In his first interaction with the Indian media since taking over as Pakistan High Commissioner, Abdul Basit, a career diplomat, hopes talks between the two countries renew at the earliest, without any conditions, and explains why Hafiz Saeed cannot get even 1% votes to win a poll in Pakistan. This Idea Exchange was moderated by Editor (Express News Service) Pranab Dhal Samanta
Abdul Basit: We are entering a new phase, wherein in Pakistan we have a new government and India is going through elections. When I called on the President of India on April 2, he was very kind to say that while in the past 5-10 years, despite our mutual efforts, we have not been able to achieve much, it is important that we do not lose more time.
The new government, he assured me, would engage with Pakistan to resolve all issues, and we hope that as soon as the new government takes over, we will be able to engage with each other in a more fruitful manner. There is too much negativity and the negative narrative of conflict has to be replaced, and that will obviously not happen overnight. It is a generational process and will take time.
pranab dhal samanta: While posted elsewhere, what was the one thing that struck you about Pakistan’s relationship with India?
There is history to this relationship and, over the last six decades, we have not been able to disassociate ourselves from that historical baggage or develop a mutual capacity to look at things anew. Having said that, it does not mean that you shy away from resolving the issues because unless we assure mutual sincerity and resolve to get down to the hard issues, it is not possible for the two countries to resolve them.
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At the same time, we have not been able to educate our people on the dividends that peace can bring to both our countries. Thirdly, we are still living with our self-serving narratives. We need to walk past that and try to understand each other better; we are living in an interdependent and global world, as the cliché goes. Since I arrived here, in the last one month, I have been reading all Indian newspapers and watching entertaining talk shows, like they have in Pakistan.
One got a feeling that there is not much understanding of Pakistan in India and that may also be the case in Pakistan. We need to get out of these mono narratives of each other.
Having said all this, south Asia is one region that still faces so many challenges. Many people are living below the poverty line. As a diplomat, I am very optimistic about things as it is our responsibility to create opportunities and to try to work together for our common good.
Rakesh Sinha: Have you had time to touch base with the BJP leadership here?
Pakistan looks forward to when the new government takes over in India. It is for the people of India to decide who should be the next prime minister and government, and we would willingly engage with the government.
Anubhuti Vishnoi: Can you list two or three areas where India and Pakistan can work together?
Our effort would be that we have sustained engagement — how to create sustained discussion that is not disrupted or interrupted. There are so many areas, from peace and security in Jammu and Kashmir to Siachen, Sir Creek, trade relations and cultural exchanges. We fully understand that we will not be able to achieve progress in all these areas simultaneously (but) all these areas are our prioritiy. For example, trade. We are committed to NDMA (non-discriminatory market access), both in the context of WTO and SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Area).
Similarly, we would like to see results in facilitating people-to-people contact, in liberalising the visa regime. Similar is the case with sporting contacts. Our cricket teams are not playing in each other’s countries. Beyond that, terrorism is another issue of enormous concern… We (Pakistan) are losing lives everyday. Those are difficult issues. As mature nations, we need to deal with them… Forces on both sides might not want India and Pakistan to come together. The leadership should not be hostage to their actions, it has to rise above to bring our countries together.
Coomi Kapoor: The US had refused Narendra Modi a visa. What would Pakistan do should he want to come?
We are looking forward to any government which takes over in Delhi. We are looking forward to engaging with the next prime minister of India.
Coomi kapoor: There is no question of denying a visa?
I think Pakistan has never denied a visa to anyone.
Shubhajit Roy: There have been a lot of efforts towards India-Pakistan talks after the 26/11 Mumbai attack, but there has been no movement because India feels the trial has been very slow. Does Pakistan feel let down by the insistence on this particular issue?
When the two countries engage with each other, there should be no pre-conditions. It is as simple as that. I can tell you that our Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is very committed to improving the bilateral relationship and he is looking forward to engaging with his Indian counterpart. Mumbai definitely led us in different ways. The question is whether our bilateral engagement should wait till the time the Mumbai trial completes or should we resume our engagement. If you ask me, judicial processes have their own way of moving forward. Pakistan is a democratic country and, during the last 10 years, our judicial system has strengthened in many ways. We have a free media and our society is very strong and robust. So we cannot, just to appease India, tweak our judicial process.
