Tale of three conferences in London

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By Wajid Shamsul Hasan

October this year in London has been quite eventful. Sometimes one does not get anything food for thought, however, October yet to be over, we have had two conferences and one “public debate.” In the rating list first to be mentioned is the “public debate” between two former top spooks of Pakistan and India. Organised by senior journalist Aamir Ghauri for South Asia Future Forum in collaboration with LSE’s Pakistan Development Society at Sheikh Zayed Theatr-it had a packed to capacity audience with prominent academics and birds of same feather in attendance. It was followed by a discussion made lively by former Indian Raw Chief Amirjit Singh Daulat with his constipated looking counterpart. Difference between the two was that Daulat spoke extempore while former ISI DG did a bit of ranting reading from a long paper.
Much of hypocrisy and less of diplomacy seemed to the narrative of the day. The two stressed the need for resumption of dialogue between the two countries in the larger national interests of their poverty ridden people. It is much of the same cliché that one has grown old hearing. It is a story of talking in miles and moving in centimeters.
Squeezed in a Seville Row-like suit one size smaller-General Ehsanul Haq perhaps did right to avoid misquotes and controversies- read out his case from a long archaic paper that must have been compiled by the so-called experts in his previous Intelligence Directorate as such it was studded with lot of historic data.

Former chiefs of two rival intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan – A.S. Daulat and Lt. Gen (r) Ehsanul Haq hugging each other in a very pleasing mood at the conference. (Nation picture)

