Sunday, May 25, 2008

On Treasuring a Moment

Arun Shourie
"You have said that this is a historic visit, that this is a defining moment in the history of South Asia, but what is the substance in these declarations?," asked the correspondent at the joint press conference of the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers in Lahore -- the usual European or American correspondent, with the usual condescension and derision. But I found the same question being asked by several correspondents back in India. "What are these declarations worth? They are just pieces of paper..."

What was the declaration containing the panchsheel? Just a piece of paper -- few today will be able to recite what the five principles were, few will be able to identify the joint statement in which they were originally enunciated. But the principles defined an era. "The Delhi Declaration" of which so much is made -- between Rajiv and whom was it signed, what did it contain other than a list of desirables? What are the U. N. Charter, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Just pieces of paper. But they have become standards of reference, countries are held to account on their basis.

That is the significance of such documents. Having committed themselves to their provisions, countries can be constantly pulled and pushed to adhering to them. They are also important indicators : they tell us what the countries are tending towards. That the government of a country which has sworn unremitting hostility to another, in which children are conditioned to believe the other to be a monster, that the government of such a country should sign a document pledging peace and goodwill is a very important act in itself.

"But these are just gestures," some correspondents say. A leader went further, "It is just drama," he told me and others. A word too is a deed. If someone's gestures have all been minatory, if he has been rushing at us to beat us up, and his gestures turn to affection and comradeship -- is that not a matter of substance?

"It is a total flop," one prominent person in the press party went around saying before the joint press conference in Lahore. "While they are releasing these declarations here, twenty one persons have been butchered in Kashmir. Firing is going on in Siachin." Cynicism has gone so deep, it has become our nature. Could it not be that precisely because such killings are going on that -- even as you kill the terrorists thoroughly and mercilessly -- you must engage the other person in dialogue? How is it that we jump to praise Arafat for persevering with the Peace Process in the Middle East in spite of Hamas, how is it that we are forever hectoring Israel to continue with the Peace Process in spite of the killings and bombings by Hamas, but when it comes to our Prime Minister we are so quick to declare the visit "a total flop" because it has not brought an immediate end to the killings?

Look at the substance itself. I have been reading three-four Pakistani newspapers, magazines, books every day for the last two years. Going by them, I would never have expected that a Pakistani Government will at this stage agree to a document which pledged the two countries to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the other. But that is a clause to which it has pledged itself. Nor did I think that it would agree to any of the things that concern us in regard to terrorism : but it has agreed to collaborate to stamp out terrorism "in all its forms." Are these things not "substance"?

"But what is the use of these pledges?," I was asked. "Nawaz Sharif is weak, he is on the run. The reality is what was happening in Lahore even as you fellows were there. The Jamaat-i-Islami had shut the whole city, they held a powerful demonstration. Their leader swore to chase Vajpayee out of Pakistan. That is the reality." No doubt -- it is an important part, it may even turn out to be the decisive part of reality. But in those very hours we also saw some other parts : from all over Pakistan Qazi Hussain had been able to muster only a few thousand -- five said some, a bit more said others; his men killed one policeman, they injured many, in turn the police beat them black and blue. So much tear-gas was hurled at the mob that our eyes smarted as we walked to the banquet a mile away at the Lahore Fort.

I took that not just as evidence of Mr Nawaz Sharif's determination to push ahead along this road. I took it as an example of the very thing that should be done. One must expect impediments. Leadership consists in converting them into opportunities. That the Qazi and his murderous band attempted to disrupt things, and that they were beaten away, became on the one hand proof of Mr. Nawaz Sharif's bona fides, and on the other it committed him even more to that course. Is that not progress on "substance"?

I find another change. Pakistan has all along been asking others to jump in and "mediate", and many others -- from the Americans to Robin Cook -- have been eager to wrest a role. Cook said Britain was impelled by its imperial responsibilities, or some equally ridiculous propeller, to settle the matter! On the other hand, we have been saying all along that the two countries must deal with each other directly. In the landmark interview that he gave to Shekhar Gupta, the Editor of the Indian Express, Mr Nawaz Sharif said, you say we should talk to each other directly on Kashmir; well, then why not on nuclear matters? As we do not do so, a third party has acquired a role : "They come to you and ask you things, then they come to us and ask us the same things. Why must it go on like this? Why can't we talk directly? Why do we have to go on approaching each other via Bhatinda?"-- Bhatinda used to be the big junction in the Punjab; to go from one station to the other, one had to go via Bhatinda; and that made the journey exasperatingly long. Who could miss whom he meant by "Bhatinda"? He reverted to this during his speech at the banquet : we speak the same language, we share the same history, we sing the same songs -- words to that effect -- "we don't need any Columbus to discover each other." He could have said Sir Walter Raleigh, he could have said Vasco da Gama. He chose to say Columbus. No one missed whom he had in mind! No substantive change there?

