July 05, 2020
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Boatmen Wait On The Banks Of The Indus

Gracious in person, Abdul Sattar’s bilious pen spills an anti-India screed—a lesson in ‘national identity’. Yet it shows how a path of reconciliation can be cut through the shrillness.

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Boatmen Wait On The Banks Of The Indus
Abdul Sattar, Pakistan’s ex-envoy to India and former foreign minister
Photograph by Alamy
Boatmen Wait On The Banks Of The Indus
Pakistan’s Foreign Policy 1947-2016: A Concise History
By Abdul Sattar
Oxford University Press | Pages: 392 | PKR 795

Indian readers will be left apople­ctic at this ‘concise history’ of Pak­istan’s Foreign Policy, 1947-2106 by veteran Pakistani diplomat, Abdul Sattar, who served as both Pak­i­s­tan’s ambassador and high comm­issioner to India, as foreign secretary, and twice as foreign minister of his country. They would be well advised to remember the lines of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns:

“Oh, wad some Power/The giftie gi’e us/To see oursels as ithers see us.”

Of his particular hate figures, Nehru, “with his grand strategy of Indian hegemony”, ranks highest, with Mrs Gandhi a close second. Perfidy and deceit are laid at India’s door.

Ambassador Sattar belongs to the Partition generation. He grew to man­h­ood with the Pakistan movement, abso­rbed all the perceptions and pre­­judices about India that were common to that generation, and then spent a professional lifetime battling India in various forums, ranging from the Shimla meeting of 1972 to several verbal duels in the UN, to the post-Kargil years of Vajpayee and Mus­h­arraf, including the Agra summit of 2002 (that almost succeeded). The last 14 years, 2002-16, however, of this concise history are more an outsider’s view of India-Pakistan relations and less those of an active participant in the inner track. They reflect his sense of being left out. He was at his peak in military regimes and had a low time of it when democracy made its transitory appearances in Pakistan.

Thus, during the early years of Zia, he was ambassador in India (ambassador, because Pakistan had been kicked out of the Commonwealth for not being a dem­ocracy). I served at the same time as India’s first consul-general in Karachi. So I was able to watch his New Delhi performance from a ringside seat, as it were. In professional terms, he was utt­erly brilliant, arguably the most effective envoy Pakistan has ever sent to New Delhi. He was invited everywhere and went everywhere. His range of friends stretched across the entire spectrum of Delhi’s many-layered society, from the narrow bylanes of Nizamuddin Aulia to the leafy avenues of Lutyens’ Delhi—and well beyond. The embodiment of charm and good humour, his soirees were the talk of the town, his gracious manners and generous hospitality a lesson for all. His fluency in English and Urdu unm­atchable, he had a smile and a kind word for everyone, and a ready compliment on his lips for all.

Yet, this concise history shows him boiling over with bile at Indian iniquities. Of his particular hate figures, Nehru ranks highest on the list; Indira Gandhi ranks a close second. The entire orientation of Pakistan’s foreign policy, he asserts, is designed to foil “Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s grand strategy of Indian hegemony over the South Asian region”. So, perfidy, ill-intention, deceit, arrogance and overweening ambition are all placed at India’s door, while any Pakistani failing is brushed aside, sidelined or whitewashed. Why then will this invaluable chronology of Pakistan foreign policy never pass any academic test? Because its purpose is not to objectively evaluate Pakistan’s foreign policy, warts and all, but, as Agha Shahi reveals in his introduction, to ‘heighten’ in the younger generation of Pakistanis “the consciousness of their national identity”.

Reflective of the time in which he was born and brought up, and of the many travails of Pakistan from its founding in 1947 to its break-up a quarter century later, and its many challenges, from the democratic authoritarianism of the Quaid-e-Azam to the military dictatorships of Generals Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Musharraf, that “consciousness of nat­ional identity” had to be fostered thr­ough the ‘othering’ of the enemy—India. And the focus of that ‘othering’ has been the profound sense of injustice over J&K, with a 70 per cent Muslim majority, being snatched from Pakistan by Indian perfidy. This, not unexpectedly, is the running theme of Sattar’s determined endeavour at rousing the “national consciousness” of Pakistan’s post-Partition generations.

