I have been to Pakistan at least a dozen times since 1985, but this was the first time I travelled by road—from Amritsar to Lahore across the Wagah border. As I sit in the Delhi-Amritsar flight, memories of earlier visits come flashing: the 45-minute telephone interview in 1984 with then President, General Zia-ul Haq, days after Operation Blue Star; my travels with my wife and son the following year to Karachi, Mohenjodaro, Lahore, Multan, Taxila and Peshawar; covering General Zia’s funeral in 1988; meeting Benazir Bhutto at the Lahore airport in the middle of electioneering that year with her baby son Bilawal in her lap, my brief conversation with her moments after she was sworn in as prime minister later that year (“Tell Mr Gandhi: I want peace with India”); my two interviews with Imran Khan in Delhi and Lahore; covering Rajiv Gandhi’s two visits there during Benazir’s time in office; introducing Noorjehan to P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1988 at then Indian high commissioner S.K. Singh’s reception for Rajiv Gandhi….
On entering Attari from Wagah, the Pakistani customs official checks my bag, “Are you carrying any bottles (of alcohol)?” That evening, Punjab governor Sardar Usman Buzdar hosts a dinner for our 20-member team of journalists at the famous Lahore Fort built by Akbar in 1566.
The fort is illuminated, as if to recreate the splendour it would have witnessed during the reigns of Akbar, Shah Jahan, and Ranjit Singh. Classical singer Hamid Ali Khan’s songs mesmerise us and a couple of hundred other dignitaries at the lavish dinner, including India’s cricketer-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu. The bonhomie between Indians and Pakistanis in such informal settings is charming.
Next morning, we drive to Kartarpur Sahib, accompanied by a convoy of armed guards. Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives soon after, accompanied by his foreign minister Shah Mohammed Qureshi, army chief General Qamar Bajwa, Indian ministers Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Hardeep Singh Puri and Sidhu.
Imran tells the several thousand Sikhs from Pakistan and India seated under a sprawling shamiana that the corridor will be ready in time for Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary next year. He hopes it will bring the forever-warring Indians and Pakistanis closer, and pave the way for friendship. “War is not an option between two nuclear- armed neighbours. Dialogue is the only way forward,” he says.
We go back to Lahore and fly to Islamabad on a chartered Pakistan International Airlines plane with several dozen foreign diplomats who have come to Kartarpur to witness the event. It’s well past midnight when we arrive for a dinner foreign minister Qureshi is hosting for us. He gallantly faces our grilling even as we eat our dinner. “We are ready to talk to India whenever they are ready,” he declares.
Next afternoon, Imran spends 35 minutes with us, answers 10 questions and says it is not in Pakistan’s national interest to allow the use of its territory for terrorism. Pakistan is now building a fence along its border with Afghanistan. “We should rid ourselves of the shackles of the past, and look forward. There is so much to be gained by both countries if we settle our disputes peacefully, and promote trade and travel,” he says.
I recall for him what Indira Gandhi had said after signing the Simla Agreement with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in July 1972. Asked about the way forward, she had said at a press conference that India’s official stand would be that the whole of Kashmir—including the one-third occupied by Pakistan in 1947—belonged to India. But if someone suggested that India should keep J&K and allow Pakistan to retain Azad Kashmir to ensure lasting peace, and recognise the Line of Control (LoC) as the international boundary, India would consider it.
And Imran says: “This is not the forum to discuss such a serious issue. India and Pakistan should start a dialogue. Modiji is India’s elected PM. I spoke to him on phone. I am ready to meet him anytime he is ready. I am confident we can find solutions to all our problems through dialogue.”
It’s clear as daylight that Khan enjoys immense popular support. It’s silly to suspect that he is the army’s man. It seems his efforts to make peace with India are genuine and have the backing of his government, his party, the opposition and the army—a rarity in Pakistan, ruled by dictators for over 30 years. I believe India should do business with Khan because he can deliver. He is something of a miracle man. It was nothing short of a miracle that, under his captaincy at age 39, Pakistan won its first and only cricket World Cup in Melbourne in 1992 when nobody thought it was possible. His second miracle was his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s electoral victory and his becoming Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister in August. If he does succeed in making peace with India, that will be his third miracle. Can he pull it off?
(The author is an independent journalist)