“SAARC is a slow train to nowhere in particular”, says His Excellency Mr Riaz Khokhar, Pakistan’s gutsy ambassador to New Delhi. This sums up the feeling among India’s small neighbours who were participants at the 8th SAARC Summit held at New Delhi from 2-4th May.
Riaz Khokhar is a man India loves to hate. Only recently, he was in the eye of another storm in a tea cup whipped up by the mandarins in South Block. Mr Khokhar, it was alleged, “humiliated” a junior minister in the Indian foreign affairs ministry when he invited him as chief guest to a garden party hosted on the occasion of Pakistan’s Independence Day celebrations in Delhi and failed to provide him with a chair. Mr Khokhar has characteristically shrugged off the incident by another crisp one-liner: “There are no chairs at a garden party!”
Riaz should know what he is talking about. He has spent the better part of the last fifteen years as a keen “India watcher”, first in the Pakistan FO’s India desk, then as our ambassador to Bangla Desh and later as the powerful additional secretary (foreign affairs) at the PM’s secretariat under both Benazir Bhutto (1988-90) and Nawaz Sharif (1990-93).
Riaz had invited Sardar Assef Ali, our foreign minister, to a quiet dinner at his residence on 29th April. When he came round to the Ashok hotel to ensure that the press party accompanying the Pakistan delegation was well looked after by his staff, he invited me to join him for dinner. “What do you think of the welcome laid out by the Indians for Sardar Assef?”, he asked me with a broad grin as we ambled majestically in his flagged black Mercedes to the Residency.
I was nonplussed. Was he referring to the fact that the Pakistani foreign minister was received at the airport by a secretary from South Block, I asked. Riaz shook his head and clucked. “Look out for the papers tomorrow”, he explained brightly, “the Indians will say that they have caught some ‘Pakistani-infiltrated terrorist’ or the other in Kashmir”.
He was bang on target. An hour later, Doordarshan’s evening news bulletin announced that “Ghulam Hasan Hazzam, alias Hasani, a 25 year old Pakistan-trained Al Barq Tanzim Kashmiri militant who was formerly with the Hizbul Mujahideen and JKLF, had been arrested from a hotel in the Azadpur area north west of Delhi by the Special Cell of the Delhi police”.
The RAW sponsored story was dutifully splashed by the Indian media the following morning. “One plastic handgrenade, two letters in Urdu — allegedly written by Peoples Conference chief Abdul Ghani Lone to Al Barq run training camps in Muzaffarabad — and a Pakistani visa for 30 days beginning April 11th were recovered from Hasani”, said the reports, some of which carried a photograph of “Hasani” handcuffed to a policeman.
The Residency is exquisitely designed and furnished. When I said as much to the gregarious Mrs Khokhar, she told me proudly that “everything in it comes from Pakistan”. As we sank into the plush chairs, I couldn’t help remarking that “an ambassador’s life must be a piece of cake”.
“Hah!”, exclaimed Riaz, “You’ve got another thought coming”. As he began to expand upon the hazards of his job in Delhi, the lights began to dim and blink, then they went off and the Residency’s emergency generator was switched on. Riaz turned to Sardar Assef and grinned again. “The Indians want us to have a candle-lit dinner, sir!”
Later, members of the embassy staff told me how they lived in a perpetual state of siege. There are over 300 of them (including their families), all squeezed into a block of flats in the embassy compound which is surrounded by a high wall and “protected” by a police station nearby. “We don’t dare go out alone”, said one. “Every now and then mobs of Hindu fanatics land up outside the embassy screaming murder”, said another. Sure enough, the day after the SAARC summit ended, there was a rowdy demonstration outside the embassy, protesting President Farooq Leghari’s private meeting with leaders of the Kashmir Hurriet Conference (off the record for journalists).
