Terror talk and clinking glasses6 min read . Updated: 21 Jun 2014, 12:35 AM IST
A trip to Pakistan
A trip to Pakistan
Wahga (not Wagah, according to the Urdu spelling) is in Pakistan. The border village on our side is Attari. There are two gates made in the subcontinental (i.e. ugly) style of architecture about 150m apart. The one on the Pakistani side is named Bab-e-Azadi, meaning the door to freedom.
Above this name is a portrait of Muhammed Ali Jinnah. On either side of his stern face is writing. In Urdu, the words ask: Pakistan ka matlab kya? And in Arabic, on the other side of Jinnah, is the answer: La ilaha illallah, Muhammadur rasool Allah (What does Pakistan mean? That Allah is the only God and Muhammad his messenger).
On both sides of the border are posters which read “Respect all. Suspect all." On the Pakistani side, there is an additional line below which reads “Untill (sic) prove such". I’m confident I proved such, though I’m not sure whether respect or suspect, as we crossed over to Pakistan on foot last weekend for a conference, a dialogue on India-Pakistan relations, organized by the Regional Peace Institute and the Hanns Seidel Foundation.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The action actually began in New Delhi airport’s lounge where, because our small group included two former Union ministers, we were seated till the plane to Amritsar took off.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Varun Gandhi noticed us and dropped in to chat. He spoke of the election and of people in the parties and I was taken aback by how sharp he is and how immersed in politics. He rattled off the assembly constituencies and influential people in seats other than his own. He has good control of Hindi, much superior to cousin Rahul Gandhi’s. He is also a great teller of stories. Most important, he enjoys this work, which usually separates the journeymen from those with a future. I predicted big things for the BJP’s Smriti Irani even if she lost and I do for Varun Gandhi also. In a party which is generally lacking in charisma, with the exception of one man, he will shine and rise.
The two former ministers in our team were Mani Shankar Aiyar (first-rate speaker, witty, and in fact very funny and endlessly entertaining) and Salman Khurshid (quiet, thoughtful and warm), both of whom I met for the first time. We also had Barkha Dutt (the star of our contingent, wildly popular in Pakistan, and constantly working).
On the other side, the heavy hitters included former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri (stylish, superb host, good speaker), a former finance minister and two ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence, chiefs, Gen. Asad Durrani and Gen. Ehsan-ul-Haq. I came carting copies of my Saadat Hasan Manto book (now at a book store near you), which I distributed.
The conference was under the Chatham House Rule, meaning I can reveal what was said but not by whom. Not much to report there: The same things were said as are always said when Indians engage Pakistanis. We said terrorism, they said Kashmir.
I intervened to point out that Islamist terrorism in India had ended. It peaked in 2001 when 4,507 people were killed in Jammu and Kashmir. After former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad following the Parliament attack that year, militancy collapsed. The numbers of those killed, including civilian, military and terrorist, have fallen each year, going from 3,022 (2002) to 2,542 (2003) to 1,810 (2004) to 1,739 (2005) to 1,116 (2006) to 777 (2007) to 541 (2008) to 375 (in both 2009 and 2010) to 183 (2011) to 117 (2012) to 181 (2013). This year (63 so far) will probably be the most peaceful since the 1980s.
Outside Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and the North-East, the total number of people killed in Islamist terrorism this year is one (all figures from SATP.org, the terrorism portal of former director general of police, Punjab, K.P.S. Gill).
If we accept that Islamist violence in India is because of Pakistan, we must also conclude that the reduction is because of Pakistan.
We’re currently at the lowest levels of terrorism since the Kashmiris rebelled 25 years ago and it would be churlish for us to not acknowledge this. Saying this made me immediately popular with the Pakistanis. But it is self-evident.
I am wrong to suggest only this issue was spoken of. Actually for the most part it was the other things, culture, media, economy, that dominated, but terrorism is what generated most heat.
Away from the conference, we were entertained by the high commissioner, T.C.A. Raghavan. In the foyer of his residence, India House, there was a table with a large photo of the Prime Minister’s beaming visage over a guest book. Seeing it I wondered if I should express my feelings in a few lines, but there would always be time later for that.
The bar was thoughtfully placed at the entrance, so as to fortify oneself before joining the scrum of grandees and retirees.
I had almost reached it when a young man of about 30 stepped in front of me. He gave his card, which read under secretary or second secretary or some such thing. I began to mumble that I didn’t have a card because I mostly stayed at home and...
“Stop obsessively writing," he said firmly, negative things about this one person, because that is counter-productive. My writing should instead focus on positive things, he said. “Like what?" I asked, looking over his shoulder to size up the fare (Glenlivet, JWBL... Was that Lagavulin? No).
When I drifted back he appeared to be saying wise things about development and trade, so I nodded in agreement and promised to reform myself. I thought he was nice and well-meaning, so I will not make a reference to the person he wished me to stop writing about. Let’s substitute for his name that of the character from Sherlock Holmes, I think it was Prof. Modiarty.
At the party, Raghavan’s lovely wife Ranjana Sengupta, editor at Penguin, introduced me to artist and activist Salima Hashmi. I told her the name was familiar and she said it might be because of her father. Who was that, I asked, and she said it was Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
We were also entertained by Kasuri at his mansions in Lahore and Islamabad. The latter we did not see because the party was in a large and air-conditioned tent with carpets and had a certain Arab chic.
Smoking outside, one of us, I won’t say who, asked me why he disliked the way the Pakistani women looked.
“Sour grapes?" I suggested. No, he said, they were too fair for his liking. I saw what he meant and told him I was a brown-skin man myself, and he said so was he.
I enjoyed myself again, as I have on every trip to Pakistan. I was surprised to learn that this was Khurshid’s first time there, though he has been in politics for so long and also foreign minister. I asked him if he would like his work Sons Of Babur translated to Gujarati and I think that will work out, so perhaps even a little work got done.
Meanwhile, things to do before you die. #51: Clink glasses of the good stuff with the ISI and drink to peace—done.
After my last column on how India was insulated from Pakistani content, I got a phone call from Zee TV. They are launching a channel this Monday called Zindagi which has Pakistani shows broadcast for the first time in India. Well done.