We have arrested seven people accused in the Mumbai trial. The trial is moving forward despite many issues between Pakistan and India, ranging from the visit of the judicial commission to India and whether or not they would be allowed to interrogate Ajmal Kasab. There have been so many issues in between. Still, the trial is continuing and we ourselves are committed to bring to book all those who perpetuated the Mumbai attack. But it is a judicial process. If you expect the government of Pakistan to interfere in that process, I think you would be negating yourself in the spirit of democracy and the rule of law.
I can give you an example, that has not been in good taste — the Samjhauta Express (attack). Your judicial process is continuing as well. So it takes time. We are seriously pursuing the case and, if there is enough evidence and if the court believes that those who have been accused are guilty, that will be done. But the government has nothing to do with that case, except for putting up a very strong prosecution case. That we have been doing. Whatever we got from India, that is being used.
Rahul Tripathi: Narendra Modi has been compared to Hafiz Saeed in Pakistan. Do you see a situation in Pakistan where Saeed contests an election?
I can assure you that, for generations to come, he will never be able to get even 1 per cent of the votes to win. It is simply out of the question. If you look at past elections in Pakistan, it is crystal clear that religious parties or hardcore religious parties never get more than 6 to 7 per cent of votes. In Pakistan, luckily, secular-minded parties — when I say secular, it is not in the western sense of the word — and right-wing parties have won, but they are not fundamentalist parties as such. Religious parties do not have a great record to brag about. I do not see any possibility (of Saeed contesting) in Pakistan.
Vijaita Singh: Last October, there were a lot of ceasefire violations along the border with Pakistan. Why did it escalate so much? India said the Pakistan army was helping the Pakistan Rangers.
Our way should be to look at things more positively rather than point-scoring and hardening public opinion. We have denied any involvement in that, and then we wanted India to share details and information on what happened because joint mechanisms are already there… If there were any problems along the Line of Control, those could have been easily addressed… We would continue to have these problems unless we utilise the mechanisms already there. We need not discuss these things in public or the media… We need to be very careful because it is a very complex relationship.
Ambreen Khan: Will your government take the initiative to invite Modi as a national guest?
Whosoever comes, we will invite the next PM to visit Pakistan. We are known for our warm hospitality.
Coomi kapoor: You talked about negativity on both sides. Is that negativity more in the younger generation, or less?
That’s a good question. I think in the younger generation it is less as compared to our generation or the one that preceded us. But, at the same time, when there is provocation, you can see that anger or negativity very much pronounced. Like I said, there is still a lot to be done to transform this negativity to positivity… We would want our younger generation to see India in more favourable and positive terms — that is a challenge.
Ravish Tiwari: As international forces withdraw from Afghanistan, what is Pakistan’s position vis-a-vis India’s role there?
We strongly believe that what is good for Afghanistan is also good for Pakistan because we have suffered and continue to have over two million refugees (from Afghanistan). We would like that, as a result of presidential elections, a stable government comes and there is more peace in Afghanistan. We have been working with President (Hamid) Karzai to achieve those objectives of bringing about national reconciliation. India and Afghanistan have a traditional historical relationship and it’s not for Pakistan to say as to what kind of relationship India and Afghanistan should have. Our major concern is that when it comes to Afghanistan, all regional countries, the international community as a whole, should not be using the territory of Afghanistan for its own interests….
Pranab Dhal Samanta: Is transit trade to Afghanistan an area where India and Pakistan could move forward?
Things will move (according) to how Pakistan-India bilateral relations are moving. If bilateral relations are not moving forward, how can you expect any sincere cooperation on other issues? As for transit route… trade happens if you send things to Karachi and from Karachi to Afghanistan. That is not an issue, but it’s for Afghanistan and India to work out the contours of your bilateral relationship. It’s not for Pakistan to tell you. You don’t need to seek permission from us to decide how to conduct a relationship. Our issue is that a relationship should not be against a third country.
