Peace is a process, not an event
Not letting terror attacks determine foreign policy augurs well for India-Pakistan’s relationship
If Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's stopover in Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on 25 December, 2015 came as a surprise, the subsequent militant attack on the Pathankot airbase in India's Punjab barely a week later on 2 January, did not.
Given past patterns, many had been expecting an unfortunate incident to mar the bonhomie between Pakistan and India that Modi's Christmas Day visit had generated. Some expressed their apprehensions privately, some on social media. Indian intelligence officers revealed that they had been tracking information about an anticipated attack on the airbase in Pathankot for a few days before it took place. According to reports based on telephone intercepts and other evidence, the attack was launched from Pakistani soil.
This was soon followed by another tragedy in Pakistan on 20 January, 2016 when gunmen attacked Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, near Peshawar, killing 21 students and staff. The university is named after the Pashtun nationalist leader and freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as 'Badshah' (king) or Bacha Khan. A devout Muslim who stood for a tolerant version of Islam that the Taliban oppose, he led a non-violent red-shirted army of Khudai Khidmatgars (servants of God) against the British Empire. He was also known as the Frontier Gandhi due to his insistence on non-violence and close friendship with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The university was commemorating his 28th death anniversary on 20 January with a mushaira.
Bacha Khan had initially opposed the creation of Pakistan but pledged allegiance to the new nation after 14 August, 1947. He spent the rest of his life in and out of jail for opposing several policies of the Pakistan government. When he died in Peshawar in 1988 while under house arrest, India declared a five-day mourning period. Bacha Khan was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in accordance with his wishes. Despite the security establishment having portrayed him as a 'traitor' for years, hundreds of thousands of mourners attended his funeral.
Relations between Pakistan and India had been improving slowly, as the meeting between the two Prime Ministers in Ufa, Russia in July 2015 suggested. Discussions centred on bettering communication and a meeting between the National Security Advisors (NSA) of both countries was fixed. However, the cordiality was not repeated in September at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where they did not interact. Before this, the scheduled meeting in August between the NSAs was cancelled because "the two sides dug in heels, not leaving any room for flexibility" on the subjects to be discussed, as the Indian Express reported. But at the sidelines of the Climate Summit in Paris, on 30 November 2015 the meeting between the two premiers made quite a few headlines. A brief video that shows them speaking intently to each other was widely circulated. (A few creative souls used the inaudible recording to make their own versions of the conversation with voiceovers in different accents and languages.)
Following this, on 6 December, 2015 NSAs Nasir Khan Janjua of Pakistan and Ajit Doval of India held a 'secret meeting' in Bangkok and agreed to take forward the 'constructive' engagement. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj attended the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad on 9 December arriving "with the message that ties between the two countries should be good and move forward".
This was the background state of affairs when Modi posted his apparently casual tweet on 25 December while on a state visit to Afghanistan: "Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today afternoon, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi". He had apparently rung Sharif from Kabul to wish on his birthday. Sharif mentioned that his granddaughter was also getting married and invited him to drop by on his way back. Hours later, the world was treated to a highly photogenic visit – the two Prime Ministers beaming, hugging, holding hands. The scene gave a glimpse of what is possible when spontaneous visits are allowed unencumbered by the restrictive visa regime between the two countries.
Of course, Modi's visit was not expected to usher in great changes overnight in terms of the official relations between the two countries. But it definitely set the ball rolling for future communications. As opposed to earlier instances, the wheels already set in motion did not come to a grinding halt after the attacks on Pathankot and Bacha Khan University. The meeting of foreign secretaries expected to take place in mid-January was only postponed to February, rather than being cancelled. Moreover, on 30 January Sharif asserted that Pakistan will do its best to investigate the allegations that the terrorists who attacked Pathankot airbase were operating from Pakistan. "Pakistan will soon complete its investigation into the Pathankot terror attack, which had a negative impact on talks with India," Sharif said.
Multiple factors contributed to the shift in the governments' reactions to the terror attacks. Usually, it is the rightwing on both sides that makes the loudest protests when there are moves towards peace. But when the rightwing is in power and attempts to mend fences, the liberals, who have always rooted for better ties, may call out the hypocrisy, but will not oppose the rapprochement. This is the situation at present since the elected governments in power, both India and Pakistan, have rightwing leaders.
Furthermore, chances of peace tend to increase when there are democratically elected leaders on both sides. As elected leaders, both Modi and Sharif have made efforts to distance themselves, even if cosmetically, from their rightwing springboards. Their political parties continue to have links with extremists but being heads of aspiring democracies, they have an image to uphold globally.