And why is such an endeavour essential? Because the Pakistan story as adumbrated by Sattar is losing its appeal to that 95 per cent of Pakistan’s population that does not belong to Sattar’s and Agha Shahi’s (and current de facto foreign minister Sartaj Aziz’s) Partition generation. This 95 per cent believe they are Pakistanis because they are Pakistanis—they have never been anything else. Unlike the five per cent, who were born in the ’20s and ’30s of the last century and were Indian before they became Pakistani—and had no criterion for defining themselves as Pakistani other than the post-14 August 1947 fact that they were ‘not Indian’—those who have been Pakistanis all their lives do not need to be anti-Indian to prove to themselves that they are Pakistanis, not Indians.

Unlike the five per cent who were born in the ’20s and ’30s, and were Indians before they became Pakistanis, the current lot don’t need to be anti-Indian to prove their patriotism.

This is why in the successive democratic elections we have witnessed in the last decade or so, all mainstream Pakistani parties have pledged themselves to seeking better relations with India and eschewed building votebanks by playing up the Kashmir question. Pakistanis want a settlement; the Indian government baulks at sorting things out through dialogue, and because Pakistan does not loom so large in India’s “nat­ional consciousness” as India does in Pakistan’s, the general Indian public shrugs its shoulders and leaves it to the authorities to reach out or pull back from Pakistan, as they wish. Thus is the field left open for Sattar and his ilk to scratch at old scabs to keep ancient grievances going: “old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago”. (There is, of course, no end of Indian Sattars doing the same at our end).

I think the first lesson to be learned is that there is no point in continuing the argument. Sattar might rant and rail all he wishes over the UN role in Kashmir; the fact is the UN has washed its hands of the affair. Bilateral talks are the only way out. That worked when Manmohan Singh and Gen. Musharraf initiated a process, based on the assurance Musharraf had extended to Vajpayee in January 2004 that Pakistan would not permit its territory to be used to launch terrorist attacks on India. That process, backed up by int­ensive back-channel interaction, showed what was possible, but was aborted when Musharraf fell from power, followed by the Mumbai outrage in November 2008. But Sattar is dismissive of that process, incorrectly attributing the four-point formula on Kashmir that emerged through the backchannel to Indian Ambassador Sati Lambah when, in fact, it was Musharraf’s formulation. “The backchannel,” he concludes, “became at best a footnote in history”. Yet, it remains the take-off point for any future dialogue.

Pakistan, paranoid over India’s relative size and strength, has always sought to counter that with alliances. First, it was the Americans. Later it was, and remains, the Chinese. The American alliance left most Pakistanis resentful, suspicious and alienated. That is well documented in Sattar’s account. There is an argument being made in India that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will leave the Pakistani economy so overburdened that resentment at China will also grow. Be that as it may, the fact is that, as of today, China is no longer across the Himalayas, but at the banks of the Indus. Putin’s Russia is far more interested in cultivating China than in bailing out India. And if that, for the Russians, means drawing closer to Pakistan, so be it.

Ironically, India is replacing Pakistan as the “most reliable friend” of the United States in South Asia, a ‘Major Defense Partner’—and so is in danger, as Pakistan used to be, of being dragged into American wars. Should we not proactively seek reconciliation with China and Pakistan rather than continue our war on two fronts? Could we not at least try? For, as Ambassador Sattar showed during his halcyon days in Delhi, whatever resentments hang over us from the past, once we engage, there is a flowering of goodwill that aug­urs well for the settlement of even app­arently intractable disputes. As he puts it, “Although unmarked by any milestones commemorating resolution of bitter disputes, the interlude (1977-79) was memorable for softening hard ima­ges, providing an environment for mut­ual compromise”. He adds, “It is tempting to speculate about the potential inherent in such a transformation”. If even such a hardliner as Abdul Sattar can be seduced into flexibility by no more than good behaviour on our part—”good manners and respect for principles of peaceful co-existence”, as he puts it, will this not “foster an environment of good-neighbourly relations conducive to settlement of differences and disputes”, as he urges? That is the essence—the rest is overblown ‘nationalism’ of the Modi and Sattar kind.

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