.

Third, while hostility against India and Hindus is a running theme in the propaganda of the Islamist extremists, these extremists have so lost sympathy in Pakistan at large that in election after election, their position on the margins is confirmed. Our hostility only helps those in Pakistan who wish to play up that hostility. The mainstream response is to work, if at all possible, towards a viable relationship with India. Working out that viability requires, of course, dialogue - dialogue that, to be eventually fruitful, has to be "uninterrupted and uninterruptible". Yet, we have been shooting ourselves in the foot by repeatedly breaking off the dialogue, converting the relationship into a game of snakes and ladders where we progress significantly up the ladders of mutual cooperation only to let the snakes swallow us up and take us back to the beginning.

The reply I have received to a Question I posed in the just-concluded first half of Parliament's budget session makes the point succinctly: that when we engage diplomatically, cease-fire violations virtually cease, while when we disengage, cease-fire violations increase exponentially. The figures I have been officially supplied show that in the years 2004, '05 and '06, when Dr. Manmohan Singh's special envoy, Ambassador Satinder Lambah, was consistently on the back-channel with his Pakistani interlocutor, Ambassador Tariq Aziz, cease-fire violations were just 1, 6 and 3 respectively. As, however, in 2007, when the dialogue seized up and eventually broke down, ceasefire violations rose to 21, shot up to 80, then 93 in 2012, and peaked in 2013 at 199. 2014 recorded a small decline to 153. There are approximately 150-200 times more violations when war clouds are gathering than when peace is on the horizon.

Does that not show that we have got cause and effect wrong when we insist that cease-fire violations must end for talks to begin? Past experience shows that the best way to end cease-fire violations is for us to talk to each other, rather than at each other.

Among my fellow-guests at the Pakistan reception were, I understand, Mirwaiz Farooq and a team of Hurriyat leaders. I would have liked to meet them, as I usually do at Pakistan National Day receptions. This time I was denied the pleasure for I was at the reception for far too short a time to really walk around. But on previous occasions, the Hurriyat have always greeted me fondly and invited me to Kashmir (an invitation that has, alas, never been followed up!) I greet them not because I agree with them, but because they are fellow human beings, fellow Indians (even if they do not always so regard themselves), and people we have to persuade to at least edge themselves towards us if we want not only Kashmir but also Kashmiris.

That is why Dr. Manmohan Singh's interlocutors - Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and MM Ansari - made a point of meeting them and soliciting their views. That there was so little follow up on the interlocutors' report is a tragedy, but one that will only be compounded if the government in Delhi tries to shut them out. Fortunately, J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has a better grasp of ground realities in the Valley than his partners in government.

Of course, as a fellow Indian, it is my right (and duty) to meet the Hurriyat if I can. But do the Pakistanis have a locus standi? It was Atal Behari Vajpayee, none other, who answered that one when he allowed (encouraged?) Pervez Musharraf to meet with the Hurriyat at the time of the Agra summit. Until August last year, it had become standard practice for the Hurriyat to not only be invited to the Pakistan National Day reception, but also to interact with Pakistani dignitaries visiting India. Indeed, the government itself facilitated a visit to Pakistan by the Hurriyat leadership. It has done us no harm -  and done the Pakistanis precious little good.

Stupidly, Modi made a proposed routine encounter between the Hurriyat and the Pakistan High Commissioner, on the eve of the Indian Foreign Secretary's visit to Pakistan, the casus belli to kill that initiative at resuming the Indo-Pak dialogue. He has since been impaled on the horns of the dilemma that he has needlessly created for himself - To Talk or NOT to Talk? That is the question!

The process of climbing off the high horse has begun. Not only has the new Foreign Secretary been to Islamabad, Delhi is now beginning to walk the talk on dialogue. Instead of sending so graceless a representative, Modi should have ensured that we were more decently represented.

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