I tried to recall the last time Pakistani mobs had marched on to the Indian embassy in Islamabad or the consulate in Karachi and couldn’t think of an occasion in the recent past. Nor was the import of a remark, ostensibly made in jest, by an Indian additional secretary at a dinner hosted in “honour of visiting journalists from SAARC” lost on us. The secretary referred to the harassment of an Indian journalist by the “agencies” in Islamabad and quipped to a couple of Pakistani journalists attending his dinner: “You’d better watch out”, he said, suggesting that two could play the game perfectly.
The “welcome” seemed unending. On April 30th, leading Indian newspapers carried an “Agencies” story claiming “US government exposes Pak hand in Kashmir trouble”. Selectively quoting from a report by the US state department on Patterns of Global Terrorism, the Indian media gleefully reported the report’s findings that “there were credible reports in 1994 of official Pakistani support for the Kashmiri militants…some support came from the Jamaat i Islami…”. Interestingly enough, there was scant mention of the fact noted in the report that “Pakistan had condemned the kidnapping in June 1994 of foreign tourists by Kashmiri militants” in the valley. Nor was anything made of the Pakistani allegation, mentioned in the report, that “India was providing support to separatists in Sindh province”.
The same day, the Indian media carried extracts of an “interview” in which Senator Larry Pressler told India’s Finance Minister Mr Manmohan Singh in Washington that he would forcefully fight any changes in the Pressler amendment. Mr Pressler was quoted as telling Mr Singh that he “appreciated India’s concern that if the F-16 aircraft were delivered to Pakistan, New Delhi would have to up the ante and increase its defence expenditure”. However, Mr Pressler admitted that it had been “a battle to hold the line” against Pakistan and that “it’s getting more and more difficult every year”.
On May 1st, The Hindustan Times carried a piece on its editorial pages by noted Indian hawk Brahma Chellaney on Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions. Mr Challeney drew attention to “clandestine Chinese assistance” for Pakistan’s “40 MW heavy water reactor at Khushab” which is allegedly designed at “producing plutonium and tritium for advanced compact nuclear warheads”. The article dealt at length with Pakistan’s Hatf-1, Hatf-2 and Hatf-3 rocket systems, explored the implications for India of the Chinese M-11 missiles to Pakistan and ended up arguing that Pakistan was poised to upgrade its missile capabilities in such a fashion that India would end up facing a “Chinese bomb to the north and a quasi-Chinese bomb to the west”.
On May 2nd, the day the SAARC summit formally opened, the Indian media congratulated the Indian government because “eight out of nine cases of alleged human rights abuses in Kashmir” had been investigated by the state government and found to be baseless. Apparently, out of 34 such allegations since January, 32 have now been declared by the Indian judges and jury as being “false”. The same day, the press highlighted reports that the J&K Governor, Gen (retd) V K Rao, told visiting ambassadors of the EEC that Pakistan was “inducting Afghan militants in J&K”. The Hindustan Times of May 2nd also chipped in with a five column story on the front page detailing the doings and undoings of alleged “Pakistani-master terrorist” and “the most wanted man in India, Dawood Ibrahim.
Lt Gen (retd) A M Vohra hogged the editorial page of The Hindustan Times on May 2nd by an article on how to conduct the elections in Kashmir. His self-serving thesis: “the Kashmiris have realised that the gun has brought them a lot of suffering…the motivation of many groups has got diluted…it is fear of the gun rather than sympathy for the militants which explains their following in the valley…upto 70 per cent of the people in the valley are against the militants…pro-Pak elements are no more than 10 per cent in the valley”. Gen Vohra says that by promoting a dialogue with Kashmiri leaders, the India government can succeed in holding elections.
