When the holy month of Ramadan began on 21 August, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Salman Bashir, was still waiting for a communication from Nirupama Rao, his newly ensconced counterpart in New Delhi, confirming acceptance of invitations to the Iftar parties in Islamabad. Earlier, Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani had agreed at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt that the two foreign secretaries would meet without much delay, and do the groundwork for a ministerial level dialogue to be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September. But ingrained suspicions, like old habits, die hard. The political opinion in India and Pakistan does not allow either party to take the initiative and set the ball rolling again towards rapprochement.
Once back from the Non-Aligned Summit, Prime Minister Singh was lambasted in India for appearing accommodative towards Pakistan, with the reference to Balochistan in the joint statement, which is supposed to have been a concession to Islamabad. He had to assure Indian parliamentarians, saying that the resumption of the composite dialogue with Pakistan required a more conducive atmosphere. The future of Indo-Pak peace talks – suspended in the wake of terror attacks on high-visibility targets in Bombay last November – hangs in the balance as both sides dither over venue, date and agenda. And this is only for the preparatory meeting between the foreign secretaries.
Pakistan would like to host the Indian foreign secretary in Islamabad because the last meeting, before the suspension of talks, was held in New Delhi. Though India is not saying so, the South Block babus would probably prefer a neutral third party venue to escape the inevitable criticism of having ‘given in’ to the Pakistanis. Unless the issue is resolved by consultations at the highest levels, an US emissary will arrive and portray both parties as squabbling brats incapable of conducting their own affairs. That is the way it has been in the past. And so it shall continue to be in the future if these two estranged Southasian neighbours do not realise the diplomatic cost of their rigidity. Unfortunately, the ruling elites of India and Pakistan are prisoners of the past, showing little concern for the stability which will add to prosperity, not only for their own people but also for their neighbours.
L’affaire Jaswant Singh has proved once again that the wounds of Partition are hard to heal; the moment they begin to dry, someone comes out to scratch the scabs enough to cause bleeding all over again. On the face of it, the old soldier in Singh has merely exercised his intellectual freedom of re-examining events leading to the partition of British India. None of his findings are new enough to add a missing layer to the truth. It has long been established that M K Gandhi grossly overestimated his influence upon Muslim Indians; British overlords wanted to wash their hands off the Subcontinent as soon as possible; Jinnah was the more determined negotiator; and Nehru made whatever compromises were necessary to save his ‘Idea of India’ – as the proud inheritor of the Maurya, Mughal and British empires.
But most Southasians have more faith in myth than history. Hence, Jaswant Singh paid the price of repeating the truth in a political party – even a country or, indeed, the entire region – in which most members have learnt to live in the bewitching twilight of falsehood. The problem with Partition is that it is still a memory, sometimes lived, sometimes remembered, but politically reconstructed for the most part. It comes in the way of a normalisation of relationships, not only between India and Pakistan but also within all the countries of Southasia. It does not matter that 75 percent of the over one billion Indians are below 35 and were born much after the Partition question had been settled. The legacy of 62 years of relentless propaganda against each other has taken its toll. Indians and Pakistanis are conditioned to this culture of mutual suspicion. Unfortunately, there are no easy ropes to escape this quagmire. All the same, the least that warriors in the marsh can do is keep talking.
By the coming Id-ul-fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his Indian counterpart S M Krishna should have begun talking to each other to save Pakistan-India peace talks. They could begin the conversation by praising the scholarship of Jaswant Singh. Meanwhile, is anyone from west of the Radcliffe line willing to take up the challenge of a sequel putting Nehru in a favourable light? Memories apparently have to be reinterpreted for dreams to take shape.