Direct contact will heal Indo-Pak rift: Tharoor

M Ramesh | Updated on January 19, 2018

Shashi Tharoor

‘India can only gain by enlarging the space within Pak for a peace constituency’

Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs Shashi Tharoor finds the Centre’s Pakistan policy wanting. Excerpts from a recent interview:

Do you think the Centre’s Pakistan policy has decisively changed for the better after the Bihar elections?

It is too early to say because this government’s Pakistan policy has seen more ups and downs than a schoolboy’s yo-yo. In the election campaign you say talks and terror don’t go together. Then when you win the elections you call them for the inauguration. Then, within two months, you are having firing on the border. Then you have the SAARC summit in Kathmandu where the Prime Minister is photographed very ostentatiously reading a brochure while the Pakistani Prime Minister walks past.

Then you see the scheduling of foreign secretaries’ talks, which get called off. And then you have a cold war between the two countries suddenly broken unexpectedly at Ufa (summit), then out of the blue you have this warm dialogue in Paris, then you have the unexpected meeting in Bangkok of National Security Advisers, suddenly you have the Prime Minister going to Lahore — given this pattern, it would be extremely difficult to discern any coherence.

But the commentary from Pakistan is that Modi has changed after Bihar?

There were positives and negatives even before Bihar. My own view is that this government has realised that its Pakistan policy was going nowhere. But given the fact that every time they tried a new policy initiative they’ve dropped it very quickly, until this policy proceeds for some time, it is going to be difficult for us to draw any definitive conclusions—let us give it some time to show commitment. I will agree, however, that the fact that they did not reflexively dump the whole process after the Pathankot attack is an encouraging sign. On the other hand, it is also true that Pakistan showed a much more reconciliatory attitude instead of the usual denial and buster.

Do you think they are serious this time?

Pakistan is a country where the civilian leadership has very often given the impression of being either unable or unwilling to curb the so-called non-state actors, who are the ones doing damage to India. It is assumed that they are armed, financed, trained, and perhaps even guided by elements within the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence.

So, the question is: is it worth talking to the civilian government if they don’t call the shots. On the other hand, is it enough to talk to the military if there are elements within it doing their own thing?

What is the way out?

Unilateral opening up of people-to-people contact. India can only gain by enlarging the space within Pakistan for a peace constituency. At the moment the number of Pakistanis who have a stake in a good relationship with India is very small, because our trade is minimal, tourism is restricted. For a lot of people, India is essentially now hostile territory. If India opened up this space, Pakistanis would travel freely and frequently to India.

Pakistan has been saying, first let’s solve the Kashmir problem, we can discuss other things later. Do you see it changing now?

It is changing. Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, who was very much on the right wing of the spectrum made a statement which I have quoted in my book, Pax Indica, that the urgency of saving Kashmir now takes second place to the urgency of saving Pakistan. And that I think is an interesting kind of approach — let’s put our national interests first, Kashmir can follow.

There are so many Indian goods that are shipped to Dubai, repackaged and sold at three times the price in Pakistan. Imagine — if this could be traded directly! How much Pakistanis would benefit! I’ve hardly come across a Pakistani national who has come to India and not gone away entranced or being fascinated by the country.

Throughout my UN career, I was witness to very close friendships between Indians and Pakistanis, which had literally tossed out the national identity issue completely. They were friends to the extent that if an Indian family had to go out of town, they would be happy to leave their child with the Pakistani family, or where a Pakistani family is going to a movie, they would invite the Indian family to come along. Very often Pakistani taxi drivers in New York, when they realise that there was an Indian (passenger), they would not want to take money from him.

But if free movement is allowed, the fear is that terrorists could misuse it…

Did the terrorists of 26/11 apply for a visa? Look, if a Pakistani applies for a visa, comes in by train with his luggage full of RDX then there is something wrong with your checking system.

(This article was published on January 20, 2016)

Published on January 20, 2016

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