The very fact that Daulat did not have a paper to counter him showed that he had the subject on his finger tips. Even intelligent street urchins in the streets of Delhi and Lahore would agree that war is a bad thing and no more an option between the two countries. Together they will say lets play cricket and lets have more of it and there would be greater atmosphere of “bhai-chara”, while the former spooks said leadership of both the countries should move meaningfully toward speaking to each other at all levels and end communications boycott. Villain of the piece as both the agencies are in keeping the kettle on the boil, they did a great deal in outlining the intelligence perspectives of their countries, answered questions of the audience and shared jokes with each other, as Murtaza Ali Shah wrote in his piece for his newspaper.
Whatever transpired between the two spies in that “public debate”, tête-à-tête in private must be more interesting– in a pub- as reported by the social media. No doubt, a glass too many makes conversation interesting but takes away the real performance as Shakespeare would have put it. One would agree with General Ehsan that- “Interaction must be such that even when there is a breakdown in diplomatic relations between states and entities, the intelligence channel must continue because that becomes the last resort for venting and pre-empting crisis, the initiative for this has to come from the political level down.” According to Daulat, intelligence sharing between India and Pakistan once even saved the life of President General Musharraf. Must have since Ehsan did not rebut his claim.
Indeed, very interesting observation. However, I tend to disagree. Politicians-if given a free hand by their defence establishments could resolve issues and reach solutions much easier way. I would not like here to say that besides war as Churchill said, even negotiations in matters of dispute should not be left into the hands of non-civilians. Remember how the then President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of a vanquished nation, negotiated a fair deal in Simla in 1972 on the basis of mutual respect with the leader of a victorious nation- Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandhi- retrieved on the conference table over 12000 kilometers of our precious territory lost to India on a battle field while half of the country had already surrendered by General Yahya Khan & Company. To get 93,000 PoWs including personnel of the armed forces released, was yet another feat in negotiations, diplomacy and statecraft based on mutual trust. Similarly in 1989, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto negotiated with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi demilitarization of Siachen Glacier-world’s highest and most pyrrhic battle ground-where-according to General Ziaul Haq- not a blade of grass grows, nor its snow is fit for human consumption. Had it materialised then both the countries would be saving Rs 20 crores per day that they spent on maintaining their troops in moist difficult and crippling weather conditions. More soldiers die of fatal weather on both sides of frostbite than by the bullets exchanged in cross firing. On his return Rajiv Gandhi’s political fortunes changed, his defence establishment ruled it out and the deal was off, while in Pakistan ISI DG Lt General Hameed Gul planted a story that Interior Minister Aitezaz Ahsan provided a list of Sikh freedom fighters to the Indians and used it in media character assassination of Prime Miister Benazir Bhutto. Even earlier to all what has happened since 1972, there was an agreement reached between Prime Ministers Liaquat Ali Khan and Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru to negotiate LoC as final border with some adjustments without prejudice to the United Nations resolutions. It could not see light of the day due to Liaquat’s assassination in 1951. It is said that it was much similar to the one offered by General Pervez Musharraf in his four point formula with the exception that Pakistani president went a step further in his offer of abdicating Pakistan’s position from the UN Resolution.
Instead of having “public debate” top spooks in the two countries should advise their governments to agree to immediate demilitarization of Siachen Glacier, followed by gradual demilitarization of the occupied territories, stop human rights violations and resume dialogue on General Pervez Musharraf’s four-point formula, that is the only way forward for peace and prosperity in the region.
This “public debate” was followed by ‘liberal, progressive and secular visions of Pakistan’ conference in London on October 13. It provided a forum to those who share the idea of Pakistan that is different from what extremist forces envision. And its objective is to create an alternate narrative or revert Pakistan to Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s liberal, secular and egalitarian vision for the greatest good of the largest number.
I was also curious to know what they do to provoke the ire of the establishment and its wired media. I knew one of its organisers – Ambassador Husain Haqqani – was a red rag for them, hence condemnation of an otherwise excellent idea to build a counter narrative to intolerance and rising tide of bigoted mullacracy.
Having heard so much of anti liberal/secular diatribe in the media, I waited anxiously to hear if any of the three speakers that evening would say something that could be objectionable. Their inaugural speeches were music for the ears. Whatever Dr Mohammad Taqi and HH – said in their opening statements – seemed to be a larger ‘conspiracy’ to silence those who opposed them for opposing bigotry, extremism, sectarianism and galloping intolerance from the pulpit. No doubt there was in passing justified criticism of the proposed grand ‘scheme for mainstreaming’ the terrorists who had been responsible for the killing of over 70,000 civilians and nearly 10,000 personnel of our security forces.
Rashed Rehman spoke rightly as an elder who had seen so much of deterioration of values in our society – that he felt – as a duty to present and future generations – to set their direction and priorities onto the right course in order to create a rancour free society with equal opportunities and justice for all-irrespective of caste, creed, colour or gender. SAATH – as the group calls itself- has set for itself on the task of reforming the society by draining out the poison of religious extremism, Jihadi terrorism and replacing it with the higher ideal of peaceful co-existence. I had thought that I would see ‘Ghalib being torn to pieces’ but the show was not held. I wondered in my mind – ‘was this conference organised as a covert operation to project Pakistan’s softer image by the Establishment’ since there was not a word critical of Pakistan or the military establishment. If that was the case, my hats off to their ingenuity.
My suspicion was strengthened when I read later a historic remark of Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa saying firmly that religion is a ‘private affair’.
Never ever before any of our previous army chiefs had dared to call religion a private affair. At long last the head of the institution that has been playing the key role in Pakistan’s history seemed to have rediscovered the original ideological moorings of Pakistan as defined by MAJ-that religion shall have nothing to do with the business of the State and that in Pakistan all its citizens will be equal – irrespective of caste, creed, colour or gender and that Pakistan shall never be a theocratic state.
Later I heard similar words from DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghaffor who reiterated that Pakistan Army is a national army and among its rank and file are Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and members of other minorities. This statement was a befitting response to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law, an ex-Army Captain Safdar Maryam who in a speech in the National Assembly, called for the expulsion of all members of Ahmadia community from the army and other government services.
I don’t know what happened on the second day of the SAATH Conference since I could not attend as it was to begin too early and later in the day I had a commitment with Hon Alderman Mushtaq Lashari CBE to co-chair with Barrister Sibhgat Kadri the Third World Solidarity’s seminar on yet another interesting and relevant topic ‘Role of Media in democracy’..
It too had a galaxy of attendance including Pakistani and foreign journalists, businessmen, councillors – who had much similar concerns as that of SAATH Conference regarding the way things were shaping up in Pakistan, threat to democracy, increasing possibility of clash of institutions, growing intolerance, religious bigotry, rising tide of sectarian mullaism and growing radicalisation. Important guests from media in Pakistan included Mujahid Brelv, Ata-ur-Rehman, Karachi Press Club’s Siraj Ahmad, Aliya Sadiq and Lubna among many others including Mobin Choudry of Insaf, leading businessmen Ikram Khan, Muszaffar Choudhry, Pervez Rashid and Dr Zafar Khan to name a few. Famous bilingual poet/author Mehmood Jamal read one of his famous poems on love and hate and gave message of peace and tolerance. Pakistan High Commission was represented by Press Counselor Munir Ahmed.
I can understand the genuine concerns of overseas Pakistanis about the state of affairs back home. They share the view that growing confrontation needs to be defused post haste. Indeed, that’s the way forward. Instead of taking on the establishment, the former Prime Minister and hawks in his party- must read the writing on the wall. If we don’t unite now, put our house in order and tighten our belts to face hydra-headed challenges – a little later would be too late.
(The writer is former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and veteran journalist.)