As it turns out, the two countries have been doing just that -- talking directly to each other on nuclear matters. And that has resulted in the even more far-reaching document, the Memorandum of Understanding which the two Foreign Secretaries signed. The two countries have pledged to work together in regard to nuclear and missile developments. They have agreed to keep each other informed -- even on some matters of detail. Just a few months ago every critic was shouting, "South Asia has been plunged into an arms race, these countries are at each other's throats, they will never come to an understanding...., accidental explosions, holocaust...." Well, they have come to a far-reaching agreement. And in just ten months. By contrast, the US and the USSR took thirty seven years to reach an agreement of this sort.

"But nuclear weapons have never really been an issue," a prominent member of the Pakistan National Assembly said. "The core issue is Kashmir..." At the joint press conference also each question asked by a Pakistani correspondent related to Kashmir. "They have added the word 'Kashmir' to the kalima," my friend Sayeed Naqvi exclaimed on the way back!

There is no doubt that a few minutes have not to pass, and they bring up Kashmir. But I also sensed despair, a "For-heaven's-sake, do-something-on-it" desperation. They see that they cannot grab Kashmir by force. They see that no Indian government is going to give it to them. They see that no third party is going to, that no third party can bring India to cede it to them : how many times have they implored the Americans to "mediate", and to what avail?; how many times has the Organization of Islamic States endorsed their "stand on Kashmir", and to what avail?

By now, the condition borders almost on schizophrenia. "But this issue can lead to war," one said in a somewhat raised voice. "But if there is war, well there is war. If there is an arms race, well there is an arms race," I said, "India can bear it better than Pakistan, I assure you..." A moment had not passed, and the other person who was sitting with us and had been saying the usual things about India's "rigid attitude" and the rest, said, "But we are a small country, our economy is on the verge of bankruptcy. Is it not more your responsibility as the bigger and more powerful country to solve this problem between us?" Two emotions, expressed almost in the same breath, almost as a continuation one of the other, two completely contradictory emotions.

"I just hope a miracle will happen, and the two will produce something," said the member of the Pakistan Assembly in the end during the other exchange.

And we must also see what is happening in fact. No progress can be made until the core issue of Kashmir is solved, they keep saying. But in fact, progress on other issues is being made. Easing of visa restrictions. Ensuring that innocent fishermen, swept away to the other country by a contrary wind, are not thrown into prisons... Nor are contacts restricted to the formal level of governments. The Presidents of CII, FICCI and Assochem were part of the Prime Minister's delegation. They and their Pakistani counterparts agreed to form an Indo-Pak Chamber of Commerce and Industry, they announced that they were setting up a joint task force to draw up recommendations for the two governments on the steps that should be taken in regard to trade between the two countries. Vice-chancellors have begun meeting. Press persons are meeting. Several persons spoke in the most laudatory terms of the exchanges during the meeting of parliamentarians of the two countries...

Actually one of the things that surprises one is the number of levels at which contacts are already on, and the ingenious ways by which individuals and groups have established close, working relationships. Goods from the other country are not to be imported, that is the formal position of the governments. But firms from both countries send goods to each other via Dubai -- a leading businessman put the figure of this "third-party trade" so high that I am embarrassed to mention it. Apparently, firms of each side take care not to mark the country of origin on the good or consignment! Even I, in my little world, have not had any difficulty : to obtain publications from Pakistan, I need to be in touch with some journalists and others there; mail is delayed, sometimes it loses its way; but now there is email; some email messages bounce back; all I do is to send them to a friend in London, and request him to re-route them to the addressees in Pakistan -- it takes him no more than a click to do so...

There are formidable difficulties in Pakistan. Two in particular : the poison which has been internalised for half a century; and the vested interest that organizations -- numerous, huge -- and their controllers have in the continuance of hostilities. Terrorism is a direct result. That terrorism we must keep crushing -- absolutely, mercilessly, for as long as they keep at it. That crushing is as important a limb of the Peace Process as multiplying contacts. Local recruitment in Kashmir has dwindled. Once the foreign mercenary comes to see that, from the moment he enters India, his life is down to six months, that within six months he is certain to be killed, those in Pakistan who are prosecuting the war will find it next to impossible to recruit mercenaries for their "jihad" in Kashmir. So, the stern, absolutely uncompromising line towards security is one side of the same coin, that of peace. There is absolutely no reason to heed Pakistani "sensitivities" in this regard.

