Price of elusive peace with Pakistan

There was a chill in the air but bright sunshine made it seem more like a nip, pleasantly bearable. We were, standing in an open field in Pakistan, a short distance from the border-crossing at Wagah, waiting for the bus to arrive. The road from Wagah separated us from the field across where colourful tents had been erected, buntings gaily fluttering in the air, for the reception that awaited Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The show had been carefully choreographed — the crowd (largely the elite of Lahore, the men in starched white shalwar-kameez and the women clad in shimmering shades of pink organdy), the military band (which was playing racy Bollywood hits), and the rose petals strewn on the road (to give it the appearance of a red carpet) made for a heady mix.

But someone had forgotten to sprinkle the dry winter fields with water. The helicopter carrying Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif kicked up a dust storm as it landed. Tavleen Singh, peering through the whirling dust, wondered if the bus was running late. Lo and behold, it trundled in a few minutes later, a grinning Dev Anand leaning out of one of the windows and waving at the crowd which had by then begun to surge forward. Vajpayee and Sharief hugged each other, the band, which for some inexplicable reason was playing “Mumbai se aya mera dost…”, switched over to a robust rendition of “Yeh dosti, hum naheen todengey…” and with that grand path-breaking gesture of friendship, Sada-e-Sarhad, the Delhi-Lahore bus service, was launched on February 19, 1999.

As we made our way across the road to the reception area, a Pakistani friend quipped, “How long before the tune turns to Dost dost na raha?” His words proved to be prophetic. Missing in the crowd of senior officials was a certain General Pervez Musharraf. He was busy monitoring the deployment of Pakistani troops on the heights of Kargil, meticulously executing his plan to strike when the Indian Army least expected it. By May, as Musharraf records in his memoir, In the Line of Fire, he was all set to embark upon his audacious plan to cut off supplies to Leh.

By the time the Pakistani intruders were discovered, they were already deep within our side of the Line of Control. The subsequent battle to regain territory and evict the Pakistani soldiers was vicious; the soaring hopes generated by Vajpayee’s Lahore bus yatra in the spring of 1999 turned into ashes in the summer of that year.  The subsequent events are worth recalling, not the least because public memory is notoriously short. Musharraf deposed Sharif; Indian Airlines flight IC814 was hijacked; an attempt was made to bomb Red Fort; Parliament House suffered an assault by Pakistani terrorists; and, Raghunath mandir in Jammu and Akshardham in Gandhinagar were attacked. 

In between Musharraf swaggered into Agra and left in a huff after failing to have his way. These were some of the notable markers. Musharraf was ousted by the Pakistan People’s Party when long-delayed elections were held. Pakistan persisted with its war of thousand cuts -- commuter trains were bombed in Mumbai, cities were bombed with ruthless precision, and then 26/11 happened. All the while, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh kept on talking peace. Singh walked the proverbial extra mile at Sharm el-Sheikh and made India look like a gutless nation, too enfeebled to uphold its dignity. But the ‘peace’ which Singh craved as his legacy remained elusive.

That has neither deterred him nor dampened his spirit. An orchestrated Easter Sunday visit by President Asif Ali Zardari has set in motion, all over again, Singh’s pursuit of peace at any cost. New Delhi is abuzz with stories of how he is determined to do something far more grand and spectacular than his predecessor’s bus journey.  Will Singh revive the deal he had brokered with Musharraf on Jammu & Kashmir when he visits Pakistan, most probably in the autumn of this year? Will he carry Sir Creek as a gift? Or will it be a unilateral offer to ‘demilitarise’ Siachen and let the Pakistani Army occupy the strategic glacier to cheers in Beijing? If statements emanating from Pakistan are any indication, it is likely to be the third.

Sadly, while the Pakistanis (and, we can be sure, the Americans) appear to be aware of what’s cooking, Indians remain in the dark. Like the long-suffering wife of a philandering man, we shall be the last to learn if our national interest is once again sacrificed at the altar of a false god called Peace With Pakistan.

— The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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