On May 3rd, The Hindu reported that the “Centre favours TADA extension” when it comes up for review in parliament on May 23rd. It said that 17 out of 22 states had already endorsed its extension. The report noted that out of 77,571 persons arrested since TADA was imposed eight years ago in various parts of India, including Kashmir in recent years, 49,628 persons were from five states, including Gugarat where it was “misused”. There was no mention of the application of TADA in Kashmir. However, in a prominent “box” item placed within this report, The Hindu found itself compelled to note “the ISI game”. “The Union Home Minister has accused the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency, of trying to forge links not only with the Sikh and Kashmiri terrorists but also with the fundamentalists PWG, LTTE and ULFA so that concerted action could be launched to destabilise the country”. The Hindu also informed its readers that the BJP remained opposed to the repeal of TADA.
In this grim backdrop to SAARC, however, there was one positive note. Journalist Tavleen Singh’s new book titled “Kashmir — A Tragedy of Errors”, which is critical of India’s blunders in the valley and accuses the Indian press of being biased, was selling briskly. But Tavleen was upset that few editors had bothered to review it in their papers. One Pakistani journalist thought he would scoop his colleagues by interviewing Tavleen about her past “relationship” with a Pakistani politician. But Ms Singh put paid to that line of enquiry by a sweep of her hand: “That’s old hat now”, she said and turned her back on the Pakistani hack.
President Farooq Leghari had a good trip, his “first ever to India”, as he pointed out to a group of top Indian journalists and academics at a breakfast meeting on 4th May at the Maurya Sheraton hotel. Following up on his immaculate interviews to “The News”, “India Today” and BBC in Islamabad and “The Hindu” and CNN in New Delhi, Mr Leghari succinctly explained the Pakistani position on regional peace and security: the road to peace and nuclear non-proliferation in the sub-continent goes via Srinager; hence a resolution of the “core” Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan should take priority over other confidence-building measures. On Kashmir, he stressed, there were only two options — a plebiscite to determine, under UN resolutions, which of the two countries Kashmir wished to join; Pakistan supported the idea of third-party mediation because past experience suggested (a) that bilateral talks had got nowhere because of Indian intransigence (b) two major issues — Rann of Kutch and the Indus Waters dispute — had been resolved through third-party mediation.
Mr Leghari was forthright in placing the facts on the table: the Indians had sent in over 600,000 troops and para-military forces to crush the Kashmiri resistance; the proposed elections were bound to be a farce under these conditions; the resistance movement was indigenously inspired; India could not hope to fool world opinion.
As expected, the Indians were not interested in exploring a solution to Kashmir along these lines. Instead, Mr K Subrahmanium, the noted Indian hawk, wanted to know why Pakistan did not support India’s stand on the global iniquitousness of the NPT. Mr Leghari sidetracked the loaded question cleverly by pointing out (a) that Pakistan had already floated the idea of a multilateral conference on nuclear non-proliferation in South Asia (b) that Pakistan’s position on the proposed Fissile Cut-Off Treaty was the same as that of India.
Others wanted to know why India and Pakistan couldn’t resolve the “minor irritants” between them — Siachin, trade, free flow of literature, etc — as a prelude to talks on Kashmir. Mr Leghari explained that in view of rising passions in Pakistan over India’s repression in Kashmir, this route was a non-starter. On several occasions, attempts were made to trip up the Pakistani President. But he remained cool and articulate throughout the session.
Mr Leghari’s speech at the SAARC summit was, in sharp contrast to those of other leaders, in the same outspoken vein. He thought the SAARC charter should be amended to include discussions on bilateral issues. He alluded to India’s hegemonic ambitions when he said that “it would be a great pity if our initiative towards a New International Order degenerates into a ploy to create international heavy-weights who arrogate to themselves the right to decide for others what essentially serves their own national interests”. And he explained that “SAARC had not taken off” because “the suspicions and insecurity generated by the unsettled political issues in our region stand in the way”.
One Bangla Deshi journalist, who was so impressed by Mr Leghari’s forthright presentation, turned to me with a clenched fist and said: “Attaboy Leghari, that’s saying it like it is”. In more ways than one, when Sardar Farooq Khan Leghari retreated to Simla for “rest and recreation”, he genuinely seemed to tower over all the other leaders.