In working the other side, however, that of trade, travel etc., we should be extra-sensitive to their concerns. Again, Sayeed Naqvi put the point well : "Bhai, yeh log tumhari dosti se dare hue hain." They are beginning to see that enmity with India is a costly business, but they are afraid of friendship -- your films will come, their film industry will be inundated; your manufactures will flood and eat up their factories; your books and artists and musicians will come and theirs will be nowhere.... "Dosti se darna....," Naqvi began to reflect.... But that being the case, it will be better to almost let them set the pace on this. We should propose. Somethings we should do unilaterally : Mr. Vajpayee remarked on how heartless and pointless it was that fishermen, swept away by the wind landed up in jails in the other country; in the natural course, both countries should jointly agree to a simple procedure to immediately set them on their way back. But suppose Pakistan demurs. Where is the harm in India deciding that it will release the poor wretches whether Pakistan does so or not?

But the main thing, as Mr Vajpayee emphasised throughout his trip, is to recreate confidence and trust. And in that his journey was of the highest significance. His directness, his soft-spokenness, the things he did, his eloquence had an effect at times which was to be seen to be believed.

They have built a tower in Lahore -- the Minar-i-Pakistan -- at the spot at which what has come to be known as the Pakistan Resolution was passed in 1940. Though on occasion Indian Prime Ministers have been to Pakistan, none of them has gone to the spot. Pakistanis have read a design in this : see, you Indians have still not accepted the idea of Pakistan, they have said; that shows clearly that you still intend to swallow us some day, they have deduced. When this was put to him, Mr. Vajpayee, as is his nature, had not the slightest hesitation that he will certainly visit the Minar. After he had spent time going round it, he was taken to sign the Visitors' Book. On it he wrote that he had said earlier, and that he was saying again that India is for a united, stable, prosperous Pakistan. He moved away. Officials rushed to see what he had written, and within seconds they were repeating it to each other with evident emotion. By the time I got back to the hotel, that this is what he had written was being talked of.

The next afternoon there was a reception in his honour at the Governor's mansion -- one of the most impressive settings the British have left in the subcontinent. A few hundred of the best and brightest of Pakistan had been invited. Ministers, scholars, journalists, retired diplomats, businessmen, in a word, the influentials. All were seated around tables -- four or five to a table. Mr Vajpayee spoke without notes. It was the sort of speech we are accustomed to hearing from him -- perceptive, eloquent, witty, from his heart.

We are accustomed, I said, but obviously the Pakistanis expected nothing of the kind. I was just astounded at the reactions it evoked from the persons around me. There was a sort of running commentary on almost every second sentence. As at a mushaira. I could hear persons at three or four tables around me, for the Lahorians are not inhibited. Brhaji, dekho taan sayi, kini gehri gal keh gaya, brother what a deep thing he has said.... O' ji, bai eh ta sacha philospher hai, friend, he is a real philosopher.... Brahji, kini door di soch hai.... Sir, too witty, Sir, too witty, said one thumping his thigh and laughing at one of Atalji's alliterations : kaisi halat hai, he had said, machuaire machli pakdne nikalte hain, havaa aati hai, woh apne ko havalaat mein paate hain; machli pakdne gaye the, khud pakde gaye.... Wah, wah, bai eh dil di gal kehnda, brother, he speaks from the heart.... at Atalji reciting lines from one of his poems. Atalji described the plight of visa-seekers, standing in queues, the long hours of waiting, visas being given from morning to evening, the office hours over, but suddenly.... acahanak musibat aa jaati hai, aakhir musibat to khabar de kar nahin aati, visa nahin mil sakta, office band hai, Atalji was saying.... Bai, e taan dil wich tak lainda hai, brother, this man sees into the heart, my neighbour commented....

Atalji's theme was that the two countries were losing out, that to progress they needed peace, that for that they needed trust. And see what things have come to, he said. This very morning, in my room, discussion was going on -- should I visit the Minar-i-Pakistan or not? Why not?, I asked. Phir to aapki mohar Pakistan par lag jayegi, I was told -- then your seal would have been put on Pakistan. Are, bhai, kya Pakistan meri mohar par chalta hai?, I asked them -- does Pakistan run on my seal? Pakistan ki apni mohar hai, woh mohar duniya mein chalti hai, Pakistan has its own seal, that seal is recognized in the whole world.... Persons around me who had clapped often, stood up to clap this time, He deserves a standing ovation, they said....

It is difficult to describe that hour.

Yes, there are many difficulties, there will be many derailments. It can all become a memory at the next turn. But that does not make this moment unreal. Sisyphus had been cursed -- that he would have to go on pushing that enormous rock up the hill, the rock would roll down again, and he would have to begin pushing it up again, all his life.... He has been the symbol of drudgery, of being worn down in futile toil. And everyone has focused on him as he strains against the rock to move it up the hill, centimeter by groaning centimeter. And on the rock as it rolls down again. But Camus said that what caught his eye was that fleeting moment at which Sisyphus had at last reached the top, that moment the rock was poised at the peak, that "pivoting moment" as Sisyphus turned, surveyed the valley from the top, as he walked down to commence again the torment "of which he will never know the end." "That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock...."

The trip was a moment of that sort....

India Connect
February 25, 1999

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