Rakesh Sinha: The Pakistan army chief recently referred to undue criticism of the institution. How is the government explaining Pervez Musharraf’s trial to the Pakistan army?
The government position is very clear — it’s not a trial against the army, it’s against one individual who is no longer in the army. And the army understands that, which is why there has been no problem. Everybody understands that the judiciary in Pakistan is independent and the rule of law will take its own course. In terms of democracy, we have come a long way despite disruptions now and then. I think the democratic mind in Pakistan is very, very strong.
Rahul tripathi: Do you think a time will come when Pakistan will be ready to accept the bodies of Ajmal Kasab and other 26/11 attackers?
What I am saying is let’s move forward. There has been no discussion on this matter so I wouldn’t know… We have not been discussing this.
Vijaita Singh: What about the claims that the entire top leadership of the Indian Mujahideen is based in Pakistan?
Really? I don’t know how these things get out and get published in the media. Because we have, not once, been taken into confidence.
Vijaita Singh: There has been no official communication?
Not to my knowledge.
Aleesha Matharu: New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall has alleged that the ISI had a special desk that handled Osama bin Laden. She has also alleged that the ISI along with the Pakistani government was involved in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
Gall is a journalist, she can say anything, but there are people who won’t subscribe to what she says. Facts are there for everyone to see… We deny all these things. The ISI has other things to do.
Pranab Dhal Samanta: The 26/11 investigation showed that a lot of planning and execution happened on Pakistani soil. What can India and Pakistan do to prevent a 26/11?
The first thing is we should be sharing more information. We need to utilise those mechanisms already in place. It will also inject more trust and confidence in each other. One looks forward to our two countries reaching that stage where there is more confidence in information sharing and we are not driven by our subjective frameworks or mindsets or perceptions.
Abantika ghosh: What role can Bollywood, or the Pakistani artistes, musicians coming to India, play in our ties?
That is one area we need to rejig. Let me tell you, we watch Indian movies the same day they are released. But we have not been able to show our movies here. I understand our movies are not that good, but in the past two years we have produced movies which won international awards. My effort is to explore possibilities in which Pakistani movies can also be shown in India. Our TV dramas have been very popular in India, but here we don’t receive all the Pakistani channels, whereas in Pakistan, I see all Indian channels, from Zee to Star. We will engage with the authorities here to facilitate such exchanges. It’s wonderful that our actors are working here. I saw a very interesting Pakistani movie that had Naseeruddin Shah — Zinda Bhaag.
Shubhajit roy: Should news channels too be aired in each other’s countries?
Why not? I watch all Indian channels in Pakistan, even news channels. In any case it looks so bizarre that in this age of information technology we resort to such things which have no use any way.
Sandeep Diwivedi: Pakistan has a great cricket team but you hardly play at home. How tough is it for you to convince the world that Pakistan is a safe place to travel to and how important are such interactions?
This is one area where we have been working very hard, to explain that Pakistan is a very safe place to play. The PCB (Pakistan Cricket Board) chairman will also be travelling to India at some point to interact with his counterpart. Cricket is a sport which is loved on both sides of the border. Why not use it to bring the two countries closer?
Tashi Tobgyal: Is your government doing something about Pakistani Hindus who have been taking refuge in India?
Our minorities are protected in all senses of the word. There may be some economic issue, some other issue, but I don’t know if it’s such a serious issue. There are individuals who would like to come here for reasons other than that minorities are suppressed or not handled properly — that is not the case in Pakistan.
Pranab Dhal Samanta: How are Pakistan and India placed in terms of continuity? Are we going to start conversations from where these were left off behind or start all over again?
There is an institutional memory in all issues. I, for one, would not want to reinvent the wheel all the time. There is a composite dialogue process and we have had many agreements. So now we would like to move from that point on rather than reversing the whole thing and reinventing the wheel. That should be the joint aspiration. It is important that we strictly abide by our understandings, agreements and build on those past accomplishments. If every time we start afresh, we will never be able to cover the vast ground we need to. I can assure you that Pakistan will be moving forward than looking back.
Transcribed by Pallavi Chattopadhyay and Somya Lakhani